BAND OF BROTHERS and THE PACIFIC were fantastic war series depicting what WW2 was like for men fighting in both major theaters. GENERATION WAR is an amazing German miniseries that presents the German side of the conflict with brutal honesty and compelling characters and action.
The story begins in mid-1941. Germany is triumphant in Poland, France and the low countries, and has declared war on the Soviet Union. In Berlin, five friends gather afterhours at a pub to see each other off: Wilhelm Winter, a lieutenant in the infantry bound for Russia; Friedhelm Winter, his younger brother serving in the same platoon; Greta, who has aspirations for fame; Charlotte, an army nurse; and Viktor Goldstein, a Jewish tailor who is Greta’s boyfriend.
Wilhelm and Friedhelm go to the Russian front to discover the thrill of victory but then dehumanization and misery as the Russian winter sets in and German intelligence and paramilitary forces treat the Russians with brutality. Wilhelm is a competent lieutenant, much loved by his men, but struggling with how to fight while retaining his honor and self-respect. Friedhelm resents both his brother and the Army, hating what the Reich is doing, though eventually he hardens into a soldier. Charlotte is a believer in the Reich but finds her childlike views challenged by reality as she treats wounded and sees the real costs of war. And Viktor Goldstein struggles simply to stay alive as Reich policy toward the Jews becomes more and more brutal.
I have a confession to make, which is I typically don’t like war movies with women in them, as the female roles often seem grafted on to create a gratuitous love story. In GENERATION WAR, the male and female characters add to the story equally. Greta must navigate the secret police to save her Jewish boyfriend. Charlotte must deal with both the war and her belief in the Reich. The women face no-win ethical choices that are as severe as the men’s, and the results are compelling and dramatic, showing a well-rounded story of these young Germans.
I could add here I also particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the Jewish plight under the Reich. The gradual crushing of Jewish rights and lives is presented without moral heroism or maudlin lecture, but instead as a matter of fact, which makes it all the more horrible because as the viewer I get to feel for myself instead of the movie telling when and how to do it (as in films like SCHINDLER’S LIST). Viktor’s father is particularly heartbreaking, as he believes the official discrimination is temporary because of the war, and that if he simply plays along, his family will be left in peace. Like Viktor, we as the viewer know the vise is closing on these people, and it’s horrible.
As for the German characters as a whole, they are also presented as very realistic in an unflinching contemporary view. Wilhelm and Charlotte, in particular, believe Hitler knows what he’s doing, occasionally repeat the slogans they’ve been taught, and overall have faith in the Reich and the Army, which makes their demoralization in the face of reality all the more dramatic. Greta is interesting because one senses she sees it all as a farce but plays along to get what she wants. Friedhelm is the lone objector but over time survival takes precedence over his moral qualms, and like everyone else, he becomes dehumanized by everything around him.
As for the action, it’s not quite up to par cinematically with BAND OF BROTHERS, though it’s fairly realistic, along with everything else in the series. That being said, the series stirred up a lot of debate in Germany both in its portrayal of the characters as non-zealots, as many were, along with historical issues such as Polish partisans hating Jews, when the Polish people as a whole have been recognized for being very helpful to the Jews during the war.
All said, GENERATION WAR is a fantastic piece of storytelling, with five very strong story lines uniting to present the German side of WW2.