First broadcast in January 2015 in Norway, drawing a jaw-dropping 1.7 million viewers, it successfully premiered on More4 in the UK on 19 June. The six part mini-series focuses on one of the most exciting string of sabotage operations of WW2 (named Operations Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside respectively) to prevent the Nazis to obtain heavy water – necessary for building an atomic bomb – from a Norwegian factory.
The linear narrative, stretching over the years of the war, hops around from country to country with relative ease and elegance without disrupting the flow of events and mounting tension. In Berlin, Nobel-prize-winning German physicist, Werner Heisenberg (Bach), is courted by the Nazis to aid them in their effort to build a nuclear bomb (but not before he is nearly deported by the Gestapo for praising too many Jewish scientists).
The Germans approach Norsk Hydro, an industrial facility specializing in fertilizers, deep in the mountains of the Rjukan region in Norway. The factory produces large amounts of heavy water created as a by-product and its new director, Bjørn Henriksen (Storhøi) is all the more willing to cooperate to increase his profits.
After the Germans occupy Norway, a young academic and resistance organiser, Leif Tronstad (Høiner) escapes to Britain to warn the Allies about the Nazis’ nuclear plan and joins them in launching an operation to bomb the factory. At the army camp, Tronstad and the British organisers led by Captain Wilson (Torrens) and (the only fictional character) Captain Julie Smiths (Friel) start to draw up a plan for the attack; a manoeuvre that will be both dangerous and unpredictable, relying on the strength and wits of a few enthusiastic young men…
What is so wonderful about The Saboteurs is that it sets out a whole new direction for historical drama. Brilliantly cast with talented, charismatic actors, Germans play Germans, Norwegians play Norwegians and Brits play Brits; everyone speaks their own language – hence the frequent subtitling which slow readers might find disruptive – but it all boils down to one thing: the dramatization is so realistic that one feels transported back in time right there in the middle of it all. Wars are fought on many fronts and one tends to forget that WW2 was a collective business: gone are the days when everyone spoke RP English or pretentious foreign accents (often sounding too artificial to be taken seriously). But most importantly, there is no black-and-white character portrayal here (perhaps Hitler being the exception as the ultimate monster, looming in the background of the story).
There are moral questions posed at every turn (they are of course left to be answered). Is it acceptable to make science serve war? Or should war simply serve science? This is the dilemma facing Eisenberg – played with excellent, buttoned-up suaveness by Bach – as he tosses and turns between his scientific ambitions, his love for his Germany and his love for humanity and the greater good. In a similar way, the refined, intense and unreadable Henriksen (Storhøi) does everything to cooperate with the Nazis but we are never quite sure whose game he plays. How much should be sacrificed for the greater good? Is it right to blow up a passenger ferry just to get rid of a few barrels of heavy water? Is it right to question and change the orders of your superiors as it is done during the Rjukan commando mission?
The only fictitious character, Captain Julie Smith (Friel) lends some icy glamour to the stiff-upper-lipped, all-male ensemble. There is chemistry between Friel and Høiner (playing a very real and historical Leif Tronstad) – his initial stoniness bounces off toughened-up, authoritative Julie first but soon their veneers melt, exposing vulnerability, longing and loneliness, passion and sexual spark. The series, cleverly, does not exploit this sexual spark to its limits but keeps us guessing and hoping for a good wartime romance all along.
Beautifully shot, enveloped in the misty twilight and wintry whiteness of Nordic landscape, fast-paced and tense, The Saboteurs keeps us hammered to our seats all along through episodes 1 and 4, only slowing and deflating a little, leading to the inevitable ending in episodes 5 and 6.
Yes, we would like more television drama like this!
Considering the complex, historical and scientific subject matter of The Saboteurs, coupled with the first-rate cast, it would have been delightful to have a featurette, a documentary or just simple interviews with cast and crew. There are no bonus features.
Review by Eva Moravetz
[SRA value=”4″ type=”BIG”]
The Saboteurs is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.