Hello, Our Mothers. Hello, Our Fathers. Here we are in Concentration Camp Grenada.
You never know what sort of flotsam and jetsam will show up on Netflix Streaming, and I’m sure everyone who clicks through the site, whether on their PC or their HDTV set-top box, knows the feeling of stumbling over something late at night, clicking the play button, and slowly starting to wonder, “Why the hell am I watching this — and why can’t I turn it off?”
Over the weekend I found myself binging late at night on the four and half-hour 2013 German mini-series Our Mothers, Our Fathers (in the original German, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) released in America as Generation War. And it was almost immediately apparent what was coming. In America and England, World War II history, whether in the form of books, TV, or movies, is crafted by the victors, and when it comes to movies and TV, World War II is, for better or worse, the only war that (a) the public can be reliably expected to tune in (World War I films are much more hit and miss at the box office) and (b) unlike the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, there’s a near-unanimous consensus that we should have fought WWII, we were the good guys, and it’s a damn good thing we won.
In Germany, of course, WWII history is crafted by the losers, and there’s simultaneously an enormous shame over their actions and an enormous cultural industry to explain them away. Not really to justify them, but to transform the nation that fielded the most powerful army in the world in 1939 into victims.
As Uri Klein writes at Haaretz, in many ways, Generation War updates the formula that Erich Maria Remarque popularized in All Quiet on the Western Front, his novel set in the Germany of the first World War. Klein’s article is titled “Nostalgic German TV series takes history out of WW2.” Spot on; right from the start, Generation War plays fast and incredibly loose with history.
The miniseries begins by establishing its cast, four Germans in their late teens or early 20s, who in 1941 are about to set off on their wartime adventures on the Eastern Front. They meet after hours at a bar in Berlin where Greta, one of the friends – and it really quickly does start to feel like an episode of Friends set in Nazi Germany – works as a waitress and budding chanteuse. The four Aryan friends are joined by their fifth buddy, Viktor. Five minutes into Generation War, the miniseries begins with the biggest of the big lies, to coin a Teutonic phrase, as Adam Kirsch noted in his well-written review in February at the New Republic:
The fifth member of the group is, for the film’s purposes, the most important of all. He is Viktor Goldstein, and yes, he is a Jew—a Jew who is the bosom friend of four young Aryans in Nazi Berlin in 1941, and the lover of one of them, the heedless Greta. Now, these young Germans are supposed to be about twenty when the film begins, which means that they were twelve when Hitler took power. For eight years they would have been subjected to Nazi propaganda; they would have been members of the Hitler Youth. Would such people really accept a Jew like Viktor as a bosom friend? Would they even have a chance to meet him, since Jews had already been expelled from the schools, most jobs, and even public places like parks and zoos? Yet Generation War assures us that this friendship was normal: it was those other Germans who hated Jews, not “our mothers, our fathers.”
Which is a reminder that even the mini-series’ title is an apologia for German audiences, convincing them “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” particularly as represented by the miniseries’ attractive, well-scrubbed cast, were victims (even as they were rampaging through most of Europe and Russia) – it was the mean and nasty generation before them that duped them all into becoming Nazis.
Which may explain why curiously, with the exception of a sole 30-something mid-level Gestapo officer, who’s having an affair with Greta and sending Viktor off to a concentration camp, no upper tier Nazis appear in the film, which is likely deliberate. As James Bowman noted in his perceptive review of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001, not a single member of the North Vietnam is depicted in the film. For the socialist Coppola (and his acolyte, George Lucas) the real enemy in Vietnam was the American military, which is why the film dwells on Robert Duvall’s gung-ho Col. Kilgore and Marlon Brando’s insane Colonel Kurtz. (This became the formula for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as well, in which the film’s real enemy is Lee Ermey’s martinet drill instructor.)
Generation War flips this formula on its head: While boxcars full of Jews on their way to concentration camps are depicted, the camps themselves are not. No members of the Nazi inner party are shown, no attempt is made to explain how Nazism and Hitler were wildly popular in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. But as Ian Kershaw noted in his biography of Hitler, it was only when the Germans were faced with nearly a half million German soldiers killed at Stalingrad in 1943 that Germans began to question their support for Hitler. And it was only when the war appeared lost that German generals mounted their coup against him. In that respect, Generation War is very much akin to The Reader, the novel and subsequent movie starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and Lena Olin, which uses the metaphor of illiteracy to explain how the Germans were duped by Hitler – this from the Germany that produced Bach, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schinkel. In Generation War, the illiteracy on the part of the series’ makers is deliberate.
Generation War features spectacular high-definition cinematography, battle scenes that are smaller in scope than those depicted in Saving Private Ryan, but equally viscerally powerful in their own way as action sequences, and an appealing cast of leads. But as the reviews in the New Republic and Haaretz noted, and as James Delingpole wrote in his review of the miniseries at England’s Spectator, at the heart of Generation War are lies designed to placate the series’ German audience. If you’re familiar with basic World War II history spotting them becomes a sort of parlor game while watching the series; but then, Generation War is hoping that you’re not.
Which will no doubt be increasingly the case for future generations.
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Related: “It Was More Than Envy.”