A remarkable German war movie - 'Generation War'

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A remarkable German war movie - 'Generation War'

Postby Jonathan » 19 Jan 2017, 22:01

I've recently finished watching a tv-miniseries called "Generation War". It's a German production, recorded in German, with German actors. I believe it's called Unsere Mutter, Unsere Vater (barring an umlaut or two). Not only did I enjoy it very much - it's very well made - but it really got me thinking, because there was something about it which I'd never seen before, and it was hard to put my finger on it.

The story begins with five youngsters meeting in a pub in Berlin in the summer of 1941, for a last celebration before two of them go off to fight on the eastern front (well, three if you count the volunteer nurse in the military hospital). It follows their lives during the subsequent four years of war, until the survivors meet up in the ruins of that same pub. The characters are well-rounded; the ordeals and dilemmas they face are believable, and you quickly feel a strong sympathy for them. They make difficult choices, for ill or for good, and face the consequences of those choices. You would think that any movie which attempted to make you feel sympathy with German soldiers in Russia would be a shameless apologia, worthy only of condemnation, but this is most emphatically not the case. It's really interesting to observe what choices the producers made, and to speculate why they made those choices, and what it might mean.

First, what did they not do? There is, I think it is fair to say, no attempt to whitewash Nazi war crimes. Sometimes you get the opposite feeling - that they went out of their way to mention certain specific events, to avoid any accusation that they were deliberately omitted. The order to kill Communist Commissars out of hand is given much attention. Jews are seen being transported to their deaths in trains, wearing striped shirts. A mass grave is discovered. Jews are seen being rounded up and shot. A wounded German soldier is given a chance to boast of killing them, just in case any of the viewers missed the point. Hostages are executed following partisan activity. The scorched-earth policy is depicted, along with its consequences. Authority figures explicitly blame Russian brutality and Ukranian hostility on earlier German actions. Severe collective accusations are levelled against the German people in the aftermath of the war - profiting from Jewish property, allowing former Nazis to maintain positions of authority, clinging on to racial stereotypes despite everything, etc.

I've read some reviews which describe the movie as a whitewash, including in the Israeli press. I think this is an unfair accusation. It is interesting to consider why it was made nonetheless. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The choice of characters begs a few questions. First, one of them is Jewish. This creates some jarring anachronisms at the beginning of the movie - at least, jarring to my mind. I cannot quite make myself believe that in the middle of 1941, a young Jewish man would go to party with his friends - one of them his girlfriend, with whom he has been sleeping - as if it were nothing special. I can't quite make myself believe that anyone in 1941 talked about the war being over by Christmas. You'd think the lessons of the first world war would be remembered - though of course, that might only be true for those who fought in it. I read one review which said that the characters seem like modern youngsters thrown into 1941, and this is true to an extent. It is necessary to get the viewer to identify with them. The whole purpose of the movie is to ask yourself 'what would I do?'. This is a minor flaw, and it's gone after the initial scenes.

All the characters are dismissive of Nazi racial theory. Their inner rejection is complete, even though many of their actions support the Nazi regime. This conflict is central to the movie. All of them struggle to rebel against the machine of which they find themselves a part. Younger secondary characters, ignorant and eager, are shown to support it. This, I think, is not historically accurate, and the movie has been criticized for this, which is also true to an extent. But this is not a documentary. There is a message here, and this is the means to convey it.

The soldiers on the front are faced with increasingly difficult situations. They slowly get habituated to doing evil things, however much they hate it. Practically speaking, they have little choice in the matter, unless they are willing to accept death to save strangers who hate them. Other characters are given less coercive opportunities to do evil; some resist, some fail. Most of them do, in fact, rebel towards the end. All the characters pay heavy prices for their decisions, even when they had little real choice in the matter.

One of the actresses is also of Jewish descent, though I have no information on whether this influenced her being selected for her role.

All of these facts seem to me - though of course, this may be an artifact of my perspective - like a huge 'kosher' stamp upon the production. What message is so revolutionary - so dangerous to express - that it requires such care in being crafted?

I am reminded of Dalrymple's article from 2005 in City Journal, 'The Specters Haunting Dresden', which I went back to re-read afterwards. There is a paragraph in there, which I copy here with a few abridgments:

The moral impossibility of patriotism worries Germans of conservative instinct or temperament. Upon what in their historical tradition can they safely look back as a guide or a help? One young German [I met] ... needed a refuge, because Hitler and Nazism had besmirched everything in his own land. The historiography that sees in German history nothing but a prelude to Hitler and Nazism may be intellectually unjustified ... but it has emotional and psychological force nonetheless, precisely because the willingness to take pride in the past implies a preparedness to accept the shame of it... The young [man]worked for a publishing house with a history lasting almost four centuries, but its
failure to go out of business during the 12 years of the Third Reich cast a shadow both forward and backward, like a spectral presence that haunts a great mansion.

If we accept Dalrymple's analysis as a starting point, then 'Generation War' seems to me to be a rebellion against this attitude. It rejects the notion that Hitler and Nazism besmirched everything in German history. It seems to say: "There was both good and evil in Germany, even in 1941. We allowed the evil to corrupt the good. We paid a heavy price, which we fully deserved. Today, we reject that evil". The revolutionary part of this message is that there was good as well as evil. Undoubtedly this was true, historically speaking; but it was a truth which could not be uttered, lest it be understood as a denial or diminuition of the evil.

I should make it clear that this attitude seems to me to be perfectly reasonable, and I imagine that this is how most people view their own nation. The Germans, I'm afraid, are viewed differently, even with Merkel's current policy of suicidal self-negation. The problem is that no-one knows for sure just how far the pendulum might swing the opposite way - not even the Germans themselves - and I suspect that this is the source of much of the criticism which a similar statement about, say, Luxembourg, would not engender. But if the Germans ever band together to preserve their country and culture from being swamped by Islamic immigrants, it will be because they have collectively agreed that there is something worth preserving. If they do it without resorting to excessive violence, it will be because they still remember the lessons of the war. In other words, exactly the balance which 'Generation War' achieves.

It really seems like a step in the right direction, though I may regret those words if the pendulum winds up swinging too far. More practically, any criticism of the movie as immoral must either plainly state that this message (there was good as well as evil) ought not to be uttered, or explain how the movie ought to be corrected while preserving this message. Most of the criticisms I've seen effectively gut the movie of its message. For example, making the characters more typical (historically speaking) would effectively prevent the viewers from identifying with them. This would result in a dry documentary of antiquarian interest, rather than a compelling motion picture.

In any case, it's a really good film. I don't think I've said that enough. I really enjoyed it, and I was sorry when it was over.
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Re: A remarkable German war movie - 'Generation War'

Postby Gavin » 20 Jan 2017, 13:49

Thank you very much for that interesting review, Jonathan. That sounds like a series well worth watching.

The era of the Second World War does seem especially pertinent again at the moment, in part due to Germany's dangerous over-reaction against that brief period in their history when Hitler's totalitarian regime took hold. It is perhaps for that reason that I am currently working my way through Ian Kershaw's massive biography of Hitler - I am now on page 850 of 1072. Throughout, while there are fanatical Nazis, other Germans face horrific dilemmas and feel they have no option (other than death) but to toe the line. It is simply realistic to face this. That's why the post-war trials tended to focus on individuals who had clearly voluntarily and enthusiastically carried out barbaric acts.

Kershaw's book is incredibly detailed and I'm sure he is generally accurate in his assessments, but he is doubtless left-inclined and he is a little light on why the Nazis might have had such a problem with Jews. Were there no grounds at all? Or was their anger just wrongly directed at all Jews? These were certainly dangerous days though for many in the Nazi state. Once a totalitarian regime takes hold then the consequences even for thought crime are great, as we see today, right now, from the Left, with people persecuted and dismissed from their jobs for the having the "wrong" opinions - often arrived at simply through evidence and honesty.

All major events are in Kershaw's book, for example the assassination of Heydrich - and all the time dilemmas arise. For example: do you kill this man, knowing that thousands of innocent people will be killed as reprisals, and that he will simply be replaced, possibly by someone even more severe? Kershaw also explains that many Germans continued fighting to the end for various reasons: loyalty to Hitler, the fact they would be killed by superior officers if they did not fight, knowledge that the Red Army would likely kill them anyway if they surrendered, and knowledge that they - or at least the regime - had done questionable things by that time, which if they came to light, would bode very badly for them even with the western Allies.

It is a gripping read which at the least details the many events of the time and aspects of Hitler's personality with first-hand accounts, notwithstanding Kershaw's mild leftist slant.

Another relevant film I am currently watching too is Nordwand, or North Face. I have developed an interest in these mountaineering films and this again shows how ordinary Germans were swept up in the spirit of the time. A time, of course, when Germans were told their country could be great again, could regain face following the Treaty of Versailles and could recover from economic depression. It was also a time however when war was glorified (even by Churchill) as a thing of adventure and when European countries were all still jockeying for territorial power. Hitler loved war and said he thought any society needed a war every ten to 15 years to keep it on its toes. He admired the British Empire because it was so orderly and because it was an empire. But I personally have no doubt that Hitler's ambitions knew no limits (probably due to personal failures and inadequacies) and he was not the type of person to have been happy "sharing" anything indefinitely.

These were complicated times, as all times probably are, and we should try to learn from them. But it is hard to see how importing millions of people with incompatible cultures into our own societies, without proper vetting, at massive public expense, and displacing those already there, is a lesson that should be drawn.
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