Jewish experience is integral to German WWII miniseries

Katharina Schuttler is Greta in 'Generation War,' directed by Phillip Kadelbach. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films
Katharina Schuttler is Greta in ‘Generation War,’ directed by Phillip Kadelbach. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films

When writer Stefan Kolditz conceived Our Mothers, Our Fathers, a miniseries about five German friends in their 20s during World War II, he knew one of the characters had to be Jewish.

“The center of this war, this German war, had a lot to do with erasing the Jewish race, not only in Germany but in all of Europe,” Kolditz says. “You can’t talk about this war or German society in the ‘40s without talking about the Jewish question in Germany. It’s impossible.”

The compelling and controversial three-part miniseries, which is receiving a theatrical release in the U.S. under the title Generation War, follows the characters on their separate and occasionally overlapping journeys. Kolditz designed the five to represent the generation that, in his view, was physically and psychologically trained for Hitler’s war of annihilation and ambition.

It is inevitable, therefore, that Generation War, which opens tomorrow, is a multi-layered portrait of youthful idealism betrayed and destroyed by their beloved Fuhrer’s maniacal hatred of Jews and pointless sacrifice of his own soldiers on the Eastern front.

Generation War opens with an ad hoc farewell party with “decadent,” forbidden swing music. The war has started, and great changes lie ahead that the five friends imagine will only be positive.

Wilhelm, the oldest of the group and a serious-minded army officer, will lead a regiment that includes his poetic younger brother Friedhelm. True believer and devout anti-Semite Charlotte (who carries a torch for Wilhelm) becomes a nurse in the east, while glamour-puss Greta remains in Berlin to pursue her ambitions as a singer.

Through an SS officer she “befriends,” Greta obtains a passport for her Jewish boyfriend, Viktor. Instead of a train to France, however, Viktor finds himself on a transport to the camps. He will escape that fate and join a handful of Polish partisans fighting the Nazis in the forest — keeping his identity a secret from the anti-Semites in the group.

Six months before filming began, Kolditz was told that the production was having trouble raising the entire budget and he needed to cut a character. Viktor was the one who had to go, he was informed, because his original path — through France to the U.S. and back to Europe on D-Day as one of the Ritchie Boys assigned to interrogate captured Germans and write propaganda — was geographically complicated and expensive.

“If that happens, this thing is over,” announced Kolditz. “I’m out.”

Television is a writer’s medium, so his threat carried weight. His solution was to rewrite Viktor’s story and keep him in the East, with the rest of the production.

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based reviewer.

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