Generation War, directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, began its life as a three-part TV miniseries in Germany, where it has been racking up accolades by all the critics lucky enough to have seen it. It arrives Stateside hailed as “the German Band of Brothers.” It will play in theaters as two feature films, each requiring its own ticket. Part one will run about 130 minutes, and part two will run 144 minutes. Here’s the favor you need to do for yourself: Watch the entire thing in one massive sitting. Carve out a whole day for yourself, and try to absorb the entire film at once. It will take a huge degree of cinematic stamina to achieve, but I feel the all-at-once approach may be the best. I split my viewings into two parts, and I kind of wish I hadn’t.
This is a World War II film, which I know can be a tiring genre for many people. World War II was, of course, a dramatic piece of human history, but the mere overwhelming volume of feature films and TV shows devoted to it have left many viewers a bit tired of the Holocaust-laced semantics; how many times can we be massively depressed by the violence and torture? Generation War, however, by sheer dint of its prodigious length, seeks to be the WWII film to end all WWII films. It explores every crevice of the war, this time from the perspective of a quintet of twentysomethings, who begin the film as optimistic patriots, and end the film spiritually or physically destroyed. This is a film about slow burn, about how war wears you down and leaves you just plain exhausted. Even if you survive the war, it still wrecks you. The politics of your own country become increasingly dubious, and before you know it, you’re barely trying to stay alive in a sinking ship with ever more strict and irrational rules. The only way to gain the full impact of Generation War, then, is to allow the battles to actually fatigue you. Your own restlessness from sitting through a nearly 4¾-hours feature film will play into the drama.
The main characters start Generation War as happy-go-lucky optimists, caring more about staying BFFs forever than the oncoming tide of dogmatic governmental oppression and violence. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) is the calm, handsome leader of the pack who is about to ship off to the Russian front lines with his wispier brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling). Wilhelm is unknowingly beloved by Greta Gerwig doppelgänger Charly (Miriam Stein), who is eager to join the medical corps. They are good friends with the Jewish tailor Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who is most certainly not destined for great things. Viktor is dating the sexpot of the group, Greta (Katharina Schüttler).
Over the course of the first part, Friedhelm will be spotted as a coward in combat; Wilhelm will try to protect him, only to see most of his men get killed. Charly will witness blood and carnage for the first time, trying to remain loyal to Germany in the face of horror. Greta will begin having an affair with a German Kommandant in exchange for Viktor’s safe passage out of the country, and also for the privileges that being a star crooner will provide. Viktor, however, will not make it out of the country, eventually being placed on a mysterious train….
In the second part, we essentially just witness the emotional toll of the first part. Greta eventually finds herself in prison, Wilhelm is pegged as a deserter, Friedhelm loses pretty much all of his innocence, Charly clings romantically onto her boss, and Viktor – in a stirring twist – becomes a fighter in the Russo-Polish resistance. Some of these people may not make it out alive.
Generation War is hard to get through, but it doesn’t smack of melodrama or manipulation as other WWII dramas have (even Schindler’s List, a brilliant film, has a few scenes included just to make you wince). In a world where the word “Nazi” is so often used as movie shorthand for “evil villain” (reminder: there are three films featuring Captain America in the world), it’s educational and enlightening to see a film about the emotional toll the war took on the German people, even the Nazi soldiers who fought on the front lines. There is something universal about the war experience. As is succinctly put in the film: At first you fight for your country. After a while you fight for your fellow soldiers. As more time passes, and victory is not achieved, you end up asking why fighting is necessary at all.
This is a new subject in the ongoing cinematic conversation America has been having with the War. And it’s perhaps the WWII film to end all WWII films. At least until the next one inevitably comes along.