Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter

OK, this is not technically a trip report, but more of a recommendation. A few months ago, this excellent WWII miniseries was shown on the German TV network ZDF. This was one of the most powerful, thought-provoking, heart-breaking and ultimately tragic 4.5 hours of TV I've ever seen. I remember thinking at the time "If it didn't need subtitles, this would be a blockbuster in the US." Now apparently, you guys on the other side of the Atlantic will get a chance to watch it in the near future (although I think the description "a German equivalent to HBO's Band of Brothers" is WAY off, other than a similar style of cinematography). If you have even a slight interest in the second world war and modern European history, watch it. I always hated the term "Must See TV"... but his really is Must See TV. Now, if only someone would import the original Danish version of "The Killing", so the Western hemisphere wouldn't be stuck with only that crappy English-language facsimile...

Posted by Richard
Lafayette, LA, USA
147 posts

Tom, thank you for the heads-up. I have seen segments of the mini-series on the Internet and was wondering whether it would become avaliable to those in the US, especially on DVD. As an aside, if you get more information on its distribution in the US, please let us know. I know that the ratings for the mini-series were good. What have been the comments of your neighbors and friends in Germany over the mini-series? And in particular, the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht, the last episode with the Soviets entering Germany, the arrest and execution of the actress character? I understand that there was a strong and negative reaction in Russia and Poland. If need be, please feel free to shoot me a PM. With the success of Downton Abbey spanning years, I have often wondered why someone has not made a series of the German experience from, say, 1929 through 1945.

Posted by Eileen
Texan in CA
3582 posts

The plan is to first release it in theaters in 2-hour blocks - maybe - then maybe Netflix, DVD, whatever. As long as it isn't dragged out for 3 years like the LOTR or The Matrix franchises. Wherever the money is...

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

I wouldn't know anything further about the North American release plans. You would be in a better position than me to learn information as it becomes available. I only talked about the program with one of my neighbors, who I knew was interested in military history. Conversation didn't go into a great depth, other than to note that we both enjoyed it. I can venture an assumption on why the program provoked such a remarkable national conversation. It was far from the first German-produced WWII drama to deal with some of the issues of German war guilt- most do quite openly. However, usually the movie or TV depicts the events from the point of view of a somewhat morally innocent (or at least less morally guilty) protagonist. Think Sophie Scholl, the U-boat commander in "Das Boot", or Hitler's secretary in "Downfall". There's somewhat of a dichotomy between irredeemable villains, like the hard core Nazis and SS, and the "normal Germans" caught up in the events. "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" went one step further. Presented with morally difficult dilemmas, the otherwise sympathetic protagonists of the film do some awful things. Only the Jewish character bravely rises above the occassion. I think the producers' aim was to eliminate the "bad Nazi"/"normal German" dichotomy. Meaning, "It wasn't some demons from hell that drove us over the edge. Not only did we allow it, we actively participated." Or at least, that's my interpretation...

Posted by Michael Schneider
New Paltz, NY
6838 posts

Now, if only someone would import the original Danish version of "The Killing", so the Western hemisphere wouldn't be stuck with only that crappy English-language facsimile... A box set of the Danish series with english subtitles is for sale at Amazon US & UK. It's region 2/PAL but will play on any computer with a DVD drive.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

@ Richard...Your points are well taken. In the summer of 1989 there was a provocative, controversial exhibit going around West Germany...I missed it...showing just that: the complicity of the Army in the East in committing atrocites, not just excesses, particularily in Serbia, Greece, etc. This exhibit was called Die Wehrmacht Ausstellung. The tid bit I saw in Unsere Väter, Unsere Mütter also on the Internet shows that complicity of the Wehrmacht, as portrayed by the main character officer, decribed as "nur Vorzeigesoldat." He protests (what I saw) to his interlocuter, a pro-Nazi officer that this isn't war (Das ist doch kein Krieg!), ie., what we're doing is committing murder. He is put in a moral quandry when he decides after hesitation to shoot the partisan. That scene reminds me of the excellent Austrailian movie, Breaker Morant. and the concepts conveyed in that film. In Das Boot what I found sympathetic and humane in the U-Boat commander was that he spares the crew member who momentarily cracked from a court martial (Kriegsgericht).

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

"He protests (what I saw) to his interlocuter, a pro-Nazi officer that this isn't war (Das ist doch kein Krieg!), ie., what we're doing is committing murder. He is put in a moral quandry when he decides after hesitation to shoot the partisan." Each of the main characters, both the soldiers and civilians, has at least one of those difficult "What should I do?" moments. That particular scene was powerful because the order didn't come from some raging Nazi hell-beast, but from his commanding officer, an otherwise decent man that he respects. So when he pulls the trigger, he's only partially motivated by the fear of punishment if he disobeys.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

His commanding officer, whom the Lt. respects, has bought Hitler's concept of a war of extermination lock, stock and barrel, because the former says it's justified, ie, legal ("Ein neuerer...a new war, im Namen des Führers"). If the Lt is fully convinced that the partisan has to be shot, there would have been no hesitation before pulling the trigger. That fact that he protests in the first place shows his moral quandry. Maybe after watching the series from the start will give me a better view of the Lt's political convictions, whether he views his orders as morally repugnant, whether he was an anti-Nazi, a Nazi, or a non-Nazi officer, and if he underwent any transformation.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

Lt. Winter (how's that for an eerie Band of Brothers parallel?) is more or less apolitical at the beginning of the series. He's already a combat veteran, so he's not completely naive, but not yet disillusioned. Watching the series, it was obvious to me that the order to the commisar came from higher above the commander. The difference between the lieutenant and the captain seems to be that the captain had already surpassed the moral "no turning back point". But the look on his face and the fact that he dismisses everyone else from the room before issuing the order tells me that he knows what he's doing is wrong. Again, one of the things that really hit me was that there were really only two characters who you could describe as downright villains. Every one else was just a normal person who, put in difficult circumstances, failed to do the right thing. No Oscar Schindler or Sofie Scholl (well, except Victor, the main Jewish protagonist...)

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

Bump with an u-p-d-a-te (another word that for some reason this website doesn't like) ...I read somewhere that this series is now circulating through various minor North American film festivals, in anticipation of an eventual wider, albeit limited release. The English title is Generation War. I know the BBC also purchased the rights to broadcast it in the UK, but I couldn't say if they've shown it yet. So, if you're lucky enough to live near one of the these film festivals and you have almost 5 hours of time to kill... don't miss it!

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Tom, Thanks for posting information on this mini-series. I've never heard of it but it sounds like it's well done, albeit controversial. It seems similar to Cross of Iron, which also kind of portrayed the German perspective. Generation War appears to have picked up for North American distribution, but I haven't seen anything on the networks so not sure when it might be aired. If it's considerably more brutal and graphic compared to Band of Brothers, it may be hard to watch. I'm familiar with dealing with trauma, but I found it difficult to get through some parts of The Pacific, which was produced by the same group that did B of B. (*Note: the website seems to be able to accept "update" now, however if you have trouble with it in future, just make the first letter ü or û as that will produce a different ASCII link).

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

Ken, I don't recall the images in the series being any more graphic than your average war film nowadays. But the brutality lies in the context of the violence, ie, it's not just opposing uniformed soldiers shooting at each other.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Tom, Thanks for the clarification on that. The context will also be disturbing, but I'm sure I can handle that. Now the only question is where and when it will ever be shown over here. Hopefully it doesn't end up on HBO, as I don't subscribe to that.

Posted by Jeff
Taunusstein, Germany
234 posts

I watched some of it when it came out....a very engaging series with excellent production values. I agree that this is not a German "Band of Brothers" by any stretch of the imagination but it did generate some retrospection in Germany from the remnants of the German war time generation. Looking forward to seeing it either dubbed or with subtitles. As to the violence level its ok but then war is violence of the worst kind no matter how you color it.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

UPDATE:

Looks like it's hit theaters in the US, but reading a few English-language reviews, I'm wondering if the edited cut available there has undermined the overall theme. Most of the reviews seem to write this off as a German attempt to white-wash the average German's role in the horrors of WWII. I saw it as nothing more than the exact opposite- an attempt to explain WHY average Germans were willing participants in the horror, and by extension, to serve as a warning to today's youth.

From another review: "the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film's disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did ... Generation War, for all its geographic range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps. This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes." Scott concluded: "The chaste, self-sacrificing Aryans, the lieutenant and the nurse, are the heroes of the story, just as they would have been in a German film made in 1943." This sounds almost like a completely different movie from the series I saw. No, you don't actually see death camps in the series, but their existence underscore most of the subplot involving the Jewish character. And most of the main characters are hardly "chaste", and no more self-sacrificing than the average soldier in war.

So, if you see this in the US, let me know what you think. A moral air-brushing, or an empathetic (but not sympathetic) attempt to partially explain one of the darkest periods of the 20th century? I'm really interested if the overall message has been lost in translation.

Posted by Richard
Lafayette, LA, USA
147 posts

My guess is that the movie is or will be playing only in very large cities. However, a pet peeve of mine is the willingness of movie reviewers to judge a movie on their perception of whether the movie is making a political statement and what the political statement is.

An example is the The Book Thief. Viewers and critics can debate whether the movie was well done and entertaining because that is what we do. But I was struck by the criticism of the movie in some reviews, notably the review in the New York Times, that the film was whitewashing the crimes of Nazi Germany because it did not emphasize enough anti-Semitic views and the regime's violence towards the Jews. Given the focus of the movie, its setting in a small Bavarian town and my knowledge of the period, I wondered what movie the critic saw because I thought the movie did depict with at least some accuracy life at that time in that setting and was hardly an attempt in whitewashing.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

The series definately has a political message, but most of the US reviews seemed to have misinterrpreted it.

Posted by Kathleen
Bolton
88 posts

Tom, maybe the US reviews see the "political message" in a different way from you? That doesn't mean they misinterpreted it.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

No, I'm pretty certain they misinterpretted it as an attempt to excuse away German crimes during WWII, or as request for forgiveness on behalf the German war generation (see the New York Times review). This is expressly NOT the intent. Like most German films that deal with the WWII, the primary intent for the domestic audience is to warn and guard against support for fascism or similar totalitarian ideologies. But for a country that needs to closely examine it's history as a warning against repeating the same mistakes of the past, you simply can't depict the Nazi era in the typical Hollywood fashion. Meaning, depicting the Third Reich as consisting soley of viscious hell-demons is too much of the "easy way out". The present generation can easily say, "Oh, I'm not such a vicious brute, I would never support anyone like the Nazis". But that's the problem. The devil doesn't tempt people by appearing as a violent horned monster. He tempts people by appearing seductive and empathetic. Hence, the approach of films like "Der Untergang", "Das Adlon" and "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Vätter". They force the viewer to engage head-on with Nazis, the SS, and the Wehrmacht as human beings and to directly examine their own political vulnerabilities and prejudices. This is what I think some US-based critics misunderstood. They mistook "empathy" for "sympathy".

PS- "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" just won best "Fernsehfilm" (TV film) at the Goldern Camera awards... basically, the German Oscars.

Posted by Robert
Happy Valley, PA
155 posts

Another update: The 3 February 2014 issue of the NEW YORKER reviews "Generation War" and also reveals that it has been picked up by Music Box films for theatrical release in the U.S., and will also air as a two-part movie on a cable network.

Posted by Cary
Hayden, Idaho, USA
112 posts

This series/movie sounds very interesting. It is hard for Americans to comprehend the vast physical destruction in Europe after both wars and the literal loss of a whole generation of young men throughout the UK, France and Germany in WW I. The first time we looked at the monuments in village squares and read the names from WW I and then saw the small additional plaques with the same surnames for WWII was sobering for us. Yes, Americans died in both wars but Bedford, VA is the only American town I'm aware of that lost a large number of men at once. American rationing was a feast compared to the shortages endured by European civilians, not just from 1939-45 but for quite a few years afterwards. Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WW II by Keith Lowe graphically tells this story in four parts: The Legacy of War, Vengeance, Ethnic Cleansing and Civil War. I found that I couldn't read more than a couple of chapters at a time because the situation was so grim, but I'm glad I persevered.

Posted by Robert
Happy Valley, PA
155 posts

Another update: "Generation War" comes out on Blu-Ray on 6 May 2014. $29.99 at amazon.com.

Posted by Darla
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, U.S.A.
376 posts

Thanks Tom, I look forward to watching it.