Original Airdate: March 20th, 2013 on ZDF
I’ve been hoping to get a chance to cover more international programming in this space, and Germany’s Generation War offers new ground both in terms of country of origin and original language. For those of you nerdy enough to keep track, I’ve now covered shows in three languages (English, Japanese and German) and from five countries (the US, the UK, Japan, Canada and Germany.) It’s quite a dramatic point of entry for German TV—averaging about seven and a half million viewers per night when it first aired, it proved a highly controversial miniseries both in Germany and elsewhere.
- Insightful. James Delingpole’s mostly incoherent response to Generation is a good example of the reception it received. He accuses it of being “politically correct melodrama,” and yet at the same time it’s guilty of not depicting the “banality of evil.” It pulls its punches by having the character Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) flinch when he finds himself forced to commit war crimes. Wouldn’t the “politically correct” thing to do be to make the Nazis as evil and remorseless as possible? Wouldn’t the “politically correct” approach be to rehash Hannah Arendt’s gospel fresh from 1963? It’s always a bad sign when the critic starts talking about the message the art should have imparted, but the truly bizarre thing is that the homily Delingpole desires is in the actual text! He says “Surely the key point about being a German in the second world war was this: regardless of whether you were good or bad, rampantly philo-Semitic or violently Nazi, you were chewed up by Hitler’s machine all the same.” It’s not clear if Delingpole actually watched all three episodes of this miniseries, but if he had bothered to hang on for an admittedly ponderous four and a half hours, it would be painfully apparent how eager the show was to underline an early observation made by Friedhelm (Tom Schilling, Who Am I): “The war will bring out only the worst in us.” And, yes, Hitler’s war machine turns out to be an unstoppable vehicle of immiseration. Despite Delingpole’s extensive complaining about Friedhelm’s initial reluctance to fight for the Nazis, he eventually ends up becoming a hardened executioner before dying in a hail of machine gun fire. The other member of the core cast of five characters who dies in the course of the series is Greta (Katharina Schuttler.) At the start of the series, she seems to be the member of the group most poised to survive: Friedhelm and Wilhelm are off to the Eastern Front, as is military nurse Charlotte (Miriam Stein.) At the show’s start in 1941 it’s already starting to look pretty grim for Greta’s Jewish lover, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte.) But Greta’s planning to stay in Berlin and make a bid for fame as a singer and hopefully actress in the style of her idol, Marlene Dietrich. And she does become somewhat well-known as a singer, thanks in no small part to her OTHER lover, Gestapo officer Martin Dorn (Mark Waschke, Habermann.) Things take a turn for Greta when she goes on tour to the Front and gets a sense of what the war is actually like. She makes the mistake of expressing her doubts publicly and doubles down on that mistake by telling Dorn’s wife about their affair, and before long she’s been imprisoned on charges of “defeatism.” In the course of a month, she goes from being a rising star sipping champagne in a well-appointed dressing room to being thrown in prison with an effective death sentence. More than any other shown here, her story conveys the insanity of the war and Nazi Germany, and she doesn’t fire a shot or come anywhere near a concentration camp. Moving on to another controversy that erupted over Generation: many in Poland were angry over the show’s depiction of anti-Semitism among the Polish Home Army. You see, Viktor manages to escape a train to a concentration camp and winds up joining the Polish resistance, but he has to keep his identity as a Jew secret. Eventually, he ends up freeing a trainload of Jews from captivity when his comrades are just as happy to leave them to die. With his secret exposed, he’s thrown out of the resistance movement. But the objections to the “historical accuracy” of these scenes seem largely political and remind me of similar objections made about President Johnson’s legacy vis a vis the movie Selma. Because the thing is, it does seem like large portions of the Polish resistance were legitimately anti-Semitic. But as that article hastens to point out, that wasn’t necessarily true of everyone involved in the movement, much like every soldier who fought for the Nazis wasn’t monstrously or even banally evil. And Generation points that out, too—Viktor’s comrade Alina (Alina Levshin, Combat Girls) is entirely sympathetic to him, and even the leader of the partisans (Lucas Gregorowicz, Lammbock) sends Viktor on his way with a handgun instead of executing him as was planned. And maybe this is my ignorant, American ass showing, but I never would have thought about anti-Semitism in the Polish resistance if it weren’t for this show. At the end of the day, the problem with the “politically correct” version of this show that Delingpole and other critics of the show long for is that it’s boring. We know that Nazis, on the whole, were evil. Even if you had never heard of this World War II business sixty years of TV, movies and other media released in the last 60 years would have informed you of that quite exhaustively. Wikipedia notes that the show has also been criticized for its “scant depiction of Nazi Germany’s project to purge the Reich of Jews.” While there’s room for improvement in how the show deals with Jewishness, I’ll point out once again that there’s no shortage of things depicting Nazi Germany’s project to purge the Reich of Jews. Which isn’t to say that there’s not a place for those stories. There always will be. I was still pleasantly surprised to see Viktor escape the train to the camp and wind up in the resistance, because concentration camps are something of a narrative cul-de-sac. Either you die, or you beat the odds and survive, either by waiting out the clock or escaping. Are there profound truths we’ve yet to explore about the human experience of the Holocaust? Sure. Are you going to find those unexplored yet profound truths in a made-for-TV miniseries? It seems unlikely. It would have been interesting to see what Generation came up with, but I’m not too mad that they didn’t go there. There are much better places to find profound truths about the camps. Instead, Generation explores less well-trod territory, like the very real terror of rape and execution at the hands of the Red Army for frontline medical staff like Charly. I’ve heard the soul-searing stories of the Holocaust. I’ll hear them many times again. It is valuable testimony. But I had never heard or imagined the story of someone like Charly, as two-dimensional and cumbersome to the narrative as she is. (See below.) I’m pleased whenever a show can offer this depth of insight, though Huckleberry Hound and its ilk may set a rather low bar.
- High production values. You don’t see a lot of TV dealing with war, and when you do it’s either sitcoms giving us a decidedly removed version of events (M*A*S*H, Hogan’s Heroes, Enlisted) or big-budget cable dramas (Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Generation Kill.) I’m sure this has everything to do with money, and Generation falls blessedly in the latter category. It’s hard to tell a story about war without the well-choreographed chaos of battle, dazzling explosions, realistically selected locations and burnt-out ruins.
- Charly. It’s telling that in total Generation runs for four and a half hours, because it feels like eight but it has the content of two. This could have been a decent if forgettable movie, and instead it’s a mediocre if forgettable TV show. My diagnosis? The show is divided up between five characters, none of whom get a really satisfying character arc. The least satisfying arc goes to Charly, who doesn’t have an arc so much as an alarmingly jagged rhombus. She’s ultimately saved from the Russians by a Soviet officer named Lilija (Christiane Paul, Vampire Sisters.) But the clunking dramatic irony here is that Charly reported Lilija to the authorities back in the first episode for being Jewish. Why did Charly do that? The show certainly doesn’t tell us. You might think it’s because of internalized anti-Semitism, but she seems to immediately regret her choice—almost as though she were forced into it by the gods of lazy narrative. Later, she hears a rumor that Wilhelm has died, and she’s heartbroken because she never got to confess her ~~secret love.~~ Fine. So she throws herself into the arms of the fiftysomething Dr. Jahn (Götz Schubert, KDD.) Why does she do that? Who the hell knows. Certainly not the viewers of Generation War! And that’s about all that’s going on for Charly. As I said earlier, her story as a German woman and nurse on the Eastern Front could have been remarkable and revealing, and the fact that we get glimmers of that potential with no actualization is super frustrating.
- Dumb ending. Maybe I found the ending particularly repellent because I was hoping for more of a payoff after four and a half hours. It mirrors the beginning of the show, when we’re hastily introduced to the cast as they get together for an illicit after-hours swing party at the bar where Greta works. At first, it successfully conveys a sense of innocent camaraderie about to be shattered by the wehrmacht, but by the end we realize how shallow that really was. Because we spend so little time with the characters before they get separated, we don’t have a strong sense of their relationships to one another or who they are as individuals. The show tries to pour a lot of that into shorthand in the first scene, but it’s a heavy load to bear. At the other end of the war, the survivors reunite in the bar, which has now been reduced to rubble. It’s pretty maudlin, and also badly written. Why do Wilhelm and Charly both happen to show up independently at exactly the time Viktor is morosely lurking in the bar? I get that they’re supposed to have been ruined by the weight of the war, but the old friends could at least say “hello” to one another instead of glowering silently. When Charly eventually asks “Has anyone heard anything from Greta?” Viktor could actually, you know, answer her as opposed to letting his silence speak volumes. If I were Charly, I would have been like, “Well? Have you? Is she dead? How did she die? What’s up with Greta? I care about what happened to her because she’s my friend, even if it’s not very subtle to demand an answer the viewer already knows!” And then we get a flashback to the stupid opening scene and all that squandered goodwill.
Final Judgment: 5/10. It’s stimulating but ultimately not that rewarding. I would skip it unless you’re teaching a class on media representations of World War II, where it would no doubt be an invaluable case study.
NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I review Lucas Cruikshank’s Marvin Marvin. Please join me as I pray for technical difficulties.