Generation War

In the year that we commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, the BBC have looked beyond the devastation of this earlier conflict to World War II, and the war on the Eastern Front with original German drama series Generation War.

In the swirling chaos of the World War, Generation War crafts a tragic and intimate story of the lives of five friends who are impacted by the events of the German invasion of Russia.

For part two of our Generation War special feature, HeyUGuys had the privilege to speak with producer Benjamin Benedict who discussed with us the birth of the series from an idea between two men, the importance of history and the role of storytelling in bringing history to life as well as reflecting on the evolving relationship between television and film. Read our interview with Volker Bruch here.

But before the interview got underway it was important to Benjamin that he make the following statement: 

First of all I must point out that Generation War is the work of a great many people. It is a collaborative effort, and it is not my work, but rather it is a project which has involved working alongside many people. I would like to specifically mention our screenwriter Stefan Kolditz who for me is one of the most crucial people involved in the series, and then director Philipp Kadelbach. Also producer Nico Hofmann whose idea it was, and of course everyone else including the wonderful cast.

 Why a creative career? Was there that one inspirational moment?

It is a love of storytelling that has influenced my decision to make movies. I worked in the theatre first, and whilst I love both art forms, what fascinates me about movies and television is that you are able to reach an enormous number of people. This is true of Generation War, which has been sold to over ninety countries, and has been seen by several million across the world. But this ability to reach such a broad audience continues to fascinate me.

I have been producing for nearly fifteen years now, and because I studied literature at Oxford, I am naturally fond of English culture and Britain in general. So I am pleased that Generation War has been shown on English television, and I’d liken it to receiving a present that the series has been shown on BBC 2.

How did you first become involved in the project?

When I arrived at the company eight or nine years ago, and I first heard about the project, it was just an idea that Nico and Stefan were working on together. But from the minute I first heard about it I thought it was a fantastic idea. Our Mothers, Our Fathers was the German title, but for me it’s not Our Mothers, Our Fathers. It’s our grandmothers and grandfathers; it’s that generation.

I had a very close relationship with my grandfather, and so for me it was always a chance for us to serve a dialogue with the generations that we were aiming at. So it gave me a chance to talk about the past with my grandparents, and was the reason why it became very personal for me. But it became personal for everybody who was involved in the project, and nearly everyone had a personal biographical moment with the series.

Generation War could be described as a ghost story, in which the characters are haunted by Friedhelm’s words, “This war will bring out the worst in us.”

It’s interesting because I had never thought about it that way. There are two things I’d like to mention. One of them is that we thought a lot about the question of whether this film needs a narrator – does it have a narrator, does the narrator in fact narrate the movie, and how do we create this perspective?

Typically it’s Wilhelm’s voice, and he is the one who tells the story. But we tend to think of it like entries in a diary, and the perspective of how he first sees the war; how he wants to give it a voice. So it is a special layer of storytelling if you want to put it that way. The narration that the series features I believe has a great effect. But we quite literally thought about these texts and rewrote them hundreds of times. So a lot of work went into them.

Then there’s the other thing of, “The war brings out the worst in us.” For me it is one of the crucial statements of the film because we were often asked if we wanted to excuse the doings of the everyday Nazis in Germany. I always said, “No, we don’t want to do that at all. We want to show how this war influenced a people, and how they all became a part of the war.” They were all guilty because there is no innocence in war, and this is therefore why the statement, “War brings out the worst in us” was so important.

Within the drama of a World War, you carve out an intimate drama that focuses on five main characters. In doing so Generation War shows the everyday effect of this moment or period in history on an intimate level, and creates intimacy in the vastness of chaos.

It is a difficult topic because we wanted to be very detailed and reflective in the way that we tell the story. So we thought a lot about how we could tell it in a way that the audience would be captured by it. But we didn’t want to do it such in a way as to portray this generation as being innocent or even to portray it in a way that would be too positive. Everyone had to say for him or herself if we achieved this or not, and all I can say is that this is what we were thinking about while we were developing the movie, and while we were shooting it.

Whilst it caused a great debate in Germany, we found that people for the most part started to consider their own personal history, or the history of their fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers. They started to ask themselves questions about what the war experience was like, and how it felt to be at war, and that for us was the most important aspect in making this series.

Science-fiction allows us to look to the future, and to ask questions about the kind of future we want. History dramas such as Generation War allow us to look to the past and offer an opportunity to understand our own history and the history of our families. Do you consider an important part of storytelling is the effort to move beyond a sole focus on entertainment?

I completely agree with what you are saying. I believe that every reception is individualistic if I might put it that way. There is no one experience in watching a movie or a television series. Based on knowledge, interests or life experience, everybody will see a movie differently or see a different aspect of the movie. What you are offering when you are telling a story is different layers. One of them is to tell a fascinating story or to create interesting characters. Another is to ask questions about the past, whilst the third is the wish for a dialogue with your parents or a dialogue with your own past. With this series we wanted to open up the audience to asking questions about the people who came before them, and therein their own past. The idea was to ask for an understanding of this generation of war. I generally believe this, though Generation War is a specific example. But it is an important aspect or at least an important possibility of this kind of storytelling.

Is this the reason why the past remains such a compelling and enduring subject for storytellers?

Definitely, and it’s interesting because I’ll tell you a personal story. When I was studying for my A-levels I felt that historical knowledge was irrelevant for the present. I questioned the necessity of historical understanding, and of course I wanted to be provocative in that personal point of view. But now my point of view is the complete opposite, and I am fascinated by history and historical understanding – how people in the past were dealing with the same problems as well as very different ones. When I am looking at the possibilities for telling stories I go deep into historical material, and so it is a sort of a general statement about what fascinates me.

At one time the landscape of film and television was separated by a gulf or at least that was the perception. Now this gulf seems to be almost non-existent. How do you view the change in the landscape of film and television across the past fifteen years?

I believe that there has been a basic change because of the possibilities exhibited in the quality of television, and the serious storytelling that can be found there. This is a very recent development that has taken place in the last fifteen years. You could say that it started with The Sopranos, where a whole new universe of storytelling developed very quickly, and with astonishing results. I am still overwhelmed with the possibilities that are available for storytellers nowadays. For me it has been a shift in appreciation. Every year I look back to what the most important experiences in audio and visual storytelling were, and normally I will discuss the quality of television series’, which is an interesting development.

In your opinion could you not describe Generation War as a film trilogy, and what is the distinction nowadays between a miniseries and a movie trilogy?

That’s an interesting question, but to be very clear, for all of us Generation War was specifically developed as a TV event. Of course we were very pleased when it was shown in theatres in the U.S, but it was designed to be screened on evenings as it was in Britain. I believe that is exactly the right way, because it is how you can reach a broad audience, and it’s a way to keep people in front of the TVs for three or four days or even three weeks. It was built upon that structure where we specifically developed three parts that all had a specific style of storytelling, as well as specific questions that would remain at the end of each episode.

We thought about this a great deal, and now coming back to what I mentioned before, this has been one little part of a general development in which television is now open for a detailed and excellent level of storytelling and characterisation that offers huge possibilities for every storyteller. This is exactly what we wanted to be a part of in the making of this series.


The Generation War box set is available on Blu-ray & DVD now from Arrow Films.