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‘Generation War’: Life during wartime for 5 Berlin friends

The five principals “GeneratiWar” (from left KatharinSchuttler Volker Bruch Miriam SteTom Schilling Ludwig Trepte) manage cross paths throughout World War

The five principals of “Generation War” (from left, Katharina Schuttler, Volker Bruch, Miriam Stein, Tom Schilling and Ludwig Trepte) manage to cross paths throughout World War II. | MUSIC BOX FILMS

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Wilhelm Volker Bruch

Friedhelm Tom Schilling

Charlotte Miriam Stein

Greta Katherina Schuttler

Viktor Ludwig Trepte

Music Box Films presents a film directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz. In German, Russian and Polish with English subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes (Part 1), 148 minutes (Part 2). No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: February 25, 2014 6:08AM

‘Generation War” tracks the trauma of five Berlin friends through World War II. Intercutting between their diverse itineraries — to the Russian front, the Polish resistance and a Berlin prison — director Philipp Kadelbach crafts a war drama cued to the ethics of the characters.

Writer Stefan Kolditz notes that none of the five, who grew up together, “can be neatly categorized as perpetrator or victim, guilty or innocent ... neither heroic resistance fighters, nor fanatical Nazis.” The plot finds ways for the two women and three men to cross paths over four years until reuniting at their favorite bar at the end.

The narrator is Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), a lieutenant who has fought in Poland and France. Now he heads to the eastern front with his younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), mocked for packing books of poetry. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is an innocent, idealist nurse at a field hospital. Greta (Katherina Schuttler) stays in Berlin. Her married Gestapo lover enables her career as a Reich-backed singer. Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), the son of World War I veteran, is her Jewish boyfriend seeking escape to New York City.

Set from 1941 to 1945, this 4-hour and 39-minute ZDF production was shot in Germany, Lithuania and Latvia. Black-and-white archival footage appears at interludes. With a change in locale, onscreen titles indicate how many kilometers from Moscow, Warsaw or Berlin the scene is set.

“Generation War” feels like a miniseries at first. A few portentous lines get repeated, as if updating new viewers: “This is going to be a war unlike any war” and “This war will bring out the worst in us.” Characters ponder God’s perspective on their acts and their country. After an hour or so, though, the film markedly improves. More compelling repetitions are plot turns where key players switch uniforms to survive.

Small acts of decency to save another’s life interest the filmmakers more than atrocity on a mass scale: Kristallnacht is cited; no concentration camps are re-created. Moral qualms and realistic forecasts are branded “defeatist” by Nazis, who also deem swing music “degenerate.” Among the period details is a young soldier wishing to study under famed philosopher Martin Heidegger.

The “fictitious stories of five friends” add up to “an unsparing, generation-crossing antiwar film,” comments producer Nico Hofmann, acknowledging that Wilhelm is based on his own father. The dates of birth and death of four characters appear at the end. Wilhelm, born in 1920, is listed as still alive.

Between the screenings of Part 1 and Part 2 on Saturday, there will be a panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. with Patricia Erens, a film prof at the School of the Art Institute who is documenting her family’s past in Germany; Sara Hall, who teaches German cinema at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Neal Pease from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a specialist in Polish history and World War II.

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