In movies as varied as Das Boot, Downfall, and last year’s The Book Thief, directors haven’t shied from depicting the German perspective on World War II. Dipping further into that representational quagmire, the made-for-TV miniseries Generation War serves up nearly five hours of self-pitying Third Reich youth, in a film shot through with heavy ironies and scored as if it were The Shawshank Redemption. It’s not as if the movie (retitled from Our Mothers, Our Fathers for a stateside theatrical release) encourages viewers to root for Nazis. None of the major characters is a true believer—they’re all rooting for their Jewish friend to live. Gathering at a bar on the eve of war, this happy, swing-dancing crew is convinced it will reunite by Christmas. In the press notes, screenwriter Stefan Kolditz writes of a desire to “begin a conversation” with the present generation about an older one. But by conveniently exempting its protagonists from ideology or culpability, Generation War feels less like a reckoning than a dodge: Yes, your grandparents may have been Nazis—but they could have been these nice people, too.


It’s the sort of movie in which five friends from Berlin keep bumping into each other over many years and vast expanses of Germany, Russia, and Poland. The narrator is Lieutenant Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch), who commands a platoon that includes his much-teased younger brother, Friedhelm (Tom Schilling); soon Wilhelm will come to see the Nazis’ true colors, after a major shoots a Jewish girl. Over the course of the film, he’ll grow convinced the war can’t be won. Singer Greta (Katharina Schüttler) embarks on an affair with a Gestapo official (Mark Waschke), hoping to jump-start her career as the next Marlene Dietrich and to save her Jewish boyfriend, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte); he’s nevertheless sent to Sachsenhausen and eventually put on a train to Auschwitz. Working as a nurse, Charlotte (Miriam Stein) gives up a doctor colleague (Christiane Paul) after discovering a photograph of her with a menorah. The second half accords ample screen time to Polish partisans, whose own anti-Semitism is portrayed as barely second to the Germans’.

Fans of epic sweep and grimy, Saving Private Ryan–indebted battle sequences won’t be bored. It’s no small feat to keep a story of this girth compelling over the long haul; though dramatically, the film is a throwback to a hammier era of Hollywood epic. Recent Holocaust cinema has grappled with more complex questions: Roman Polanski’s The Pianist had the nerve to suggest survival was nothing more than a matter of blind chance; Paul Verhoeven’s gleefully vulgar Black Book eliminated all traces of moral high ground. Doleful yet perversely optimistic, Generation War seems dedicated to Anne Frank’s notion that people—or at least these five friends—are really good at heart. (Very few fail to lower their pistols or facilitate unlikely escapes.) No doubt there were many Germans who felt the war was pointless, who fought to save their Jewish neighbors, who righteously talked back to their Nazi superiors. But by sticking almost exclusively to that perspective, Generation War takes an oddly generic stance on the horrors of war: Bear witness to five hours of combat and its consequences, the lesson of which is that nobody saw anything.