Aired in three episodes on German TV, “Generation War” retains the feel of an epic serial in its two-part bigscreen form. Eight years in the making and nearly five hours in length, director Phillip Kadelbach’s overly melodramatic but fairly engrossing exploration of World War II-era German guilt and responsibility follows a quintet of young Berlin friends from the eve of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to war’s end in ‘45. Limited U.S. theatrical play, beginning at New York’s Film Forum, will attract the arthouse-attending subset of WWII buffs, while ancillary action looks to pack more firepower.
Having triggered European debate over the savagery of German armed forces depicted (and the anti-Semitism of non-German characters), Kadelbach and screenwriter Stefan Kolditz can indeed be accused of providing undue narrative shortcuts even as the pic’s running time stretches far and wide. So, too, the movie can easily be read as a work of apologia, such is its tendency to simplify issues around the culpability of German soldiers and civilians alike.
The film (known as “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” in Germany) principally follows gung-ho careerist lieutenant Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch), who’s loved by a shy young nurse named Charlotte (Miriam Stein), and Wilhelm’s younger brother, Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), whose relative sensitivity is marked rather obviously by his love of poetry. One of the brothers friends, Greta (Katharina Schuttler), is an aspiring singer whose boyfriend, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), is Jewish. When an SS officer blackmails her into sleeping with him, Greta is tempted to take the offer and realize her dream to be a star.
The five characters somehow manage to cross paths across miles and years as the film begins to resemble soap opera more than historical drama. Thesping is strong, particularly by Bruch and Schilling as brothers with opposite ways of dealing with the horror of combat, and by Schuttler as a Marlene Dietrich wannabe, although the movie’s standout achievements are technical. Battle scenes feel exceptionally harrowing thanks to Thomas Stammer’s detailed production design and David Slama’s sharp HD lensing.