There are a lot of war films, aren’t there?
We’ve seen Sean Connery fighting on the streets of Arnhem, Steve McQueen leaping over barbed wire with a motorbike, even One Direction’s Harry Styles try and escape the beaches of Dunkirk.
Hollywood has made an absolutely huge number of of war films since the end of the Second World War, enough that if I was to pair famous actors with war films they’ve starred in I’d likely be here a while.
But even with the huge variety of war films available, there has always been one key factor that has distinguished some of them to heights that others simply cannot reach.
The ‘message’ the film carries.
For example, ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a war film that is psychologically very dark, dealing with themes such as the hypocrisy of war and morality – and as such it is lauded as one of Francis Ford Coppola’s finest works, and a frequent choice in lists of ‘greatest war films’.
In contrast, ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ is a relatively light-hearted film, where a group of American GIs led by Clint Eastwood plan to rob some Gold from the Germans during the battle for France in 1944.
One is a dark, atmospheric tale, while the other is best described as a fun romp watching Clint Eastwood and some hipster tank crews stage a heist against some stereotypically bad Nazis. While neither is a bad film, both being favourites of mine, you can see why I view Apocalypse Now as a different kind of film to Kelly’s Heroes.
But what is the point of me discussing this? Isn’t it obvious that there will be different kind of war films available?
Sure it is, but I think it’s through this filter that the brilliance of ‘Generation War’ truly stands out. A German tale about five friends and their experiences in the Second World War, it creates an evocative image of how war corrupts, and the dangers of naivety that most of Hollywood could only dream of.
The catch? It’s not even a film, its a TV series.
A three part miniseries, Generation War follows five different people, all of whom become active in the war in some way; Wilhelm and Friedhelm are brothers bound for the Eastern Front, Viktor is a Jew growing increasingly frustrated at the Nazi anti-Semitism, Greta dreams of becoming a singer and Charlotte has signed up to be an army nurse.
All of them, however, start the series as naive, proclaiming that the war will be over by Christmas, believing that Germany’s victory is not only inevitable, but that many of their hopes are well on their way to being fulfilled.
They are, however, instead plunged into their own personal hells, and by the end of the series – which ends in the same bar where they celebrate their last night together before separating for the war – it is very different people that walk in.
When it was broadcast, The Economist commented that hardly any other German TV dramas had ever caused so much debate, and watching it it isn’t hard to see why. Not only is the perspective from the German side, and therefore the characters are fighting to uphold a Fascist regime, but the war itself is portrayed as an extremely murky affair. For example, Polish resistance fighting against the Germans are shown to be as anti-Semitic as the Germans are. Characters commit war crimes despite the audience, and themselves, knowing better.
The most pertinent message, however, is one of the best displayed of its kind that I’ve seen in recent times; and that is the danger of Fascism. In the last 70 or so years since the end of the Second World War there have been loads of such messages in just about every media possible. What sets this apart from many others is how it isn’t displayed obviously.
The show tries to present the characters as similar to how many Germans were during the 1930s and 40s; that is not Nazi zealots, but implicitly falling for the Nazi line. They believe the propaganda of Goebbels, and in Hitler’s ability to restore Germany. On the personal level they do not believe the extreme elements of National Socialism, having Viktor included in their friendship group for example, but they do not speak against it. Only Viktor is wary of the Government, due to his identity.
Put simply, the show presents the human face of Nazism in Germany, the day to day Germans, and how the beliefs they accepted led them to war, and led many of them to commit acts they deeply regret.
At the end of the show, none of them are Fascists, and all of them have suffered, and I will put a spoiler warning here if you’ve got this far and haven’t watched the show yet, two of them die defying the Nazi’s in some way. To some extent, those in the bar are broken people, whose hopes and beliefs earlier are far from been fulfilled; they have been utterly crushed as their true nature has been forced out by war.
Perhaps it is able to display that message so well because it is a TV show? After all, the message is carried by hours of character development, rather than an allegory fitted into an hour and a half long film.
Either way, Generation War stands as an absolutely fantastic portrayal of the war from the German side, and as a great portrayal of normal people driven to extreme lengths, and even extreme lengths, due to their situation or beliefs.
There is a surprising amount of brilliant German media about world events in the 20th century, ‘Downfall’ and ‘Deutschland 83’ being two off the top of my head, dealing with Hitler in the Fuhrer bunker and a Communist East German spy in the early 1980s respectively, and they are well worth your time if you want to take a look, I would highly recommend them.
So, if you are looking for a war story with meaning behind it, then all I can say is go and take a look at Generation War. It’s available on Netflix, at least in the UK, and easily one of the best shows I’ve watched this year.