A wild success in Europe that's been inevitably billed as a German Band of Brothers, Philipp Kadelbach's miniseries Generation War suffers from some nasty ethical constipation. It's tempting to give the producers the benefit of the doubt, as this is a sweeping, meticulously recreated, and occasionally majestic historico-cultural survey of five naïve teens who enter Hitler's war as best friends forever, and leave as…something entirely otherwise. But Stefan Kolditz's teleplay is resigned to swing between two consistent, dominant modes: simplistic and Manichean on one hand, but making a sharp-elbowed inquiry into everyday Holocaust complicity on the other. In the opening minutes of Generation War's nearly five-hour runtime, the perverse thrill of seeing less-than-popular considerations of Nazism on screen fades hurriedly to the old ache of seeing any kind of questions about Nazism answered noxiously.
The filmmakers are hell-bent on leavening their young leads with national philosophical fault lines, giving Generation War an uncanny, almost cartoonish sense of self-purpose. This means we get Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a quintessentially Teutonic nurse who catches herself off guard when she realizes Jews are people too; her best friend, Greta (Katharina Schüttler), is a chanteuse whose lurid affair with an SS officer morphs handily from an alibi to protect her Jewish boyfriend to the real thing—and, ultimately, a pretty cruel rung on the ladder to success. We get Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), two strapping wehrmacht brothers from a well-to-do family: One is more or less marked for life as an poetic wimp (every single soldier he meets seems to notice this about him), while the other becomes a hard-line Nazi war hero. And Viktor, Greta's aforementioned boyfriend, guides the audience through the film's recreations of prewar xenophobia, ghettoization. and, eventually, the ragtag Polish resistance—all with a dubiously inexhaustible optimism about his fellow man.
But to castigate the ensemble as nothing more than reshufflable tiles in Kadelbach's show-and-tell mosaic of German war guilt isn't quite right. The show revels in small details and historical precision, playing its endlessly expanding 1940s cityscapes and battlefields in a low key reminiscent of Che or Carlos. The crux of the brothers' arcs—in effect, a study in the idea that “winning” a war can be just as dehumanizing as being persecuted, albeit in totally different ways—deserves its own, reduced-epic screenplay. Kadelbach's initiative to capture a warts-and-all Nazi invasion of Russia—sometimes fun, sometimes dull, oftentimes horrific—undercuts itself, because this is also an Eastern Front where the four non-Jewish friends from the original gang can miraculously run into each other at Christmastime. If fate were half as pat and pliable as it looks in this miniseries, the Holocaust would've just been called off.