Generation War

Is it asking too much to release a four-and-a-half-hour film about Nazi war guilt in U.S. theaters in 2014? Originally a hugely popular TV miniseries in Germany, where it was called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, director Philipp Kadelbach’s epic plays uneasily here (in two parts), as if applying on behalf of ordinary Germans for retroactive Greatest Generation membership. Well, we do tend to root for whatever protagonists we’re given, especially in a grandly appointed, finely acted soap opera about the crisscrossed fates of five differently innocent young Berlin friends — two sibling Wehrmacht soldiers (Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling), an enlisted nurse (Miriam Stein), an aspiring singer (Katharina Schüttler), and her Jewish lover (Ludwig Trepte). Together they’re reassuringly immune to zealotry, but individually doomed to a devastating string of moral compromises. As orchestrated by writer Stefan Kolditz and nimbly conducted by Kadelbach, these occur within scenes of unaccountable heroism and sadism, of random luck both good and bad, of harrowing battle amid heaps of urban rubble, and all the other trappings that have become familiar in World War II movies at least since Saving Private Ryan, when production values finally caught up with our morbidly aestheticized fascination. We do glimpse the tragedy of how the fascist mindset obtains, in part, by criminalizing critique of the state as “defeatism” and thereby exacerbating nihilism, yet our long-suffering lead players still seem dubiously insulated from full culpability. But maybe what’s most noteworthy in Generation War, from the local perspective, is an American presence more or less limited to a lone U.S. Army bureaucrat who appears briefly in one scene after the war has ended, chomps a cigar, and doesn’t actually say anything at all.