I spent most of the weekend shivering, shaking, coughing, and sleeping – and in a lot of pain. I missed a family member’s birthday party because I simply wasn’t able to get myself out the front door. I wrote about 800 words on Saturday morning which I’ve been too afraid to review yet, lest I find they’re a bunch of delirium-induced ramblings; and, horror of horrors, I was so unwell that I could barely even read. I probably read about twenty pages, maximum, over the past three days. That’s unheard of.
This morning, I am still coughing, but I can function, just about. We’ll see whether I’m able to get back to my NaNoWriMo project presently, or if my brain will decide to mushify itself at the first sight of it.
By the way: I have such a talent for getting sick at the weekend. It’s almost a superpower.
One of the things I did do this weekend, however, was watch the first episode of a new miniseries which aired on Irish television last night. It was called ‘Generation War,’ and it’s the story of five German friends who are separated by World War II. They make a pact that they will see each other again – ‘Weihnacht im Berlin!’ they say, or ‘Christmas in Berlin’ – little knowing that their chances of being able to keep their promise are slim.
Big deal, you might be thinking. But wait – there’s more…
This TV series was made in Germany, by German people, using German actors. It is billed as the first attempt in German television to deal with the war, to face up to the country’s painful past, and to tell their side of a deeply complex, multifaceted and harrowing story. It’s not an attempt to make excuses (or, at least, that’s not how it appeared to me, as I watched it – the horrors of war, and the extreme cruelty of the SS as well as the casual, everyday antisemitism are very much in evidence); it’s an attempt to reveal the wound the war caused on the German psyche, and to stare into it unflinchingly.
The original German title of the show translates as ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’, which I think is much better and far more emotionally affecting than ‘Generation War’; it’s a really clear statement that the people making this show realise that the war is not actually all that long ago, and that it affected their loved ones, their parents and grandparents. It has also affected them, not only because it’s part of their country’s history but because it’s written into their DNA, handed down to them by their forebears, the ones who actually lived through the horror of war, who had to watch every word they said and whose every relationship was scrutinised and whose dreams for their lives were unbearably altered.
One of the characters in this group of five friends is a Jewish man named Viktor, and another is a young, typically ‘German’ man named Friedhelm who is, very reluctantly, a soldier. Viktor is a linchpin of the group, no questions asked, and is in a loving relationship with Greta, a woman who has dreams of being a singer as famous as Marlene Dietrich. Greta appears not to care that her relationship with Viktor puts her life at risk – they are young, and such things do not happen to them. Friedhelm reads books in the trenches and never volunteers for anything – he has the name of ‘coward’ among his fellow soldiers, but it’s painfully clear that every second spent in battle is a torment to him. He serves alongside his brave and principled brother, Wilhelm, who tries to protect him when he can, but who is – in his heart of hearts – ashamed at his brother’s supposed cowardice. Wilhelm and Friedhelm are just ordinary soldiers, trying to fight a brutal war which begins, as time goes on, to feel more and more senseless. At one point in the episode, Friedhelm and another soldier are having a discussion about why the German army is marching on Moscow. ‘We are protecting our fatherland,’ says the other soldier. ‘And what do you think they’re doing?’ asks Friedhelm, meaning the Russians. ‘The very same thing.’
The last character out of the five – and, to me, the most interesting – is Charlotte, or Charly, who trains as a nurse and has huge dreams of helping her fellow man and serving her country, and who is a gentle, sensitive and loving girl. Her first attempt to help at a battlefield hospital is a disaster, because she sees the agony and the sheer bloody horror of the injuries the soldiers are being brought in with; all her idealistic notions go out the window, but she keeps working regardless. A particularly striking scene has her choosing a helper out of some local Ukrainian volunteers. She addresses them in German, looking for a woman with some medical knowledge who speaks German and, crucially, who is not a Jew. She picks one woman out of the group, and then dismisses the others with a scornful wave of the hand, as if they are beneath her. It seemed so at odds with her essential kindness that it spoke to me about the effects of wartime propaganda, the fear of ‘breaking the law’, and how the evil of this war could trickle into even the softest of hearts. Later in the episode she makes a decision which is so cruel that it left me blinking back tears, and – even though she’s later shown being remorseful for this decision – it really drove home the idea that German people during the war were just that – people, struggling with this new world that they were creating around them.
A photograph taken by the five on their last night together, which each of them has a copy of. From L-R, clockwise: Viktor, Wilhelm, Charly, Friedhelm, Greta.
In saying all this, I am not trying to be an apologist for the war. I watched this show because I wanted a different perspective, and a window on the war which didn’t just take it for granted that the German people were all, to an individual, evil. I found it an extremely affecting piece of television, and I’ll be watching the rest of the series with interest.
But now, I’m off to make myself a hot cup of tea, and face the ravening beast that is my NaNoWriMo project… adieu!