Phew! I’m a new convert to Engrenages and I’m not sure how those veterans of the previous four seasons have stood the pace. I did watch the first couple of episodes of Season 1 back in 2006 but somehow it didn’t stick then. I’m not sure why – perhaps I’ve slowly acquired the serial habit after The Killing and The Bridge? Or perhaps I first had to get used to European TV crime drama via Wallander on BBC4 in 2009? Since I’ve been reading the literature for a long time this seems unlikely. I think the real answer is that the BBC i-Player and the PVR have allowed me to develop the serial habit. This is important since the BBC4 screenings on a Saturday night have generally been two hours. Engrenages matches The Killing with double episodes (2×52 mins over 6 weeks). I usually watch one hour and save the other until later in the week. I find that there is far too much going on to take the whole two hours at once – and this is arguably the big plus compared to similar UK shows which often seem padded out.
The first thing that struck me about the serial was that unlike the Scandinavian shows, Engrenages exists in a film and TV culture with a long history of popular crime films – the polar. I wondered how much familiarity I would have with the TV serial given my earlier viewings of polars. The obvious point is that I would have had much more difficulty understanding both the French judicial system and the organisation of French police forces. The film 36 (France 2004) is particularly useful in explaining this background. The interesting institutional point is that because the French industry is so much bigger (i.e. than the Scandinavian), like the UK it can produce quality TV actors who don’t necessarily appear in films and vice versa. Engrenages doesn’t offer the same pleasures of ‘spot the actor’ as the Swedish/Danish serials do but it does mean that we don’t ‘read’ the characters through a lens of familiarity. The themes and representations of Parisian streetlife are familiar from the films. The only direct reference to the polar, that I spotted, however, was the appearance of a poster for Un flic, the 1972 film with Alain Delon, the last film by the most celebrated director of polars Jean-Pierre Melville. This is in one of the squad offices and I think that the central character Laure has the image on her phone. This reference alone marks out Engrenages as ‘knowing’.
The central structure of Engrenages features the interconnections between a Parisian crime squad led by Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants ‘Gilou’ and ‘Tintin’ and a trio of independently-minded lawyers – an ‘investigating judge’ Roban and two high-flying (and glamorous) avocats Joséphine Karlsson and Pierre Clément. Berthaud and Roban trust each other – and sometimes bend the rules for the sake of justice. In Serial 5 Berthaud is investigating the murder of a young mother and her small daughter. This in turn will lead to a second investigation into a gang plotting robberies. As the programme’s title suggests (it means something like ‘Gears’), different stories become enmeshed, affecting each other in complicated ways. So Joséphine finds herself defending a wealthy Libyan diplomat accused of assaulting one of his ‘domestic’ workers and Gilou is arrested for using unauthorised equipment – while at the same time becoming personally involved in the private life of an informer. Both of these stories will tie in back to the central investigations. Throughout everything, Berthaud – still recovering from a personal tragedy in Serial 4 – is pregnant and still undecided about keeping the baby.
Thinking about structure, Engrenages covers almost the same ground as The Killing 1: a central crime story involving a form of family melodrama, a ‘personal story’ about the problems of the lead female investigator and a third ‘political’ story which ties into the central crime story in some way. The political angles of Engrenages are more complex and nuanced, involving machinations in the judiciary as well as the French establishment. I’m not claiming that one has copied the other (and I don’t know how Serials 1-4 of Engrenages worked out – perhaps this structure began in France?). It could be argued that most, all, TV crime series have these three elements in different mixes and different proportions – but I don’t think that they are so clearly spelt out or that they are so carefully written into a tripartite structure in those other shows. It is the richness and complexity of the narrative that I enjoyed in Engrenages – and the characters and performances. Copenhagen and Paris do share a metropolitan location which means that police investigations are closer to political centres and international stories. But having said that, Laure Berthaud’s team are simply ‘local cops’ and one of their problems is that they run up against specialist units with questions of who has the authority for investigations. This is also the case with The Killing but the difference is that Laure Berthaud does not have the status of the Sara Lund character (i.e. as the single focus for the narrative) or the freedom to investigate with just one partner. Instead Laure leads a team (and they cock up together!)
Engrenages offers a range of pleasures of story-telling and characterisation as well as heart-pumping emotions and some very brutal scenes. The chase scenes are excellent and it is noticeable that the female roles are crucially important in every aspect of the narrative. I think also that there is some evidence here as well as in one or two recent French films that the range of characters is becoming more diverse and representative of contemporary Parisian society. My only frustration is that the BBC (which is credited with an ‘association‘ with the production) is not very helpful with details of the show’s background. See the limited material here. What we do know is that there were major cliff-hangers/and ‘loose ends’ when Serial 5 closed. The next should appear in France later in 2015. It will be keenly anticipated when it comes to the BBC.
After the final episode of Generation War, BBC2 in the UK offered a discussion of the series by three distinguished academics alongside the series producer. The discussion was chaired by Martha Kearney, a regular presenter of cultural programming on the channel. This strategy was once fairly common on the BBC after controversial films or television productions but this is the first time (that I can remember) when a foreign language production received this kind of attention.
The discussion was intelligent and stimulating and the three academics, specialists in this period, historians Richard Evans and David Cesarani and writer/literature professor Eva Hoffman, all expressed their agreement on how well-made and exciting the film was as well as the range of problems it raised in terms of the history of East/Central Europe during the Second World War. The programme also included some brief interviews with two writers but my main problem with the discussion was that no one was prepared to discuss the film ‘as a film’ and there was no other filmmaker’s voice apart from the producer Benjamin Benedict. Richard Evans, while asserting that the film was not plausible in historical terms, noted that it was as if five young Germans from today had been parachuted into the events of 1941-45. He also admitted that it was impossible to represent characters from the 1940s in a modern drama in an historically accurate way. Of course, he is right and that’s why the film needs to be discussed as a modern drama, not a historical reconstruction. Its artistic intention is to engage younger Germans in an exploration of what their parents and grandparents might have experienced.
The second major issue raised was the depiction of the Poles, Ukrainians and Russians in the film and specifically their treatment of Jews. Again, the academics agreed that the events shown did have a historical basis but that they weren’t representative of the whole experience – and yes it wasn’t possible to cover the whole war in 4.5 hours! My argument is simple, let’s discuss this fascinating mini-series as a long-form film narrative. It is intended as popular entertainment on mainstream television. Inevitably it will use the conventions of mainstream cinema, including the generic conventions of the combat picture and home-front melodrama. We should consider the riveting performances and the stupendous production design as well as the music and cinematography. As a popular film it does have some flaws and we need to address these – but it captured its audience and got audience members talking to each other. Finally, we should consider how it compares to films from other combatant nations in 1941-5.
Outline story (no major spoilers about what happens to the characters)
The film begins in the Summer of 1941 when five young people are celebrating in Berlin before they split up and the war takes them into different stories. The five are aged from roughly 18 to 21. This is important since they are just old enough to have known Germany before the Nazi regime took complete control, but have also been bombarded with propaganda as adolescents. They are Berliners so possibly more liberal than those elsewhere in Germany, but even so, two of them have approached the war in the spirit of fighting for the nation. “I represent German womanhood” Charlotte says when she presents herself as a nurse at a frontline hospital. Wilhelm has already fought in Poland and France and is a Leutnant in the Wehrmacht. Greta and Viktor are lovers. He is a Jewish tailor’s son and this character attracts most of the critics’ attention. Is this plausible they ask? I don’t know – but it is a useful narrative device, requiring Greta to act in a way that will help Viktor escape Berlin. Friedhelm, Wilhelm’s younger brother is the most problematic character for me given the narrative structure. The scriptwriters send three of the friends to the Eastern front and Greta will visit the front as a popular singer for the troops. After the party in Berlin, the five are never together again but four of them meet up on the front and at various times Wilhelm and Friedhelm fight in the same unit and meet Charlotte. Viktor goes his own way but meets Friedhelm. At the end of the story, three of the five are together again in Berlin.
The scriptwriters contrive to weave the five separate stories together so each of the three 90 minute films, subtitled ‘A Different Time’, ‘A Different War’, ‘A Different Country’ features something of each of the five characters’ stories. This means that the coincidences of melodrama are more obvious as the writers bring characters together in different ways. Friedhelm seemingly changes the most in his behaviour, yet it may be that his understanding of the psychology of war remains the same. I couldn’t work it out. He begins as the ‘rebel intellectual’ (rebelling against his father and to some extent against his older brother) almost unable to fight but in time becomes a ruthless killer. Wilhelm travels in the opposite direction, recognising quite early that Germany will lose the war. Charlotte becomes a better person. Greta perhaps gets ‘above herself’ but arguably suffers more than she should. Viktor becomes the catalyst in the story, both for Greta’s actions and for a lengthy sub-plot about the anti-semitism of some members of the Polish ‘Home Army’ – but also the courage of other Poles.
I wonder if the series would have worked better as a longer narrative in which each of the five characters had their own one hour episode plus an opening and closing episode where the five stories coalesce. This might have allowed more attention to character development and required less manipulation of the separate stories. In a sense, Viktor’s story is different, simply because he exists ‘outside’ the central German narrative (i.e. in relation to the German military, Gestapo etc.). I think that overall I reject much of the criticism that the series has taken re the representation of Jewish characters and the ‘too positive’ representations of the young (and attractive) German characters. The films don’t ignore the Jewish question and they certainly represent both the cruelty and viciousness of some of the Germans and the political naivety and ideological confusion as well. Having said that, I do think the final scenes in 1945 don’t represent the horror of Berlin as well as Anonyma– Eine Frau in Berlin (Germany-Poland 2008).
The main problem for film viewers and critics in the Anglophone world is that we don’t know enough about the Eastern front from 1939 to 1945. There are a couple of UK/US films that do engage with the range of issues in Generation War. Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977) and the recent Defiance (US 2008) by Edward Zwick are both worth exploring but mostly it is German, Polish and Russian films that should be the basis of comparative analysis. Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005) is a very different kind of film but it shows very well what kind of ideological ‘work’ is possible in stories about Germany from 1943 onwards when the ‘final victory’ becomes increasingly less likely for some young Germans – as distinct from the younger teenagers recruited into the German forces in 1944-5 who are depicted in Generation War as completely driven by propaganda.
The Russian and Polish films discussed on this blog include Trials on the Road (USSR 1971/85) and Katyn (Poland 2007). These films view the events of the war through the eyes of Russians and Poles as much as Generation War focuses on the views of young Germans. What all the films explore is the sweep of the action across a huge swathe of territory disputed over centuries by different occupying powers. Individuals in 1939-45 often changed sides and changed uniforms, atrocities were committed and great courage was shown. Notions of ‘friend or foe’ must have been very difficult to negotiate and concepts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ soldiers or morally correct civilians seem hard to apply. Of course there were internal conflicts in all the countries occupied by the Axis powers in Western and Southern Europe during 1939-45 (and films have been made about them in those countries) but I don’t think those conflicts were quite as complex in terms of identity as in the disputed lands of Eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus etc. Generation War offers another perspective on what happened in the East as far as five twenty-something Germans were concerned. Now it would be good to see a bit more about what happened at home in Berlin (the father of Wilhelm and Friedhelm is a mysterious character and I’d like to know about Charlotte’s and Greta’s families). I’d also recommend Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012) as a good follow up to Generation War (which is now available on DVD in the UK). And of course it’s always good to go back to Edgar Reitz’s mammoth TV serial Heimat (West Germany 1984), also on DVD.
I enjoyed the first episode of Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers broadcast on BBC2 last Saturday. In the UK this is being broadcast, as I think it was in Germany last year, in three 90 mins episodes. In the US it is being shown theatrically in two parts. The action covers June 1941 to May 1945 and offers a combined combat picture-home front melodrama. At a reported cost of €14 million it has been argued to be a relatively high budget series from Germany which has now got international distribution.
I’m not going to review the series as such until I’ve seen all three episodes but I’m intrigued/disturbed by some of the responses that I’ve come across already. I quickly stumbled into what appeared to be an almost neo-Nazi blog (i.e. it questioned the Jewish experience and deaths in WWII and quoted David Irving with approval) and then some American reviews which took the opposite view and complained that no concentration camps are shown and that this is airbrushed history making it possible for a new generation in Germany to see their grandparents in a more favourable light. So clearly, this series, as well as attracting big audiences and prizes in Germany, is going to be the site for a major ideological struggle.
I’m just a little surprised that so many commentators seem to have ignored the great many films that have been made about both the fighting in Poland/Ukraine/Soviet Union by Polish and Russian filmmakers and the domestic lives of Germans at home by German filmmakers. To be fair, most of the films I could quote tend to deal with the latter part of the war and in that respect this series is different in starting from the high point of German expansion. On the other hand I’ve recently watched Douglas Sirk’s last film A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) which although set in the winter of 1944 includes some of the same incidents contained in this new series.
At this point I’ll just comment that Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers is very well staged with exciting action, good performances and detailed production design. But I am sick of reading that the director must have been studying Steven Spielberg in order to handle a narrative like this and to show action so realistically. He may have done of course – but there are also plenty of other directors, especially Russians, who know how to make convincing combat pictures and home front melodramas. The war in Eastern Europe was extremely complex and many layered. Knee jerk analysis isn’t going to help. But perhaps the Saving Private Ryan reference does have some relevance since the series seems to have got families in Germany talking amongst themselves about what actually happened under the Nazis.
For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4’s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.
‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.
The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.
The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?
At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.