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 one of our Generation War special feature, HeyUGuys had the privilege to speak with Volker Bruch who plays Wilhelm Winter, one of the tragic five lead characters. Volker looked back not only to the past of turbulent war, but to the roots of his career. He also shared with us amongst other things his thoughts on Generation War as a ghost story, albeit in a different sense of the word, his frequent rendezvous or descent into the past, and his observation of a conflict within film and television production.
Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?
It seemed the only choice that didn’t leave room for choosing. You have an opportunity to travel, to see the most beautiful places, to meet interesting people, and to earn quite a bit of money. In the end it was in some ways the path of least resistance. Oh, no, wait, there was this school play I saw when I was ten years old. I remember that the girl on stage was older, and I had never noticed her before that moment. But on stage she was incredibly beautiful, and even though she was far out of reach, at the same time she just felt so close.
When you first read the script for Generation War what was the appeal of both the project and the character of Wilhelm?
In the beginning I wasn’t thrilled to read another WW2 based script. But this one seemed to be different. The inner journey of the characters was a marathon, and the quantity of action was huge. There are far too many projects in Germany where nothing happens – stories about the boredom and repetition of everyday life. The focus on that alone is supposed to be exciting, and that’s the kind of intellectual entertainment that I hate.
Wilhelm’s desire to do the right thing and the desperation about the fact that you cannot undo the things that you’ve done is very human, and it was something I immediately connected with.
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.”
The passion to actually die for an idea is both fascinating and confusing to me – to believe something so strongly that you don’t question the path that leads there. War is always a way of getting to the essence of things very quickly and maybe that’s why it’s such a rich resource for stories.
The tragedy is that so many people thought that they were doing the right thing, and that’s probably where the evil in man hides. The arising question for me is, why am I so sure that the things I do are right; when I know from history that this very often means the opposite from a future perspective?
It is not uncommon for history based dramas to preach or moralise. With a deft hand the transformation of the characters in Generation War as they become embroiled in the horrors of war is a subtle and silent one. Rather you trust the audience to react to the drama, which creates an interactive experience.
We tried to consciously blind out the big picture that we now have of that time in order to get closer to the problems that our characters would have been facing back then. We didn’t want to ask moral questions, but rather watch those countless tiny steps that lead to a disaster.
In a number of films – The Reader, The Baader Meinhof Complex and Young Goethe in Love you confront or rather find yourself descending into the past. Is this a conscious effort on your part or a coincidence? Is history and the past something that interests you personally and professionally?
It is a coincidence, because I am not interested in history with all its numbers, years and names, unless it is connected to a personal story. Then this coherence between the past and I will happen instantly, without any effort. It’s exciting to come to set in these costumes, and to find everything dressed up in the manner of that time period, because this is probably as close as you can get to time travel.
When working on a project set in the past does it change your approach, because the past itself can be perceived as a character itself within the narrative.
You don’t play the time you live in; you always take it for granted. The things that really change are all very technical and outward: the costume, language, social graces and so on. On a set there are so many people to help you with all of those things. What you really need to know by heart is how to use certain devices. For example the MP (Maschinenpistole) in Generation War was something I spent a lot of time with, as I wanted it to become a part of me.
Why does the past remain such a compelling and enduring subject for storytelling?
Well, where should the stories come from if not the past? Time doesn’t ever change the content of stories; rather it’s just a different wrap for the same inner conflicts, which repeat themselves over and over again. Maybe the distance of time makes it easier for us to see that.
You’ve worked in both film and television, and speaking with actors it always interests me to hear their thoughts on how the two mediums can be compared.
There are plenty of TV shows that are really films. But in general, it is often the case in TV that there are too many people influencing the development of the story. This is because the people who provide the money don’t trust the creative folks, and so it ends up being a mash up of different tastes and styles, where the edges are chipped of, and the product becomes more and more average.
In Generation War, the director Philipp Kaddelbach was literally fighting a war for his vision, which normally would only be possible in films. In the end the credit to support and trust him must go to the producer Nico Hofmann, and the broadcaster ZDF.
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 over the past decade, and the role Generation War will play in televisions onward journey?
I want to believe that Generation War helps to close that gap, and it encourages placing trust in talented young filmmakers. In reality I’m not really sure. Broadcasting editors often argue for the benefit of the audience, who, in their opinion wouldn’t understand complex, slowly developing stories. Everything needs to be set in the first five minutes, and the following eight-five minutes are just an inflated repetition of that.
I believe that if we make the films that we would want to watch, there will be an audience for them. There are some editors who really want to change that, and I really do hope that the system doesn’t demoralise them.
In your opinion could you not describe Generation War as a film trilogy?
As it’s a three-parted film, I guess you could call it a trilogy.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience of Generation War, and if you could take away one experience what would it be?
For me, this film was always very clearly a piece of entertainment, and so I was truly surprised by the controversy it evoked. Many people told me that Generation War or as it was called in Germany, “Unsere Müttern, unsere Vätern” (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) was the reason why they were discussing the past with their elders. It is really incredible as I’m very aware that TV movies do not normally have such a big impact on their audience.
The third and final instalment of Generation War airs on Saturday at 9.30pm, BBC2, the Blu-ray & DVD box set is released on Monday by Arrow Films.