Generation War, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews
Generation War, BBC Two
Generation War, BBC Two
Powerful German-made World War Two drama asks some difficult questions
This German-made drama about World War Two scored huge ratings when it was shown in its homeland last year, but has also prompted scathing criticism. Chiefly, its detractors don't buy the series' portrayal of five photogenic young German friends as largely innocent victims of Nazism. Some are also outraged by the way Poles are shown to be even more anti-semitic than the Nazis, though that didn't occur in this first episode, A Different Time.
The question of who knew what as the Führer led the Fatherland into a cataclysmic global war is impossible to answer with mathematical precision, but the old excuse that the "good" majority knew nothing and didn't approve of what was being done in their name is now widely regarded as self-exculpating nonsense. But Generation War is by no means a systematic whitewash.
It opens in the summer of 1941, as the five amigos gather in Berlin to say their farewells as Germany prepares to invade Russia. There's Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), an infantry officer with a bright future in the Wehrmacht, and his brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), recently drafted into Wilhelm's unit even though he'd rather be a writer than a soldier. Charly (Miriam Stein) is going to be a battlefield nurse, and Greta (Katharina Schuettler) wants to be a singer.
Then we're hit by a curveball as the fifth guest turns out to be Viktor (Ludwig Trepte, pictured above with Katharina Schuettler), Greta's Jewish boyfriend, and he's greeted with a cheery "Shalom!" by the others. What? Angst-free hobnobbing with Jews in the capital of the Reich, as the rabidly anti-semitic regime revs up for the Holocaust? It feels ludicrous.
However, darkness begins to gather in the shape of the SS officer Dorn (Mark Waschke), who ruthlessly exploits Greta's disastrous liaison. Meanwhile we ride with the Wehrmacht and get a sense of the Master Race triumphalism surging through Hitler's hordes as they surge eastwards. Soldiers are overheard planning to start their own farms and families in a colonised Russia once "the Ivans" are licked (they reckon it'll be all over by Christmas). We see the way the regular German army is sucked into the genocidal mania being perpetrated by the SS and security units, with one exaggeratedly brutal shooting of a young Jewish girl drawing gasps of horror from the watching soldiers.
But they're depicted as disapproving onlookers who find they have no choice but to obey orders ("we have to say goodbye to the world as we know it," Wilhelm's commanding officer tells him). A slug of moral ambivalence is added when Wilhelm takes a tip from bro' Friedhelm and makes captured Russians walk through a minefield in front of his men. "I told you this war would bring out the worst in us," says Friedhelm, though his dramatic credibility has been somewhat sabotaged by his unsubtle jibes at the Nazis and at the warlike zeal of his comrades, as if he were a Seventies student lefty somehow transported to the cutting edge of the ideologically merciless Third Reich. Even more incredible was his deliberate lighting of a cigarette to attract the attention of Russian bombers, after he'd stumbled across a scene of mass killings by the German extermination squads. This would surely have earned him a firing squad, but here he just got a kicking from a few of the lads.
Despite the caveats and false notes, Generation War works formidably well as drama. The acting and storylines are strong enough to swirl you along in their unfolding human traumas, the mood of steadily approaching Armageddon enhanced by the subtly mournful background music. The battlefield scenes also have a ring of brutal authenticity about them, and it must be said that the field hospital where Charly works makes The Crimson Field look like Doc Martin (Miriam Stein as Charly, pictured above).
And isn't this what good drama is supposed to do, make you suspend your disbelief and envelop you in its particular world? In Germany, where strenous efforts have been made to come to terms with the legacy of Nazism, Generation War is seen as part of the healing process. In countries that were on the receiving end of the Führer's distempered ambitions, sympathy for characters wearing Nazi uniforms may take longer to earn.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?