COLOGNE, Germany – A miniseries billed as a German Band of Brothers has become a ratings hit here and sparked a nationwide discussion about the role of ordinary Germans during WWII.
The six-hour series Generation War depicts the lives of five German friends from 1939-1945. Most of the series is set among the German Wehrmacht – the regular German armed forces, not the Nazi-controlled Waffen SS – and occurs on the Eastern Front, the site of the most brutal acts of violence by the German army in World War II. That violence is at the core of Generation War, something that sets the series apart from previous German TV shows set during WWII. Also central to the series is the idea of personal complicity and burden of guilt on ordinary Germans for the Nazi atrocities.
In addition to drawing record ratings for public broadcaster ZDF over three nights – 7.6 million viewers, a 24 percent share of the German audience, saw the series finale Wednesday night – Generation War has begun a heated discussion in the media here over history and personal responsibility. The debate is arguably on a scale last seen following the release of Stephen Spielberg‘s Schindler’s List (1993).
“Were German Soldiers Really So Barbaric?” was one front page headline in leading German tabloid Bild, which, like many newspapers and websites here, called on wartime veterans and family members to share their personal memories of the time. Yes, they were, was Bild‘s conclusion.
German critics have been nearly universal in their praise for the series, with Der Spiegel calling it a “turning point in German television” and a review in national newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung said Generation War provides “the first and last chance .. to ask grandparents about their true biographies, their immoral compromises … the missed chances to act – everything which, in masses, leads to catastrophe”.
Historic dramas set during WWII are nothing new for German TV but in the past they have been more costume melodramas that shied away both from the raw violence of the period and uncomfortable historic truths. In scenes that are certain to make Generation War as controversial East of Berlin as it is in Germany, some of the Polish partisans fighting the invading Nazis are depicted as Anti-Semites.
“We tried to filter out all the conventions that are usually used in telling stories from the war on German TV, such as using a love story to provide the dramatic arc,” said Nico Hoffmann of Berlin-based teamWorx, speaking to THR at television industry conference MIPCOM last fall, where the producers unveiled the first footage of the series. “Instead we wanted to get as close to the documented facts as we could." Hoffman cites Band of Brothers as an inspiration for the style of Generation War although the characters in the German series are fictional.
TeamWorx produced Generation War for ZDF and Austrian public broadcaster ORF in association with Jan Mojto’s Beta Film. Beta is selling the series to international buyers at MIP TV in Cannes next month.