Starring: Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling
Director: Philipp Kadelbach
If you didn’t see this cracking German-made three-parter when it was shown on BBC2, you can now catch up with it on DVD or Blu-ray. Spanning the years 1941 to 1945, it concerns five young Berliners caught up in the turmoil of WWII. Two of them (Wilhelm and Charlotte) are fresh-faced Fascists eager to serve the Fatherland on the Eastern Front, but Wilhelm’s sensitive younger brother Friedhelm is a disgruntled observer of all this mass triumphalism, while glamour girl Greta has a Jewish boyfriend, Viktor, and listens to racially impure American jazz. But it doesn’t matter whether they’re pro or anti the war effort. There are some nasty surprises in store for all of them.
The broad shape of their learning curve can readily be imagined (Hitler – very bad; Russian winters – also very bad; peasant shacks – don’t burn them down unless you want their occupants to take up arms against you), but it’s individualized through story arcs laced with dramatic ironies. So Greta becomes the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi. Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for the cause is dampened by having to do the Reich’s dirty work, while Friedhelm, who has always thought that the war is pointless, discovers that he has a knack for survival on the battlefield. Viktor finds himself among Polish partisans who are just as cruelly antisemitic as the Nazis, and Charlotte (a nurse) is assigned to a field hospital where they play loud music to pacify the patients (or perhaps to drown out the screaming) because there isn’t enough morphine to go round.
Each of the feature-length episodes is packed full of what feel like vivid and authentic snapshots of the madness of war – a suicidal Friedhelm lighting a cigarette at night to draw enemy fire and then getting beaten up for it afterwards by his unit, while Wilhelm skulks nearby; clearing a forest of landmines by marching a group of peasants into it at gunpoint. And there throughout, giving the show its narrative spine, is the situation on the Eastern Front, at first hopeful as the German forces march on Moscow, making huge territorial gains, and then increasingly desperate as they are pushed further and further back by an enemy that seems to proliferate like an army of angry green ants. Shot with handheld cameras that lurch in the actors’ faces, these scenes of street-by- street fighting through towns reduced to rubble have the same jittery excitement as those in Saving Private Ryan, but with an extra dimension of moral jeopardy and soul-sapping savageness.
Director Philipp Kadelbach and his production team do wonders with a budget that was presumably only a fraction of what Spielberg had to play with. The show makes no excuses for the characters, who, it suggests, opened up a Pandora’s box of evils that still plague the world today. All of the performances are beautifully nuanced, but you have to single out the actors playing the two brothers. As Wilhelm and Friedhelm, Volker Bruch (potential future Bond baddie?) and Tom Schilling (a Teutonic James McAvoy) could hardly be bettered for hollow-cheeked charisma and haunted attractiveness. Compelling and totally convincing, Generation War is a massive achievement up there with the very best of recent German cinema and TV.