The victors in any war write its history, so the saying goes. But what about the loser’s story?
Germany was the loser in World War II, on the fighting front and the home front. Nowhere has this aspect of the war been told as graphically, accurately and powerfully as in the film “Generation War” — and I say this having grown up a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany and fighting as an American infantryman in Europe a few years later.
War is hell (and boring) everywhere, but the German-Russian front was a slaughterhouse from beginning to end. The Soviets lost around 25 million soldiers and civilians and inflicted some 75 percent of all German wartime casualties of more than 5 million.
“Generation War,” which opens this weekend at the Nuart Theatre, first launched as a television series in Germany last year; it runs four and a half hours and is divided into two parts: In German, part one is titled “Our Mothers,” and part two is “Our Fathers.”
The opening scene is set in a Berlin bar during the summer of 1941, where five friends who grew up in the same neighborhood are throwing a farewell party.
Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and his younger brother, Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), wear Wehrmacht uniforms and are about to be deployed to the newly opened Russian front. The two young women are Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a patriotic nurse, and Greta (Katharina Schüttler), a singer who aspires to become a second Marlene Dietrich.
Greta is in love with the most surprising of the five friends, given the time and place: Viktor, the son of a Jewish tailor.
The Fuhrer himself has promised that the war would be over by Christmas, and the five buddies promise to reunite on that date at the same pub. Despite a bar sign saying “Swing Dancing Forbidden,” they dance and drink the night away.
After that lighthearted beginning, the film switches back and forth between the fighting and home fronts, steadily darkening. Following massive initial victories by the German armies, Soviet resistance stiffens, bitter cold sets in, and commanders on both sides waste soldiers’ lives as if they were gambling chips.
As the fortunes of war change, so do the characters of the friends.
Wilhelm, now a lieutenant, is the personification of the ideal officer — level-headed, cool and patriotic.
Younger brother Friedhelm is his opposite, a bookish skeptic who shirks dangerous missions and is beaten up by his comrades in response.
Then, after years in the trenches, Wilhelm, fed up with the senseless sacrificing of his troops and the killing of women and children by the SS, deserts his unit.
In reverse, the once sensitive and liberal Friedhelm snaps and turns into a nihilistic killer.
Charlotte volunteers to become a nurse at a field hospital near the frontlines, where she, and the viewer, get horrifying close-ups of the cost of war. When the screams of the wounded become too much, the surgeon in charge orders the radio music turned up.
Greta fulfills her dream of becoming a famous singer and has an affair with a sadistic SS officer working with the Gestapo in order to obtain an exit visa and passport through him for her lover, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte).
But Viktor’s escape is foiled, and he is crammed onto a train heading for Auschwitz. Together with a Polish girl, he chops a hole into the wagon floor, despite the pleas of the others that he will get them into trouble.
Viktor makes his escape and joins a group of Polish partisans, who are not sure who they hate more — the Russians, the Germans or the Jews.
At war’s end, in rubble-strewn Berlin, the friends — not all of whom made it back — reunite in the shattered bar.
Regardless of the friends’ individual fates, the only one to escape the war morally uncompromised is Viktor, the Jew — the one person painted as subhuman throughout the Nazi period.
In an ironic, and realistic, footnote, at war’s end, Viktor searches for Greta and visits an office tracking missing persons. Sitting behind the desk is the sadistic SS officer, now in a civilian suit. The American occupation administration has put him in charge, he explains, because of his extensive “experience.”
One of the few questionable aspects of the film is the close friendship of Viktor with his four “Aryan” friends, and their carousing together in a public bar in 1941, at a time when “Jews Not Wanted” signs and grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures were plastered on walls all over Germany.
Even if one grants that Berlin was the most cosmopolitan city in Germany, the jolly companionship between four Germans and a Jew appears to be one of the few unrealistic touches allowed by director Philipp Kadelbach and screenwriter Stefan Kolditz.
Otherwise, this is a film that repeatedly reminds us that it was the regular German army, not just the SS or Gestapo, that committed atrocities against Jews and others. In one small scene, someone asks a soldier what unit he belongs to, and he answers “the Ghost Legion.”
“So what do you do?” the soldier is asked, and he responds, “We make Jews disappear.”
At 57, Kolditz, born in East Germany after the war, is one of his country’s most prolific and successful writers, with some 30 movie and television plays on his résumé.
His father served with a German artillery unit on the Russian front and was one of the few such veterans to talk about the realities of war with his son.
“In general, the generation that fought in World War II did not speak about it with their children,” Kolditz said during a 90-minute phone interview. “We called them the ‘frozen generation.’ ”
Germans born after the war often turned on their parents and denounced them as “Nazi pigs” to their faces after becoming more aware of their country’s wartime atrocities.
To today’s younger generation, the Hitler era is an old story, remembered by old people, Kolditz observed, adding, “That’s one reason our TV series had such an impact on younger viewers, in particular. It showed that the ‘old people’ were also once young and not so different from themselves.
“To me,” Kolditz said, “writing the script was like having a conversation with my dead father.”
“Generation War” was originally presented in Germany as a three-part television series, each part 90 minutes long, and its warm and widespread reception was well above its creators’ expectations. The movie opened recently in Israel, where it received mixed reviews.
The strongest criticism has come from the Polish media, which resented the portrayal of Polish partisans as incorrigible anti-Semites — especially in a German film.
“I respect what the Poles went through,” Kolditz said, “ But if I paint the Germans of that generation realistically, I must also portray the Polish anti-Semitism of that time.”
Made for $22 million, “Generation War” is the most expensive German TV production ever, and it took eight years to complete. “If I had known it would take that long, I’m not sure I would have undertaken the project,” Kolditz said.
He is not through with the Holocaust era, though. Together with director Kadelbach, he is developing a TV movie based on the novel “Naked Among Wolves,” by Bruno Apitz, set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the inmates conspire to hide a 3-year-old boy from the Nazis.
“Generation War” opens Feb. 28 at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles for a one-week run; each of its two parts will be shown in separate screenings. For program information, phone (310) 281-8223 or visit landmarktheatres.com.