Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Generation War (orig. Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars)  Slant (2 Stars) AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

DerSpiegel* (C. Buss) review  coverage
DieStern* coverage
FrankfurterAllgemeineZeitung* coverage
SudDeutscheZeitung* (K. Vahland) review  coverage

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review
Slant (S. MacFarlande) review
 
Generation War (orig. Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) [2013]  (directed by Philipp Kadelbrach, screenplay by Stefan Kolditz) originally a critically/audience acclaimed three part German miniseries about five young Berliners (three men, two women, four of them German, one Jewish) becoming who they became during the height of World War II (1941-1945), playing now in the United States as a two part (4 1/2 hours in total) German language/English subtitled movie to decidedly mixed (and IMHO even partly hysterical) reviews, will probably be "deflating" to a lot of Americans / Westerners.

And that is because, STRIKINGLY, NOT A SINGLE SECOND OF THIS FILM TAKES PLACE "IN THE WEST."  There are references fighting in North Africa and Sicily.  There's passing reference to the Normandy Invasion.  Except for odd visual references to the Western Allies Bombing Campaign (taped windows, and then post-War imagery of rubble strewn streets) there's no reference to that either.  There's no reference to the "London Blitz," "Battle of the Bulge" or "Patton's 3rd Army" or other treasured Anglo-American memories.  Instead, the ENTIRE STORY is about the brutality of the War and Occupation IN THE EAST.

Again, many Westerners may honestly be "confused" by this. However, Coventry/London Blitz notwithstanding, World War II BECAME A CRIME "OUT EAST."  It began with the invasion and enslavement of Poland and then escalated rapidly to new, utterly unheard of, levels during Operation Barbarosa (the Nazi code-name for the Invasion of the Soviet Union) with the S.S. "Einsatzgruppen" following, rounding up and shooting Jews and ended, of course, with the Jewish Death Camps ALL OF WHICH WERE AGAIN "OUT EAST."  AND while the Western Allies' Bombing Campaign certainly HELPED DEFEAT NAZI GERMANY, and NORMANDY especially certainly HELPED DEFEAT NAZI GERMANY, NAZI GERMANY WAS, IN FACT, GROUND DOWN, BEATEN, AND INDEED, BLUDGEONED TO DEATH in the FOUR YEAR LONG EXTENDED STREET-TO-STREET, HOUSE-TO-HOUSE, FIELD-TO-FIELD, TREE-TO-TREE, SEWER-TO-SEWER BRAWL that the Germans themselves came to call "RATTENKRIEG" (RAT WAR) that was the WAR "OUT EAST."  This is not to take away the heroics of our own veterans from the West.  But it is go give the Russians (and the Poles) their due.  

So yes, this may be a tough film series for a Westerner to see.  The execution of a random/insignificant if patriotic low-ranking captured Soviet Communist Commissar near the front is given emotionally equal billing to the rounding-up and execution of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen behind it, as is the summary execution of captured partisans and the public hanging of Polish civilians in reprisal for tiny, arguably "fly swatting," but doggedly persistent Polish Home Army raids against the German occupiers.

And the Polish Home Army partisans are NOT portrayed in simply "heroic" hues either, but also with their own demons.  The commander of one such unit asks disbelievingly the lead-Jewish character in the story, who after many twists and turns finds himself at the Polish Home Army's mercy out in the Polish countryside: "So you're BOTH a GERMAN and a JEW?" as if willing to accept him as a partner-in-arms if he was one or the other, but not both.  That he was BOTH was simply "a bridge too far" for him.  And yet he DOESN'T kill him, turn him in, etc.  What he does do, is (TELLINGLY...) _WALK AWAY_ FROM HIM ... but ... NOT without leaving him with a revolver and fully loaded clip to defend himself with.  THIS KIND OF INSIGHTFUL IF OFTEN _PAINFUL TO WATCH_ AMBIGUITY CHARACTERIZES THE WHOLE FILM.


So then, what is the story arc?

Five young Berliners -- Wilhelm and Friedhelm Winter (played by Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling), brothers, Greta (played by Katharina Schüttler), Greta's friend Charlotte (played by Miriam Stein) and Greta's beau Viktor Goldstein (played by Ludwig Trepte), Jewish -- get together, after hours, in back of the pub where Greta works.  Wilhelm, already a veteran of the Polish and French campaigns and his younger brother Friedhelm, new, have been called-up to head East in preparation for what everyone in Berlin expects to be the coming invasion of the Soviet Union.  Charlotte arrives with news that she's been accepted to serve as a nurse in the coming campaign as well.  "Bohemian" in style (if not nationality), Greta isn't particularly interested in the politics of it all, but just wants to throw her friends a "good party" before they leave.  She pulls out a swing record or two, and they have a good time... until some neighbor complains about the noise.

The local police respond to the call, ask as a matter of course for everyone's IDs.  Now Viktor's Jewish and it's against the law for him, as a Jew, to be out  "after curfew" but they seem more distracted/upset by "the music." So before they get to Victor, they write Greta a ticket, confiscate her record and tell her to appear some days later at whatever random Berlin court it would be to respond to this petty citation.

So in the days following, brave/proven Wilhelm and his less enthusiastic and no doubt trying "cut out his own identity" Friedhelm as well as wide-eyed Charlotte all "go off to war."  Viktor returns to his parents' board-up and repeatedly vandalized (since at least Krystalnacht now 2+ years back) neighborhood tailor shop.  And Greta, some days later, "puts on a nice dress..." and heads off to the random court / police station to deal with the above mentioned citation.

At the police station, she's given a lecture on her "degenerate taste in music by an utterly unimportant (if not that he was Gestapo...) low-to-lower-middle-rank official who tells her that "as a matter of course on this matter" the police has made inquiries about her AND (1) that her "degenerate tendencies" don't seem to end with poorly chosen taste in music (that is, that he knows about her interest in a certain Jewish young man ...) and (2) that it appears that she's known around the neighborhood as having a certain talent in singing.  He asks her if that's true.  She tells him that yes, she can hold a note reasonably well.  He asks her if she'd be interested, perhaps, in pursuing a career in singing.  She responds, "sure, what do you have in mind?"  He tells her that he has "some connections" and it "could all be arranged."  The ugly little matter involving a ticket for owning record or two of un-Aryan music (and hanging out with a non-Aryan and more precisely JEWISH beau) was then "set aside' and ... for the price of sleeping with a not-particularly significant but potentially troublesome low-to-lower-middle-ranking Gestapo official ... she got the chance of perhaps cutting a record or two.  Of course her Jewish sort-of boyfriend Viktor wasn't altogether pleased.  But then, he should have been "grateful" (!) because ... by sleeping with the low-to-lower-middle-ranking Gestapo official she was actually "protecting him."  Dictatorships always make for rather complicated sexual politics ...

In the meantime, the other three are ... AT WAR.  And while War is going quite well actually through the summer and into the beginning of Fall of 1941,  THIS War is already proving to be, as it had been already billed, "unlike any other":

Several months into the war, the brave, previously proven Leutnant Wilhelm finds himself confronted with the above mentioned "ugly task" of executing a captured Soviet (Communist) Commissar.  They capture him in a battle over a random grain silo somewhere in steppe leading toward Moscow.  His underlings ask him: "So do we execute the Commissar?"  Not wanting to do it, he tells them instead: "Nah, he might have intelligence that may prove useful to us." So they take him along with the 2-3 others that they captured back to company HQ.  Some time later, the company commander comes to Leutnant Wilhelm telling him, "Yes he's certainly a fanatic. He was telling our interrogators that we'll NEVER defeat the 'Great Soviet Army,' blah, blah, blah... In any case, we've extracted all that we could out of him.  So you can kill him now" (!), the message being that he really should have killed him at the grain silo.  That Wilhelm did not was, perhaps, somewhat of a waste of time.  But, "all could be rectified" now, if he just took him out to the woods now ... and ... put a bullet in his head.  The company commander reminds Wilhelm: "The Soviet Union didn't sign the Geneva Conventions.  As a political commissar, he's a dangerous fanatic.  We're fighting an ideological war.  We have standing orders to execute captured political officers of the Soviet Army.  So now just get up, take the prisoner out back a ways -- we don't want our own troops to get 'too jumpy'  -- and ... finish the task at hand."  So ... brave, previously proven Leutnant Wilhelm takes his prisoner out back into the woods.  At some point, he asks his prisoner to kneel.  He pulls out his luger, cocks it, ... shoots his prisoner dead in the head ... and YES SHAKEN ... returns to camp.

When he returns to camp, he has other things to deal with: He has to reprimand his younger brother Friedhelm for "never ever volunteering for anything."  This comes up again with the other soldiers in the unit with Friedhelm responding to them sarcastically, "But guys I'm doing you all a huge favor by never volunteering for anything.  Think of how much faster you'll ALL get your 'iron crosses' by being allowed to be so brave." WELL, that kind of attitude results in what would probably happen IN ANY ARMY UNIT ANYWHERE ... eventually the members of his own unit BEAT THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF HIM for ENDANGERING THEIR OWN LIVES by NOT carrying his load.  LESSON LEARNED ... a few scenes later, he's summarily shooting lined-up captured partisans with the rest of them... even as he ALSO walks in on the remains of an Einsatzgruppen massacre of Jews (the blood of the victims was still seeping out from the soil pressing down on the recently killed / buried bodies).  AND HE KNOWS VERY WELL WHAT HAD JUST HAPPENED THERE.

Meanwhile back in Berlin, Greta wasn't completely an opportunist.  She tries to get her low-to-lower-middle-ranking Gestapo lover to help her beau Viktor get out of the country.  He plays along.  Gets him a "passport" and papers to "go to Marsailles" (and "from there to where-ever").  'Cept whether the papers were EVER legit, he has Viktor arrested before he ever gets to the train station, and after getting a chance to have him beaten up, has him put on a very different train ... heading East ... That's how Viktor gets to Poland ... and it was very, very clear where he was being sent.

Then Charlotte has her own increasingly horrifying adventures and morally damning episodes as a field nurse: "We're here to treat ONLY our own people ..." and yet, even in the "best of times" even the German army needs help from the locals.  Now who's willing to help (collaborate) and ... why?  And can one really trust ANYBODY in the "occupied lands"?

This then is the set-up to the story... which continues then for about 3 1/2 hours more (through 3 1/2 more years -- from the rest of 1941 to the summer of 1945).

I found the film to be doggedly the "greyest of grey" in its portrayals of almost all of the major characters.  None of them were saints but also, with the exception of the Gestapo guy, none of them had horns.

I do know that many Americans and Westerners will be challenged by the film.  But I do honestly believe that it's worth seeing.



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