01 November 2013

American vs. German WWII films

The other day while taking a shower I got to pondering WWII (as you do), and how my understanding of it as an American is entirely different from anything I've encountered here. WWII in America is an affirmation of American awesomeness. WWII in Germany is an ever-present monster that informs the vast majority of German politics, culture, and national outlook seventy-some odd years later. Hang out in Germany long enough (i.e., like a day) and you are bound to run into WWII, because the past is never far, especially when the past was fucking awful.

Curious as to whether those differences in American/German understandings of WWII translated to film depictions of the war, I convinced my boyfriend that we, one American and one German, needed to watch one American and one German WWII film* and discuss. So that's what we did.

*The films we went with are technically miniseries. So sue me.

Let's meet our players.

American series: Band of Brothers
German Title: Wir Waren Brüder
Follows Easy Company and the 101 Airborne paratroopers as WWII happens and they fight across France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Based on the Stephen Ambrose book of the same title. Actually happened.

German series: Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (literally, Our Mothers, Our Fathers)
American Title: Generation War
Follows five friends across the course of the war. Two are soldiers on the Russian front, one is a nurse, one becomes a singer, and one's Jewish, so you can imagine how well that works out for him.

Spoiler alert: everybody dies.

Just kidding. But if you haven't seen BoB or UMUV yet and you're planning on it, you should probably stop reading now because I'm going to give away basically everything.

Difference 1: Theater of Operations

One of the first things I noticed when I decided we were going to do this was how American films are split pretty evenly down the middle in terms of whether they're about the European or Pacific theater. Most everyone can name a couple famous movies from each theater. If anything, I think we might be slightly (slightly) more skewed towards Europe, but it's not awful.

Nearly all German films are about the fighting in either Russia or North Africa. There are virtually no, I repeat, NO German films about the Germans fighting the Americans. When I brought this up with Al, his response was "NUH-UH. There are PLENTY." So I challenged him to come up with them. Three days later, he'd come up with all of one, so there's that.

Al says that the reason for this is because the European front for Germany wasn't all that interesting--they got it really fast, they lost it really fast, and we're done now. The Russian front, however, is where Germany really lost the war, especially after Stalingrad. The Russians did what they always do, namely, let the enemy hang out in the snow and freeze to death (fact: never start a land war in Asia), and the Germans obliged in great numbers. And it sucked. And everyone knows maximum suckage results in maximum amounts of movie deals later on.

So that's what Al thinks, and he's probably right. I however, think it has something to do with the fact that it's more socially acceptable to hate Russia for WWII than America.

Difference 2: Distinguishing between the Wehrmacht  and the SS

One of the things German WWII films are very clear on is the difference between the Wehrmacht (the army) and the SS (Senior Shitheads). It's debatable whether and how much the former knew about concentration camps--the latter ran them. In one UMUV scene, in which the soldier brothers are clearing out a farmhouse in Russia with the help of Ukrainian (for lack of a better term) mercenaries, we see a pretty stark differentiation. The soldier brothers see a little girl being thrown over the shoulder of a giant Ukrainian man, and put a stop to it by drawing their guns on the guy, saying the little girl is a civilian and they're not to be harming civilians.

Up saunters an SS officer who informs the brothers that that little girl is a Jew and therefore a danger to society. The brothers say they don't care, she's still a child and a civilian and they'll take care of her until they find a safe place for her. The SS officer reluctantly agrees, and hands the girl a piece of chocolate. Then he puts her in a headlock and shoots her point-blank. The brothers are horrified and disgusted, and the differences between them and the SS are clear enough to be seen by Stevie Wonder.

In BoB, there's no distinction to be made between the Wehrmacht and the SS, and the series goes one step further in barely distinguishing between Nazis and civilian Germans. For example, after E Company has been in Germany awhile, one soldier says to another something along the lines of "Isn't it funny how long we've been in Germany, and we haven't seen a single Nazi?" referencing how all the Germans they meet profess not to be Nazis.Which they clearly don't believe. 

Difference 3: Morality

A giant difference between German and American WWII films is how they present and deal with morality. If you've ever read BoB the book, Stephen Ambrose comes right out and says "The Americans were morally superior to the Germans." This is also something that we, as a culture, truly believe, as in "Those bastard Germans, they had concentration camps. What? We did too? Well, maybe the fucking Japs shouldn't have bombed Pearl Harbor if they didn't want to live in a camp. Have I mentioned how awesome we are? We are so awesome. Anyway, I bet Japs love camping. I was a Boy Scout. Boy Scouts shouldn't let gay people in. We are so awesome." 

This fundamental belief in our own morality is beaten so hard into our war films that the DVDs come home with bruises. But since very few people are naive enough to paint that black/white a picture of war, American WWII films are pictures of morality with a few moments of immorality--usually committed by someone that's not the hero--thrown in so audiences know that occasionally, some people do bad things in war.

In German films, it's the opposite. Immorality is the rule, and the snippets of morality (produced by the "heroes") that pop up are the exception. Characters are walking, talking propaganda machines--until the war gets so bad and the temperature drops so low that someone realizes Hitler has left them to freeze their asses off outside of Moscow. Cue unhappiness.

Difference 4: The effects of war.

In American films, war brings out the best in people. BoB is basically one long chronicling of how the men of Easy Company find new reserves of personal strength, courage, camraderie, and faith in order to meet and best the challenges that the war throws at them. They are heroes to be admired and exalted.

Unlike the poor fuckers of UMUV. Ten minutes into the first episode, Friedhelm, the younger soldier brother, remarks that "war will bring out the worst in us," and this serves as prophecy for the rest of the episode. Greta, the singer girl, starts an affair with an SS officer. Charly, the nurse, turns in a fellow nurse at the hospital upon discovering she's a Jew, and even though she'd done nothing except be kind to Charly. Friedhelm, the younger solider brother, suggests forcing Ukrainian peasants at gunpoint to clear a minefield--personally and by stepping on said mines. And Wilhelm lets his brother get beaten up by other soldiers and shoots peasants in the head. Turning BoB's morality on it's head, the first episode of UMUV is one long chronicling of how everyone is an awful fucking person. Except for the Jewish guy who, somehow, you still don't like. You feel awful for him because you know what's coming, but you still don't like him.

Im summary: American WWII films are full of heroes. German WWII films are full of anti-heroes.

Difference 5: Layers

Given the amount of shit the characters in them have to grapple with, it's fair to say that German WWII films go significantly deeper than American ones. In UMUV, you watch as all the characters wrestle with the terrible things they've done, and see every painful moment of their struggle to forgive themselves, redeem themselves and come to terms with themselves and everything that's happened (to varying degrees of success). They are, for the most part, generally decent human beings thrown into awful circumstances beyond their control, slowly realizing that the glorious war they signed up for turns out to be epic suckage. They yo yo between the terrible things they're forced to do and the terrible things they choose to do and try to find some way to come out of the war with their humanity intact

American WWII films, by comparison, are practically hunky dory. Because BoB claims moral superiority that is never questioned or challenged, it's a great exercise in patriotism but goes nowhere in terms of character development. Practically everyone is your favorite, and you know most of your favorites will make it home. And if none of your favorites come home, well, then you are terrible at picking horses. In UMUV, however, you're not sure everyone's coming home, or even if you want everyone to come home. Your feelings towards the characters are just as complicated as their feelings about themselves, something you don't see nearly as often in American WWII films.

Difference 6: The Ending

BoB has a great ending. They win.

UMUV has an awful ending. Berlin is a hot mess of rubble, the younger soldier brother commits suicide by Russian soldiers, the singer has been executed in prison for saying bad things about Hitler, the nurse gets raped by a Russian soldier but makes it back, and the older solider brother kills his commander, defects (for the 2nd time) and walks to Berlin from Middle Of Nowhere, Russia. 

And then, to top it all off, your German boyfriend gives you the lowdown on his grandmother's 1000-mile flight on foot to escape the advancing Red Army, and that's when you realize you require an episode or five of Friends in order to regain your will to live.

Happy watching!


Anonymous said...

SSSSHHHHHH TINA, we're not supposed to talk about how we put the Japanese in concentration camps. Didn't you learn anything in high school history? No? Well good, because you better not have learned that, we keep that shit out of the history books intentionally.


bevchen said...

The British invented concentration camps, yet somehow the Germans are always the bad guys?!

Have you seen the Eddie Izzard sketch about Saving Private Ryan?

Anonymous said...

It is so much easier to glorify war when it is fougt far away from home... no wonder Germany is so traumatized by it.

ifs ands butts said...

This is something I'd always wondered about but have been far too lazy to actually investigate. So thank you. I also emailed this to several people.

Paula said...

Did you watch Flags of Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima by any chance? I liked those pretty much... Too bad such a project does not exist for Nazi Germany/Allies/Russia... Mostly those are film are as biased as you described.