There is no art without limits, as Orson Welles once observed. Creativity has its birth in constraint, and all art is bound by conventions. This is nowhere truer than in film genres, those collections of familiar images, settings, themes and tropes that serve as a guide for both filmmakers and audiences.
“Generation War,” a massive new German film that opens on Jan. 15, is an excellent example of this principle in action. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach from a screenplay by Stefan Kolditz, this nearly five-hour-long drama partakes of both the World War II combat film and the Holocaust film, tracing the lives of five friends from Berlin between 1941 and the end of the war. In doing so, it manages simultaneously to both conform to and tinker with the parameters of both genres, sometimes fruitfully, sometimes less so.
Originally made as a three-part miniseries for German television and billed as a German “Band of Brothers,” the film opens in the snow and mud of the Russian winter, with Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) watching his brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) dashing ahead of white-clad Soviet troops as bullets whiz overhead. His thoughts — and the narrative — go back to the eve of their departure for the war, not quite a year before, an evening spent with their three closest friends. Greta (Katherina Schűttler) is an aspiring singer-actress who sees herself as the next Marlene Dietrich; her boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) is a Jew whose father, a decorated veteran of the previous war, refuses to accept that they are no longer welcome in the new Germany; and Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a young nurse about to be sent to a surgical unit near the front, is hiding her unrequited love for Wilhelm.
As might be expected, their paths are so completely intertwined that they will continue to run into one another throughout the war. Friedhelm is assigned to his brother’s unit. Charlotte will be reunited with them repeatedly on the Eastern Front by circumstance. When Viktor is deported to the East despite Greta’s efforts, he will eventually find himself facing Freidhelm. Greta’s career will have her touring the front, where she will be reunited with the brothers and Charlotte with catastrophic results. And so on. The film’s narrative functions thanks largely to a Dickensian chain of coincidences that reduce the war to a grisly merry-go-round with a limited number of riders possible.
An audience accepts such a universe as part of the conventions of genre and the larger tropes of film narrative. A filmmaker builds emotional resonance into his characters through the repetition-and-variation workings of those conventions, and by manipulating them makes his own statement about the world. To their credit, Kadelbach and Kolditz are primarily interested in using their five protagonists to examine the ways in which ordinary Germans were swept up by war fever and gradually destroyed or disillusioned by the realities of life in a fascist nation under a government that lied to and brutalized even its most loyal subjects. Anyone expecting a hideous revisionism or Holocaust denial will be — I’m happy to say — disappointed. This is in no way an apology for the Nazis. On the other hand, although the film has been lauded for its impact on German TV audiences, it is hard for an American to see much difference from the standard point of view in these film genres over the past half-century.
Therein lies the problem with “Generation War.” It is well crafted, the acting is, for the most part, solid and Kadelbach is particularly good at the big action set pieces, albeit with considerable debt to the Spielberg of “Saving Private Ryan” and to Peckinpah’s underrated “Cross of Iron.”
But the film never rises above the level of its technical expertise. Kolditz’s script is mainly interesting as a similarly technical problem. Even in a story as long as this one, an audience can’t be expected to maintain its interest in or understanding of five separate protagonists equally. It becomes necessary to keep at least two of them in the same narrative frame nearly all the time, and watching how Kolditz does this is not without a certain intellectual fascination. But the script is mainly interesting only as a schematic diagram. The characters never exist as more than a bundle of conventions and a series of abstract vectors.
As a result, for too much of its running time, one watches “Generation War” as an abstract exercise in the working-out of the narrative equivalent of an engineering problem. For a student of genre film, this effort might be its own reward. For an audience, one suspects not.
“Generation War” opens Wednesday, Jan. 15 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). The film will be screened in two parts, twice each day, with a single admission; viewers who wish to see the two halves on different days can obtain a voucher at the box office. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.