Generation War in conflict

Andrew Nagorski, Oliver Mahrdt, Ingrid Scheib-Rothbart, Atina Grossmann and Ryszard Horowitz dissect Philipp Kadelbach's new film.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Oliver Mahrdt, Andrew Nagorski, Ingrid Scheib-Rothbart, with moderator Anne-Katrin Titze on Generation War
Oliver Mahrdt, Andrew Nagorski, Ingrid Scheib-Rothbart, with moderator Anne-Katrin Titze on Generation War Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Philipp Kadelbach's Generation War, written by Stefan Kolditz, and produced by Nico Hofmann for the ZDF was first shown on German and Austrian television in 2013 on the evenings of March 17, 18 and 20, in 90 minute episodes as a three-part miniseries. It garnered more than 7 million viewers. The film stars Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Miriam Stein and Ludwig Trepte as five friends in Berlin, June 1941 whom we follow throughout the war.

Two brothers, Wilhelm and Friedhelm are Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front. Charlotte becomes an army nurse. Greta is an aspiring singer involved with Viktor, a tailor who is Jewish, escapes deportation and joins Polish partisans. The performances are outstanding, the battle scenes filmed by cinematographer David Slama and edited by Bernd Schlegel pull you in and yet the plot choices remain controversial. The original title, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) refers to the generation of those born around 1920. In an interview, Kolditz called them "those thrown straight from school into a war that made them perpetrators."

On January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and coinciding with the theatrical screenings of the four and a half hour film in two parts at Film Forum in New York, NYU Deutsches Haus hosted a panel discussion with Juliane Camfield, Director of Deutsches Haus, introducing the evening.

Ludwig Trepte as Viktor Goldstein
Ludwig Trepte as Viktor Goldstein

Andrew Nagorski, author of the 2012 book Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses To The Nazi Rise To Power, who was Berlin bureau chief for Newsweek from 1996-1999 and Bonn bureau chief from 1985-88, addressed what he sees as a troubling "double shift of responsibility" in Generation War. Oliver Mahrdt, representative for the German Film Industry in the United States and Canada, talked about the reception of the film in Germany and the US. Ingrid Scheib-Rothbart, Board Member of the New York Film/Video Council, saw the film in the context of her long career as German Film Coordinator at the Goethe Institute.

As the moderator, I started out with brief statements from the filmmakers from March 2013, as no one involved with the making of Generation War was present for the discussion.

Writer Stefan Kolditz was approached by producer Nico Hofmann in 2005 to make a film about the generation of their parents. Both men were born in the late 1950s. Kolditz's father, movie director Gottfried Kolditz, who worked for the East German DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft), was born in 1922 and died in1982. "You have to tell it from the inside out," the son said about his father's generation, a generation that defied "categories of good and evil." "I wanted to write individuals, not types." He wanted his characters to be understood without offering them redemption. He wanted them to seem young, that is why he did not use the language of the Forties.

Miriam Stein as Charly
Miriam Stein as Charly

Producer Nico Hofmann in an interview for German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explained the title as personal and about his mother and his father as starting point. "This break in generations was interesting for me… The moment when they play their own grandfathers, it becomes completely unimportant that Tom Schilling [Friedhelm] grew up in the GDR, and Volker Bruch [Wilhelm] in the West. It is common history. It is a German film… The film, of course, is a fictional construct, especially the constellation of the five main characters. Generally, I'd rather discuss to which extent the film is truthful [wahrhaftig] and not how much it is documentary [dokumentarisch].

Director Philipp Kadelbach was questioning his right to proximity: "I thought: these are Nazis, Wehrmacht soldiers, people who are damaging themselves morally, and who do terrible things. Can I allow to build a closeness to these figures?… To understand the time through the introspection of the characters was interesting to me. From this perspective, the history of WWII, I believe, hasn't been told, yet. It isn't a film about resistance. It isn't from the perspective of other nations. We don't make it harmless. Civilians, women, children are being murdered, the good Wehrmacht soldier doesn't exist."

The event at NYU took place with a packed house. In the audience were historian Atina Grossmann, an expert in Modern European and German history, two concentration camp survivors, one of them famed photographer Ryszard Horowitz, who was one of the youngest liberated from Auschwitz, the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in New York and the Consul General of Poland in New York.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I'd like to start with Oliver who will talk a bit about the reception of Generation War in Germany when it was shown last March.

Tom Schilling and Volker Bruch as Friedhelm and Wilhelm Winter
Tom Schilling and Volker Bruch as Friedhelm and Wilhelm Winter

Oliver Mahrdt: I was surprised. It was really a cultural phenomenon. We always hear the Germans had it with World War Two stories, and here is for the first time something that had TV ratings that obviously even took the ZDF by surprise… The reception of the film in Germany was very controversial… If you look at what was written about it, you wonder, have they all seen the same film? … You see that they really tried to give it justice but World War Two in its magnitude, is even in a miniseries very hard to cover every aspect and get every aspect right. In Germany there was not one voice about it. The same as you have here.

AKT: On the topic of getting everything right, I think Andrew has something to say about that.

Andrew Nagorski: Well, I'm not going to nitpick the film. Two things that struck me about the film really troubled me. It's the double shift of responsibility, of moral responsibility… Both Wehrmacht soldiers in the end, the two brothers each kills their own superior officer. How likely is that? He kills the bad guy. They [the supporting characters] were the really bad Germans. Ultimately, whatever else they did - they may have killed children, they may have killed Jews, they may have killed innocent people but they ultimately got rid of the bad guys. In that case it's sort of a Hollywood script. The other shift of responsibility is the one which I think is also insidious… While there is plenty of anti-Semitism in the film, it's sort of mechanical anti-Semitism and again our main German characters don't really believe in it…

In Generation War, the Polish Home Army, with Viktor now a member, is seen ambushing a train and killing the German soldiers escorting it. When they approach the stopped train and find that it is a concentration camp transport, the Polish partisans are shown to be only interested in the munitions they can confiscate. It is Viktor who immediately returns to unlock the doors to allow their escape.

Katharina Schüttler as Greta
Katharina Schüttler as Greta

AN:The only visceral anti-Semites, aside from the minor German characters on the edges are the Polish Home Army, the Polish resistance. Of course there were plenty of ugly incidents, including the resistance. But it also included efforts to get the word out to the outside world about the Holocaust. Are there Poles who betrayed Jews? There's no question about that. There were Poles who killed Jews, but this was not SS mass killings. This was not the concentration camps. The one scene which is totally unbelievable is where the partisan unit attacks a German train. They are doing it to get guns and it turns out to be full of concentration camp inmates. Then they say they smell, close them up and leave them in the cars even when the train is disabled. There is no historical record of anything like that. It's unimaginable.

A woman from the audience raised a troubling point of accuracy for her: One of the characters, the female member of the Underground Partisan Army is supposed to speak Polish. But her Polish is not Polish… Polish native speakers have to read the subtitles to understand what is said.

AKT: Ingrid, would you like to take it from here and talk about your experiences with the film?

Ingrid Scheib-Rothbart: This film, especially seen from the experience of being a film program coordinator in Goethe House for way over 25 years, is different from all the ones I've shown from the mid-Sixties up to 1995. The films we tried to bring over here by young filmmakers was to show that the young generation in Germany was not trying to shove the Holocaust under the rug…It would not have been possible to make a film where you have two members of the army as the main protagonists, where you would see this kind of warfare, the cruelness of it. I do agree with Mr. Nagorski that these people are not really taken to task.

AKT: Historian Atina Grossmann is in the audience tonight and will join the discussion.

Photo carried by the five friends
Photo carried by the five friends

Atina Grossmann: On some level, perhaps the most powerful film about that position of complicity and ambivalence is the first one, namely Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns, The Murderers Are Among Us, which I thought about a lot when I was watching the first installment… We moved so far away from the efforts of the Nineties to really look in a very sharp way at questions of complicity and responsibility of the Wehrmacht in a way that the Wehrmacht exhibit did. … The ways in which the Jewish character is sort of put on an equal level with the non-Jewish characters in the sense that, well, we are all morally compromised in one form or another, I think is very problematic…

At the start of Generation War in the Berlin of June1941, we see Viktor, Greta, Charly, Wilhelm and Friedhelm as great friends.

AG: I felt like, this is the film that the second generation really wants to make. It's the film that tells the story that they need to tell themselves in order to deal with their own lives as they themselves become older and reflect back on what it meant to grow up in post-war Germany and that allows them to think about their own parents who are no longer there. It is a very interesting Lebenslüge, that may in fact become a dominant story because it makes it possible to live in what is after all now a very, very different Germany… I think it is exactly where the second generation wants to be and ironically that Lebenslüge that they are now taking on about "it was all hell" is the story that their parents wanted to tell them in the Fifties and the Sixties. In the Fifties, they couldn't and in the Sixties there was the war of generations and they couldn't. So now, ironically, the second generation is recuperating for the parents the story that the fathers - the mothers, the whole gender question is another one - couldn't tell at the time but perhaps wanted to and that now in a kind of tribute to the parents… the second and a half generation is producing.

I asked Oliver if The Last Of The Unjust (Le Dernier Des Injustes), the new Claude Lanzmann film which screened at the 51st New York Film Festival, had been shown in Germany. An audience member said it was once shown in Berlin. Lanzmann presented the screening in November 2013. In February, the Berlinale had honored Claude Lanzmann with the Honorary Golden Bear for his lifetime achievement.

Katharina Schüttler, Volker Bruch, Miriam Stein, Tom Schilling and Ludwig Trepte - Berlin 1941
Katharina Schüttler, Volker Bruch, Miriam Stein, Tom Schilling and Ludwig Trepte - Berlin 1941

Oliver Mahrdt: When you see for example a film like Hannah Arendt that did not do too well in Germany and then everyone in Germany is surprised by how well it does in the US. And then you see a film [Generation War] with that many historical inaccuracies getting that thunderstorm of PR…

A woman in the audience: I'm a survivor of a concentration camp after the uprising in Warsaw. I was 16 years old. I would like to know how many people here were in a concentration camp, because I was for nine months as a young girl.

Andrew Nagorski points to his friend Ryszard Horowitz, one of the children depicted in Steven Spielberg's Schindler’s List (and who appears in the last scene of the film when the survivors are shown): Right behind you!

The woman continues: For me talking about this time of the Second World War is very painful. You can't imagine how I feel. My heart is pounding terribly. But I can't understand how people can make films that are lies, because this is not true.

Andrew Nagorski: I think we do have to give the voice to Ryszard Horowitz here. When you asked who else was a survivor here from a concentration camp, I think Ryszard has something to say.

Ryszard Horowitz: What really struck me was that there was not a single mass execution shown. There was not a single camp situation shown. It was always in the background. You knew what was going to happen or had happened but you never saw it. There was not a single sound, there was nothing that would connect the viewer. I am not talking about the historical inaccuracies.

AKT: You are talking about the omission.

Ryszard Horowitz: Such a grand omission.

Generation War opened at Film Forum in New York on January 15 for a two week limited engagement and has been held over for another week through February 4.

Claude Lanzmann's The Last Of The Unjust opens in New York and LA on February 7 and is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival.

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