Friday, April 24, 2015

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter - a review

clockwise from far left: Viktor, Wilhelm, Charly
Friedhelm, Greta
A friend called to my attention the other day the German three-part television miniseries called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) from two years ago.  It’s now out as a two-part film, available with English subtitles, under the clumsy English title, Generation War.   I saw it the other night on Netflix streaming.

I see no way to write a review of the film without taking into account the critical reviews I have read on Rotten Tomatoes and in Netflix commentaries and wondering how broadly their views are shared by the general American moviegoer.  So let me start with that.

It’s not surprising that when Germans make a movie about the Second World War a lot of people are going to sit up and take notice.  But what is surprising is how many people seem to question their right to do so at all, or at least to do so without starting and ending with shame and contrition. Despite the fact that most Germans living today were born after war’s end and have no personal responsibility for the direction it took, much of the negative criticism of the film centers around the decision to make it about German victims of the war instead of making it about the Holocaust. 

The warning is clear.  If you’re going to do history, you’d better do it from the victor’s perspective.  Otherwise you are bound to raise some shackles.  In a black-and-white world of good guys and bad guys, some folks appear to find it insulting to be presented with a nuanced view of Germans as something other than one giant collective of bad guys.  The least they could do, apparently, is to show them as good guys who enabled very bad things to happen.

The movie is about the kind of college-age students who get into trouble because they listen to swing, knowing full well the Nazi state has declared the music decadent.  They are not Nazi thugs, in other words, but people you imagine your mothers and fathers might well have been.

At the center of this group of five close friends who have grown up together are two brothers.  One of them, Friedhelm, is mistreated by his father because he is a “soft” mother’s boy.  Wilhelm, Friedhelm’s older brother and the narrator of the tale, is made to promise by his mother that he will bring his little brother home alive and by his father that he will bring honor to the family. Wilhelm is a dutiful son and takes his responsibilities to the Fatherland seriously at first.  Then there is Charlotte, who is in love with Wilhelm but afraid to let him know it.  “Charly” as she is called, volunteers enthusiastically “to represent the German woman” as a nurse at the front.  At one point, she learns a Ukrainian nurse she has hired is a Jew and turns her in.  The last two of the fivesome are a couple in love with each other, Greta and Victor.  Victor is a Jew, and Greta ends up is sleeping with a Gestapo officer to get papers to get Victor out of Germany.  These are people who buy into the cause at the start of the war.  The one pacifist in the bunch becomes a hardened killer, even of innocent civilians.  These are not pawns, as critics suggest, and this is most assuredly not a whitewash.  In fact, Generation War goes further than many treatments of the war have gone in portraying the extent to which the Wehrmacht, the regular German army (and not just the SS or the Gestapo), committed acts in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.

Critics who suggest the movie should have centered on the holocaust might consider what Alice Walker said when criticized for her negative portrayal of black men in The Color Purple at a time when many in the struggle for black liberation thought she should have presented a common front against white racism.  “You tell your story,” she said, “and I’ll tell mine.” 

Here’s a sample of the kind of criticism I’m taking issue with:

Peter Keough of the Boston Globe sneers, “All sides of the German side in ‘Generation War…’”
as if the film fails because it is not an objective textbook analysis of the war.  It’s a fictionalized imagining of what some people’s mothers and fathers went through.  A tale told in a German cultural space, not a litany of German transgressions. 

Robert Denerstein puts into words what I think is on the minds of many.  “There are those,” he says, “who have insisted that the movie’s separation of characters into good and bad Germans tends to encourage a form of national absolution. Those voices shouldn’t be ignored.”  Maybe so.  But does this mean Denerstein thinks there were no “good Germans?”  And did he miss the fact that the characters we come to feel some sympathy for (i.e., the good Germans) include Charly, who betrays a Jewish colleague?  And Friedhelm, who shoots innocents when commanded to do so?  Their crimes don't make them Gestapo agents, but no one can dismiss them as "good Germans" tout court, either. They are complex human beings caught up in morally challenging times, and and they don't come off completely clean.

The notion that if you’re German you have one task: to take on full collective responsibility for the war, or keep your mouth shut, is sophomoric and unworthy.   While evading responsibility by blaming the war on circumstance and the bad guys is also unworthy, there is no legitimate reason to deny the right of people swept up in Führer mania and war frenzy to cry out in pain when it becomes clear what price they are going to have to pay for their naïveté and for their inability to go against the tide.  

Michael Philips acknowledges there is “occasional nuance” and some good acting, but he sees those merits lost in an “overall sea of whitewash.” 

Not all critics take this stance, of course.  Ken Hanke, for example, disagrees with the notion the film is a whitewash.  “To me,” he says, “it has less to do with making the Germans look good than it’s about the perils of nationalism for its own sake, self-delusion, disillusionment and just plain getting sucked into something over which you have no control.”

But then there's Marc Mohan, writing in The Oregonian, back on the same critical theme.  “While it's an effective memoriam for the well-meaning Germans whose lives were ruined by Hitler's mad dream,” he claims,  “the refusal of "Generation War" to focus on any other sort of German makes it both dramatically and historically suspect.”  There it is.  You don’t get to tell your story unless it’s my story.  

Farran Smith Nehme,  freelance movie reviewer for the New York Post and blogger, characterizes the film as “Nazi Germany lite,” and suggests that the idea that a group of five friends might include a Jew, not one of whose pals was a true Hitler worshipper was “statistically unlikely,” leaving one to wonder if she actually thinks there were no well-integrated Jews living in Germany before Hitler, or if only majorities have the right to have their stories told. 

Matt Prigge, of Metro, calls Generation War a “useless epic” about Nazi Germany which “spends four-and-a-half hours excusing the German populace for falling to Nazi rule.”  He, like other critics, objects to what he sees as a good German/bad German dichotomy:

One commandant is introduced calmly shooting a Jewish girl in the back of the head. We know he’ll get his, and we will cheer when he does. But it’s a reassuring falsehood: We are trained as viewers to focus all our hatred on him while forgiving our lead characters, who are portrayed as mere pawns.

Pawns.  Whitewash.  Did none of these guys actually sit and watch the film?

Granted, virtually everyone who grew up with the Second World War and the Holocaust has struggled with the question of how civilized people could have sunk into the barbarity that Germany inflicted on the world under the Third Reich.  The question will never go away.  There will always be (at least I hope there will always be) someone demanding a critical new look at American slavery and the genocidal killing of the North American Indian, or of Pol Pot, or the war in Kosovo, or the slaughter in Rwanda.  Each time a new generation faces the fact that there is an ugly side to humanity that may stay buried for long periods of time but which can reveal itself anew, given the right kind of external pressures.  To this day, the Turks refuse to recognize the part they played in the wholesale slaughter of Armenians a hundred years ago, and the world’s apathy toward that even gave Hitler courage.  “Who remembers Armenia,” he famously asked, when starting out on his killing spree.

I do not mean to suggest that the only culprit is war itself, or the human lust for war.  I still believe with the Simon Wiesenthals of the world that one should seek out and punish individual perpetrators of crimes against humanity.  Germans, Turks, Americans, Serbians – any individuals who have engaged in aggressive war – should be held responsible for their deeds.  But I also believe Germans, even those whose parents (or, more accurately, grandparents) were not totally innocent of complicity for the evils done in their name, get to imagine how these parents may have suffered as the war and the evil that goes with war eventually swept over them.  And imagine them not as monsters, but as people living at a terrible time.

Which brings us, finally, to the standard film review question, “How well was the story told?”

I, for one, found the tales of the paths traveled by these five young people to be totally engrossing.  I thought the acting was superb, the settings and the costumes first rate, the war scenes credible, the pacing just right, considering its length, and the tension at a high pitch.  Some have argued that since you know how the war is going to end, this makes the film predictable, but in fact, there are five separate narratives on display and you don't know how they will each turn out.  

The only serious weakness I found was the sheer number of coincidences that had to be contrived to keep the five friends in touch with one another.  That pushed the story in the direction of soap opera and stretched credibility, although it also enabled a memorable final scene.

Another possible weakness was the portrayal of Polish partisans as ardent anti-Semites.  I can’t be sure they weren’t, and in fact, there seems to be considerable evidence that Jews actually had as much or more to fear from the Polish Home Army (the Armia Krajowa) than they did from the Nazis. The problem, of course, is it does raise the question of whether this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black.

There were a few minor flaws – a soldier given up for dead gets saved because a nurse gets a doctor to operate, and he’s up and about in no time; the Jewish Ukrainian nurse who is betrayed comes back as a deus ex machina.  All a bit too pat.

Because I don’t like war movies, don’t like the violence and the focus on blood and guts, I’m not likely to want to see it again too soon.  But there is enough substance to the twists and turns of lost innocence that I expect I will come back for another viewing one day.


William D. Lindsey said...

Alan, thank you for this great review. You make me ager to watch the series.

A parallel case: the cartoonish way in which we're supposed to think about the history of slavery, when we're even willing to engage it at all. The cartoonish approach elides the human stories that are more complex than stick-figure stories, in the midst of historical situations that did not appear to those living through them as black and white, as simple, as they do in retrospect.

I like what Deborah Orr has to say today in "The Guardian" about Ben Affleck's attempt to shrug off his own family involvement in slavery. As she says,

"So much of politics in this country today can seem to be about saying the right words instead of doing the right thing. Words advertising personal rectitude become all-important, largely because they confer the ability to call out lack of personal rectitude in others. No human has the right to feel perfect detachment from human evil, past or present. It’s natural to want to. But it doesn’t do much good, and sometimes it does harm. Human history is littered with cruelty. Only hypocrites believe that it’s nothing to do with them, and that they and their kin have only ever done good."

Alan McCornick said...

Thanks, Bill, for that comment in the Guardian about how ready we are to point out the moral failings in others and much we want to be seen to be on the right side of history. I was pretty harsh on those critics who seemed to be suggesting the evil of the Third Reich should cancel any German's right to see humanity in the midst of evil. Their heart is in the right place when they want that evil not to be overlooked. Wikipedia, incidentally, brings out this side of the argument quite effectively:

But nothing, I think, is gained by telling people they cannot tell their stories.

Unknown said...

Hi Alan,
Actually it wasn't I that sneered that quote, but the editor who writes the headlines. But I did write:
"These are regular people, forced by circumstances to such unfortunate acts as shooting civilians and betraying friends. Who among us could say with confidence that they would behave any differently? And don’t forget that they are also capable of small acts of decency that may not add up to much, but still must count for something. Should they be condemned for being in the wrong war at the wrong time?"
I find it ironic that you accuse those of not agreeing with you of not having watched the movie when it seems in this case you had not read my review beyond the headline.
All the best,
Peter Keough

Alan McCornick said...


Thank you for your comment. You are right. I did not read your article, and I owe you an apology. I was so put off by the sneer that I assumed your article was not worth reading. I suggest you get a new editor. And forgive me for not remembering that editors can really mess up a writer's work.

Unknown said...

Not to worry. I essentially agree with your point and would have welcomed a movie on the subject without the flaws of this one.

Bill Sweigart said...

I admire your struggle to characterize this project for what it actually is. And you succeed. I really want to watch this piece even though it is something that normally I would avoid forever.

Also, in that vein, I finally watched "12 Years a Slave." I think that film fulfills your sense of a project that deals much more realistically with slavery in America than anything that's come before. It's a topic we Americas are loathe to examine, and we see the results of that failure on the daily newscasts in 2015.