Case Study 52: Generation War, Episode 3–“A Different Country”

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.

Strengths

  • 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.

Weaknesses

  • 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.

Case Study 52: Generation War, Episode 3–“A Different Country”

Case Study 31: M*A*S*H, Episode 241–“Hey, Look Me Over”

Original Airdate: October 25th, 1982 on CBS

If the rock you’re living under doesn’t get syndication, M*A*S*H is a sitcom about the Korean War based on the popular Robert Altman movie of the same name, and it’s frequently included in lists of the best TV shows of all time. More than anything else I’ve discussed here, M*A*S*H has a central place in television history. It was one of the most widely watched series of the 1970s and its series finale in 1983 drew over 100 million viewers, making it the single episode of television viewed by the most people on broadcast in the history of scripted TV. In comparison, the much-ballyhooed Seinfeld finale drew only 76 million viewers. 

However, it’s also widely acknowledged that by Season 11, M*A*S*H had well and truly run out of gas. Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman Potter, had acknowledged that “the cracks were starting to show” by Season 9, and by season 10 CBS was begging star Alan Alda to hang on for one more year. So we come to “Hey, Look Me Over,” the Season 11 premiere of M*A*S*H.

Strengths

  • A sense of humor well matched to its tone. The issue of M*A*S*H’s laugh track was apparently a long-running source of contention. As Mental Floss explains, M*A*S*H’s single-camera style and mixture of war drama with sitcom didn’t seem like a great fit for a laugh track to the creators of the show, but CBS couldn’t countenance the idea of people enjoying a sitcom without being told when to laugh. The producers did manage to get the network to agree to keep the laugh track out of surgery scenes and certain key episodes, and after season six they toned it down immensely. The DVDs also feature an option to turn it off altogether, and I’m wondering if the episode I watched was ripped from a DVD with that option turned on or if by Season 11 the laugh track was so diminished as to be unnoticeable. In any case, a laugh track would have been painless suicide for this episode. You see, there are a handful of genuinely funny moments—without the supervision of the nurses, Hawkeye Pierce (Alda) manages to break the door off the autoclave—but there are also several rather weak attempts at jokes that would surely have had the laugh track rolling in the aisles. Axing the laugh track makes the show seem more realistic, and it’s certainly true to real life that people often say and do things that are nominally witty but not actually funny. Without the laugh track making like Jeb Bush and pitifully requesting a response, everything is more immersive and every lame joke is more forgivable.
  • Engaging storytelling around female characters. Okay, I wasn’t expecting this. Is there any institution more traditionally masculine than the American military? Nevertheless, both storylines in this episode center around the nurses in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. One storyline is about Head Nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) scrambling to get the surgical unit up to snuff for an incoming inspection from the hardass Col. Bucholtz (Margaret Feury, The Witch Who Came From The Sea.) There’s not much going on there beyond Houlihan learning a valuable lesson about the balance between diligent discipline and pushing people too hard. I get the sense that the later seasons of M*A*S*H featured a lot of valuable lessons, because Hawkeye gets one too, but at least his is a bit more interesting. You see, the reason he got a chance to break the autoclave in the first place is because the nurses were evacuated out of an abundance of caution and the surgeons are left in charge. When the nurses return, they plan on celebrating by dancing to a bunch of hot new jukebox records from the likes of Nat King Cole and Hank Williams. Hawkeye sees this as a golden opportunity to get his dick wet and begins dispensing cookie-cutter pickup lines to every woman in sight—except the one woman who really wants to hear them, Kealani Kellye (Kellye Nakahara.) Eventually, she calls him on the fact that he’s only interested in sniffing the hair* of pretty white girls (well, she describes them as blonde with perfect noses, anyway) and that he hasn’t even bothered to get to know her. If he had, she says, he’d realize that she’s compassionate, intelligent, fascinating and “cute as hell.” This was pretty awesome, and it’s instructive to the world of television today that writers were coming up with substantial stories to tell about women of color in 1982, so TV writers today really have no excuse. Eventually, Hawkeye gets a glimpse into Kellye’s hidden depths when he sees her comforting a dying soldier by gamely pretending to be his sweetheart at home, so he shows up at her door later that night with a bouquet of flowers and a tux, but she’s not into his consolation bone—she’s already got a dude with her. Wamp wamp. Seriously, though, I’m glad the show took the opportunity to avoid having Kellye leap into Hawkeye’s arms the second he gets around to acknowledging her as a valid subject of sexual interest.

Weaknesses

  • Loretta Swit. Look, she must have been doing something right—her and Alda were the only actors to hang on for all 11 seasons in a show that was known for shaking up its cast. But she’s the only example of someone really being out of step with the tone of the show. She sells her cheesy one-liners like she was on a vaudeville stage and makes their humorlessness all the more conspicuous. I’m going to be charitable and chalk up this mugfest to the fact that this was episode two-hundred forty one and she was probably tired. No one is holding out for the idea that their best work is going to happen in year eleven of any given project.

*One amusing moment in this episode has Kellye telling Hawkeye a story from her childhood only to look over and find him literally sniffing the hair of one of those pretty white girls. Gross!

Motivation: Houlihan is motivated by work—she wants to impress Bucholtz—and Kellye is motivated by love. Not that she loves Hawkeye, per se, but she does have a crush.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Not the worst M*A*S*H, not the best M*A*S*H, but it’s interesting that even an installment from what is widely acknowledged to be this show’s shittiest season is still better than half the crap I review on this blog.

NEXT TIME: I continue to review the juggernauts of the anime world by taking a look at Dragon Ball Z!

Case Study 31: M*A*S*H, Episode 241–“Hey, Look Me Over”

Case Study 30: Mayday, Episode 18–“Mistaken Identity”

Original Airdate: October 19th, 2005 on Discovery Channel Canada

Even if you’re a fan of cable TV documentaries about airplane crashes—and who isn’t—you may not be familiar with Mayday, but that could just be due to nomenclature. It’s called Air Crash Investigation in the UK, other European countries, Australia, South Africa and Asia. Here in the US, it airs as Air Emergency…and also as Air Disasters, for some reason. But all these shows stem from Cineflix, a Canadian production company specializing in filling the hours on the cable dial with somewhat lurid nonfiction. I’m glad to get another chance to look at a documentary, because I haven’t gotten a chance to do that since all the way back in the first case study.

Strengths

  • Telling an important story. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July of 2014, killing nearly 300 civilians, there was justifiable international outrage and quite a lot of grumbling about Russian imperialism. It was also a good time to remember that back in 1988, the US shot down a passenger plane, killing nearly 300 civilians. This was the sad fate of Iran Air Flight 655, and Mayday attempts to explain how it happened. While I have quibbles with how Mayday went about doing this, it’s laudatory just to get the word out that, yes, this happened. As Max Fisher noted in a relatively conservative recounting in The Washington Post, you’d be hard-pressed to find many American teenagers who are aware of this incident—and you’d be hard-pressed to find many Iranian teenagers who aren’t, because it’s understandably considered a national tragedy.

Weaknesses

  • Reenactments. I complained about Monsters We Met doing this, and many of the same criticisms apply here. It’s cheesy and not terribly immersive. Time spent watching dramatic reenactments is time that could have been spent going more in-depth on the subject matter, and as you’ll see, there was plenty of room to go more in-depth. I think the reenactments here serve a slightly different purpose than they do in Monsters. There, they’re meant to buttress scanty information about our long-dead ancestors by turning them into tangible people we can see and thrusting a narrative onto them for the purposes of making the material easier to grasp. Here, it’s meant to dramatically convey what the producers apparently felt was a key part of the story—the intense time pressure that Captain William C. Rogers III was under as he was trying to make the decision about whether to fire on the airliner. The problem here is that these reenactments create an aura of reality that isn’t necessarily supported by the facts. As the documentary wears on, we learn that the two main rationale provided by the crew of the USS Vincennes for firing on Flight 655 turned out to be entirely baseless when investigated by the Pentagon. The crew claimed that the plane was broadcasting a transponder signal identifying it as an Iranian military plane—they assumed an F-14A Tomcat—but, no, it had been broadcasting the civilian airliner code the entire time. The crew claimed that the airliner had been descending towards the Vincennes in a classic attack profile—data from the Vincennes itself established that this wasn’t the case. In light of this, many Iranians—and, indeed, the Iranian government itself—hold that the attack was intentional and designed to elicit Iranian concessions in a ceasefire being negotiated between Iran and Iraq during their ongoing war. Two months later, the Ayatollah obliged, probably due to some combination of this incident and the fact that then-US ally Saddam Hussein was cheerfully deploying weapons of mass destruction in the form of mustard gas on Iranian troops and civilians. I realize that Discovery Channel documentaries aren’t as eager to embrace ambiguity as Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, but these reenactments create a master narrative of truth where there really isn’t a reliable one to be had. In some cases, there seems to be pure invention happening—the version of Rogers we see in the reenactments seems a lot more aghast about the events of that day than the Rogers that they actually interview for the show. Indeed, on the show and in public he seems 100% defensive and 0% remorseful. Not surprising, since the Navy gave him a fucking medal.
  • Shallow and one-sided. Mayday spends an awful lot of time diving into the nitty gritty of a moment by moment reenactment of what happened aboard the Vincennes, and this takes valuable time that could be used to provide some larger contextual information. No airtime is given to talking about the larger story of the Iran-Iraq War, or really about Iran in general. Exactly one Iranian person gets to talk in this documentary: the grieving brother of Flight 655 captain Moshen Rezaian. Everyone else is, to a man, a current or former member of the United States Armed Forces. It’s almost as though Iranian lives don’t matter. It certainly doesn’t discuss the fact that the US was hardly a neutral party in this war, supplying arms and intel to Hussein’s Iraq. It also doesn’t mention that only nine short years prior to the downing of Flight 655, the Iranians had overthrown a US installed dictator and torture enthusiast, which is really an essential fact when reckoning with any modern Iranian history, especially a piece of Iranian history so essential to understanding the fraught relationship between Iran and the US. It doesn’t mention that it was Iraq that took the war to the Gulf through a strategy of aggressive blockades—it makes it seem like the Iranian gunboats the Vincennes confronted that day were just more rogue state terrorists harassing poor, innocent Kuwait. I was hoping for a bit more neutrality from Canada, but this documentary about an American war crime is unabashedly pro-American.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Mayday supplies mostly accurate, if biased information, so it wouldn’t be out of place in a course of study about Iran Air Flight 655—but definitely don’t make it your only source. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect Mayday fares a bit better when avoiding political subjects.

NEXT TIME: Martial law continues as we examine TV canon: M*A*S*H!

Case Study 30: Mayday, Episode 18–“Mistaken Identity”