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  • Writer's pictureJohn Christian Rosenlund

Nordic show sets new bar for war dramas

Espen Klouman Høiner brings Norwegian scientist and military organiser Leif Tronstad to life, whilst Anna Friel stars as straight-talking Captain, Julie Smith (Arrow Films)

You may not have seen The Saboteurs when it aired on More 4 over the last couple of months, after all it did only span six weeks so chances are you may have blinked and missed its stint on the channel. But if you’re a military enthusiast or find yourself pouring over war documentaries and history books enthusiastically, then this is a series you absolutely must not pass by.

Originally broadcast in Norway, to a record-breakingly large audience, the multi-lingual drama details how a small number of Norwegian soldiers and their British allies thwarted Adolf Hitler’s attempts at producing an atomic bomb and how the events affected all four sides of the war; the Allies, the German’s, the Company and the saboteurs. As Germany strive to carry out this task, they discover that a key component in its production is heavy water, exclusively sourced from a location in Norway making it a hub of importance for both the Axis Nazi’s trying to obtain the product and the Allies hell bent on stopping them at any cost.

What’s so refreshing about The Saboteurs, is not at any point does it look at the events surrounding World War II in simply black and white. So often we see war dramas depicting totally exaggerated sides; hammed-up German villains with questionable accents (as they’re so typically played by non-German actors) pitted against heroic US or English soldiers that you’re willing to triumph from beginning to end as they perform feats that most ordinary men couldn’t dream of doing.

There’s no denying that the characters in The Saboteurs are realistic, interesting and sometimes morally conflicted. They never quite fall into one bracket and it makes them human, and for that, all the more watchable. This is probably down to the fact that the mini-series rarely deviates from factual history, as all but one of its characters actually existed in real life.

Werner Heisenberg (played by German actor Christoph Bach) was a Nobel Prize winning, renowned atomic physicist at the time the Germans were attempting to harness nuclear fission, and was subsequently coerced into helping with the production of a bomb despite being somewhat against Nazism. His polarising love of his country however, is his driving force when operating on what he has been told to do and this enlightening look at those involved in the war is something we rarely see in interpretations made for entertainment purposes rather than documentaries. The idea that someone could be fighting for a cause that they don’t necessarily wholeheartedly believe in but do to some extent, is a new one but a fresh one, and makes The Saboteurs superb to watch as you never know where the story is going to go next.

The Saboteurs DVD (Arrow Films)

There are no cookie-cutter soldiers here, or superhuman-type winners. We see officials cornered into making decisions they aren’t too sure about making. Troops in adverse conditions forced to fend for themselves by eating moss and reindeer, when missions go wrong and serviceman questioning their orders from above, even contemplating defying their superiors and aborting them. It is this heightened sense of reality that makes the anguish felt by all of the people its portraying so harrowing and exciting.

The show doesn’t shy away from confronting the idea that certain individuals were instrumental when it came to determining which side triumphed in the war either, and one of the characters that the programme offers up like this is Axel Aubert, a Norwegian engineer and businessman who has control the plant in which the heavy water is based.

Anna Friel’s Captain Julie Smith is the only non-historical role, but she plays a welcome part that helps to break up some of the more male-orientated scenes. It’s not glaringly obvious as to why the screenwriters chose to invent her character; was it simply to have more of a female slant within the show? To provide a love interest to one of the main characters? To present a certain aspect of Britain’s armed forces? Either way, she’s not the feeble, high-heeled character you might come to expect from a period drama.

You need not be of a certain age to enjoy the series, but The Saboteurs does certainly focuses on heavy stuff, and we’re not just talking about the water or global death and destruction when we say that. It is science that drives a lot of the plot, and when you’re trying to follow the fast-talking scientists discussing atoms in a language that isn’t your first, it can become pretty hard to follow, but luckily with only six episodes, you can just about manage it.

The Norwegian heavy water sabotage evidently played a huge part in World War II and Hitler’s ultimate defeat, but its something that not many people, unless you were a somewhat dedicated history buff, would know about. Like the tagline of the show suggests: “With a nuclear weapon, [he] would have won the war” and yet this piece of Scandinavian history is often forgotten.

Often war movies or series concentrate on the grand scale of the conflict, rather than the genuinely thrilling and the monumental but small actions that took place throughout the years it spanned. By concentrating on a small part of the Second World War’s history rather than the entire thing, The Saboteurs allows itself to stylistically and effectively execute the history without overloading the audience with over-the-top heroism and far-fetched storylines, whilst also shedding some light on operations that really should be more widely remembered.

Another benefit of following the actual tasks carried out by the Norwegian and British alliance, the series follows a steady and excitingly escalating pace as they become more and more desperate to stop Hitler from achieving his goal, allowing the slow-burning series to reach its crescendo naturally.

As for extras; well, there aren’t any. Given the serious subject matter of the show, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise though. You’re hardly going to expect bloopers from the filming of a war drama now, are you? However, fans who loved the series and wanted a little bit more insight than the six episodes the mini-series had to offer, might be left slightly disappointed in this regard.

The first season of The Saboteurs is available on DVD and Blu-Ray as of today (10 August).

Film Star Rating Four Stars

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