The Saboteurs: Innovative Cross-National Drama Presents Fresh WW2 Biopic

In an over-saturated market of WW2 Dramas It’s hard to imagine a new TV show that would provide a fresh outlook on warfare and present new innovative storylines – in contrast to those that start and end on the battlefield. With the pinnacle undoubtedly coming in 2001 with HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers’, you would wonder why broadcasters would take up the mantle of producing a highly costly and time-consuming program only to repeat what has been done in the past. The Saboteurs, a multinational production between Norway, Denmark, and the UK, aims to show us a multi-narrative composition of a small piece of that war – to which it succeeds to an unprecedented level.

Currently being shown on More4, The Saboteurs is a true story about Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, and his plan to create a Nuclear Reactor that would help build more tanks, planes, and ammunition for the war effort in Germany. Working under the ‘German Army Weapons Agency’ he convinces the Nazi hierarchy to fund his development with the aid of one of the most important chemicals (made in Norway) called ‘Heavy Water’. Although the end product for Heisenberg is enormous amounts of usable energy, the German Captain’s perspective is one of destruction – the creation of an Atomic Bomb. The Saboteurs are a specially selected group of soldiers who want to stop the development of the project at all costs.

Following a quick exit from the Norsk Hydro Factory (Norway), Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner) meets with Captain Smith to plan the destruction of the factory in order to stop the production of heavy water and in turn halt the progression of the atomic bomb. Having been an engineer in the factory, Tronstad has invaluable knowledge of the area and the factory. With the help of Captain Julie Smith (Anna Friel), a group of Norwegian soldiers are tasked with parachuting into Norway to execute the sabotage to destroy the supply of heavy water.

A majority of the series takes place in Rjukan, Norway, and follows the first and second set of soldiers as they hindered by the harsh winter winds of the desolate area. They are blown 80km off course and are forced to conserve food and seek shelter in hopes that more troops come to their rescue. One of the highlights of the show is the barren landscapes of Norway. The unending sea of white snow create a desolate atmosphere, akin to that of the soldiers diminishing hopes of completing their mission. With no food and limited contact they camp around a transistor radio listening to a Christmas hymn – a stark reminder they are alone with hope fading of a rescue – with only a gas lamp for light which illuminate their cavernous faces and thick beards.

Episode four is the strongest episode – a full action sequence complete with skiing scenes down breathtakingly beautiful snowy hills alongside speckles of scattered green trees. Dipping between Britain and Norway, the scene illustrates the cohesion between the troops in inhospitable conditions. Simultaneously, Tronstad and Smith narrate their mission as if they were looking at them from above. The whole scene is painstakingly choreographed and the orchestral score rises and dips, creating unbearable tension for most if not all of the episode. It’s an almost silent action scene were not even one gun is fired – an amazing achievement especially for a WW2 drama.

Part of its success lies with its small and varied narratives. Rather than build the drama around famous historical battles it centers its narrative around one smaller aspect of the war – the Heavy Water Sabotage. It does what Nordic Noir’s are known for – small stories and strong characterisation. Heisenberg, for example, isn’t good or evil, rather he embraces both in order to further his development in the nuclear generator project. We see many of these moral dilemmas throughout the series – one in particular is the destruction of a passenger ferry by the Norwegians which take the lives of several local people. An act that resonates not only with the characters but with us the viewer.

One of the reoccurring ideologies in this piece is the theme of control – or in our case lack of it. Heisenberg has no control over his own project and is so infinitely blindsided by his own scientific pursuit he does not see that the German army want to use his research to create a bomb. Even when writing equations on how he could build a bomb to destroy London for major Nazi officers, he refuses to believe that his work is for anything other than building a nuclear generator. In some ways it is inconceivable for the audience to believe this, but serves as a narrative in which we see the pursuit of science and the risks it incurs. A quote he uses throughout the series is one stated by Albert Einstein: “Do not worry if war serves science, only if science serves war”. An aptly appropriate quote for the series. The uses of plutonium and uranium illustrates the two sides of scientific discoveries, one perception is used to help and one is used to destroy.

The Saboteurs has achieved what I thought was impossible – an innovative WW2 Drama. Hollywood loves to create multi-million dollar war movies featuring tanks and highly choreographed battlefields. And whilst that is by no means an issue, what some lack are a significant and innovative core storyline with intelligent and well established characters. Saboteurs is an elegant, visceral show with a somewhat muted tone designed to heighten characterisation and lower the need for big budget CGI – the opposite of the recent trend of war dramas. Saboteurs is therefore an excellent example of an exciting, fresh, and emotionally visceral period drama that proves the benefits of a multi-national production.

Available to purchase here

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