Katharina Schüttler and Mark Waschke
Katharina Schüttler and Mark Waschke

One seldom thinks of movie exhibitors having an academic agenda, but the Music Box organization has been developing an odd sideline in revisionist history of the European war. Last winter its distribution arm, Music Box Films, imported Cate Shortland’s powerful German drama Lore, in which a teenage girl learns the ugly truth about her high-ranking Nazi father. Just before Christmas, the Music Box Theatre presented Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s drama Aftermath, which raised hackles in Poland with its fact-based tale of Nazi invaders and Polish townspeople collaborating to slaughter hundreds of their Jewish neighbors. Now Music Box Films has acquired U.S. distribution rights for Generation War, a controversial German TV miniseries about five young Berliners pulled apart and then reunited by Hitler’s doomed assault on the Soviet Union. Though originally broadcast in three 90-minute installments, it screens at Music Box in two parts, the Saturday show punctuated by an hour-long panel discussion on the film’s historical merits.

The three projects share with each other—and with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), the granddaddy of this little subgenre—an impulse to challenge the long-standing notions of collective guilt and collective innocence that surround the Holocaust. Broadcast in Germany as “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” Generation War was roundly attacked for sympathizing too much with its attractive, well-meaning protagonists and, more particularly, for portraying Polish resistance fighters as heartlessly anti-Semitic (at one point they capture a German transport train but leave the Jewish prisoners locked in their boxcars). Online commentators have called the series a pernicious exercise in moral relativism, an attempt to spread Germany’s guilt around and alleviate the national conscience. Yet as dramas like these remind us, nations don’t have consciences—only individuals do.

I watched Generation War in my living room, so I have no idea how it will play on a big screen. If you’re the sort of person who binge-watches HBO series on DVD, you probably know the sensation of being bombarded for hours with a narrative that leaps impatiently from one scene to the next, mechanically intercutting different story lines and never lingering on any shot or character moment. Screenwriter Stefan Kolditz compounds this problem with an inherently rickety premise. A late-night drinking party, set in June 1941, introduces us to the five pals: Wilhelm, a veteran of the Nazi war machine; Friedhelm, his sensitive younger brother, who’s about to accompany him to the Russian front; Charly, who loves Wilhelm and has just enlisted as a field nurse; Greta, a sultry barmaid and aspiring nightclub singer; and Viktor, a Jewish tailor who is Greta’s secret lover. The scene comes to a head when a Gestapo agent arrives at the door and the friends pass Viktor off as a gentile; this establishes their common humanity, but would a gathering like this among 20-year-olds really have taken place six years after the Nuremberg Laws?

Well, whatever. Once the group splinters, Kolditz has five different vantage points for observing the fall of the Reich, and he manages to cover plenty of ground in four and a half hours. He seems to have two main objectives: exposing the barbarity of the eastern front on all sides—Russian, German, and Polish—and exploring the German characters’ complicity in the Holocaust. As the two brothers tear across Poland in the blitzkrieg, Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) is ordered to execute a Soviet prisoner of war and marches him out to the woods for a bullet in the back of the head; “This isn’t a normal war, this is a philosophy,” the commanding officer tells Wilhelm. Later, in the Russian city of Smolensk, the two brothers are ordered to stand down as German intelligence agents and Russian townsmen round up Jews in hiding and slaughter them. “It’s about the purity of our race,” shrugs an Aryan soldier in the brothers’ company. “Jews are spoiling German blood.” A subsequent scene shows Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) wandering into the woods to hide his shame and accidentally treading on a mass grave.

The women’s corruption is more insidious, tangled up in their romantic feelings for men. Greta (Katharina Schüttler), called in for questioning after the drinking party, is seduced by a virile but married Gestapo agent (Mark Waschke) who promises to promote her showbiz career, and as the relationship develops she manages to finagle an exit visa for Viktor (Ludwig Trepte). When Viktor accuses her of two-timing him, she replies coldly, “You ought to be more grateful.” Meanwhile, the lovelorn Charlotte (Miriam Stein) tries to find her feet as a nurse behind the front lines in Smolensk, helped along by the Ukrainian woman she recruits as an assistant (Christiane Paul). The women grow friendly, and Charly even confesses to the woman her unspoken feelings for Wilhelm. But after Charly discovers that her assistant is a Jew, she reports her to the authorities and the woman is rounded up for deportation. When Greta arrives at the front to entertain the troops, a guilt-ridden Charly tells her, “Nothing is how we thought it would be.”

As a Jew, Viktor is the odd man out, and he gets the most fanciful story line. After Greta procures him his visa, he’s picked up in the street by Gestapo agents and, in a brutal double cross, dispatched on a freight train to Auschwitz. He and a Polish gentile (Alina Levshin) chop a hole in the floor of the car and drop from the moving train onto the tracks in a daring escape, after which they fall in with a group of Polish partisans staging guerrilla attacks on the Germans. Even now Viktor must conceal his race; when the partisans capture the transport train and discover its human cargo, one of them tells Viktor, “Jews are just as bad as communists and Russians. Better dead than alive.” This sequence was too much for Taduesz Filipkowski, spokesman for a Polish veterans’ organization, who denounced Generation War as “evil slander and an attempt to justify Nazi crimes by setting them against the alleged anti-Semitism that existed in Poland before the war.”

In Germany, Generation War was hailed by some as an opportunity to discuss the Nazi past before the last generation of first-hand witnesses dies away; for others, though, the series is nothing more than a snow job. “There is this wave in Germany now of being able to talk about German suffering,” Polish historian Tomasz Szarota told the Associated Press. “The Germans were the last victim[s] of a war that they themselves started.” That’s a fair assessment, but Generation War examines the various cultural, political, and economic incitements of the Third Reich too carefully to be dismissed as a mere apologia for the war generation. Besides, nothing lowers a war fever like the realization that everyone will be consumed.