Five young adult friends from disparate backgrounds living in Germany in 1941 meet — in secret, since one of them is Jewish and therefore subject to a curfew — drink, dance and dare to dream of a shared future and success for all. There is something fascinating about the premise, especially from a Western (U.S.) perspective, dominated by a sense that the only relevant stories from World War II involved either the fighting men and the sacrifices of the men and women on the home front, the trials of Europe under siege or the dark tales of the Holocaust. Rarely do we consider what it was like to be young and German in the Fatherland.
Generation War offers a glimpse at the seemingly forgotten lives of regular Germans, young lovers and strivers with no sense of what Hitler and the Nazis had in store for them or the world at-large. Not surprisingly, these five look and sound like eager, idealistic types from anywhere, at practically any time in human history. There are the two Winter brothers — Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) — setting off for military service. Wilhelm, the elder, is the chosen one, the hero of the family who will bring honor to their name, while Friedhelm is a more sensitive sort, a reader and likely pacifist conscripted into service, tagging along, and quite likely the one their father wouldn’t miss if he returned in a body bag.
Then there’s starry-eyed Charlotte (Miriam Stein), hopelessly in love with Wilhelm but far too afraid to let him know how she feels. She’s signed up for the nursing corps so she can be stationed at the front lines to support the troops (and maybe have the opportunity to see her heroic guy in between battles).
Such proximity to the war will scar her. And, finally, we have a couple — Greta (Katharina Schüttler), a hardscrabble, beautiful dreamer with a voice and enough moxie to take a chance on stardom, and Viktor Goldstein (Ludwig Trepte), her Jewish lover, the son of a WWI veteran and tailor who imagines himself as German as anyone else, although both of them will come to realize that you cannot be Jewish and German in these times.
As they promise to meet again at Christmas, at the war’s anticipated end, they imagine racing off toward the future together. This is when Generation War really takes off. Separately, each character encounters the harshest of worlds, where their every decision bears the direst of consequences. There is no grey zone, no ambiguity. Hitler’s Germany is a land locked in the extremities of black and white thinking.
Friedhelm takes a beating from his fellow soldiers for not volunteering for assignments in the theater of war, while Wilhelm must execute prisoners, contrary to the accepted rules of engagement, based on the word of his superiors without explanation. Charlotte struggles to adapt to the massive trauma of the battlefield and finds herself morally conflicted when she takes a refugee under her wing who turns out to be Jewish. Greta and Viktor deal with divided loyalties — German and Jewish offset by thoughts of personal ambition and allegiances to lovers, family and humanity — in the face of the escalating rollout of Hitler’s genocidal plans, and the impact on their relationship quickly becomes the least of their concerns.
International critics have rushed to praise Generation War with comparisons to the HBO series Band of Brothers. Having missed that series — one of the few holes in my HBO-centric world — I, instead, must rely on a more humanistic argument to affirm my appreciation for this German narrative. At its best, the story dares to take the focus off defining things from a strictly generational approach. It is devastating to see these fully realized individuals caught up in their own moral quandaries, which resonate even more against the larger backdrop of global political affairs that are beyond their scope.
I would assume that Band of Brothers reduced the war down to a battle to protect the guy in the foxhole next to you; basic human interactions and connections with all of the complexities stripped away. But that story is the one we think we know because it is about us. Generation War offers more than just the perspective from the other side. Wilhelm, Friedhelm, Charlotte, Greta and Viktor force us to question who we might have been and the decisions we would have made under less beautiful conditions. This truly is the story of a generation of individuals at war without the burden of national pride. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) Grade: A
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