In the Norwegian miniseries WAR SAILOR (Netflix), merchant sailors at sea when Germany invades Norway are drafted into the Allied war effort, suffering the horrors of the Battle of the Atlantic. Harrowing and relentlessly anti-war, it’s a horrific depiction of this little-known part of history, the merchant sailors who helped save England and win the war.
Originally a movie fleshed out with unused footage into a compact miniseries, WAR SAILOR chronicles WW2 through the eyes of close friends Alfred and Sigbjorn, merchant sailors, and Alfred’s wife and children back in Norway living through the German occupation and Allied bombings.
Watching the trailer, I thought I’d be watching a Hollywood-style production about men caught in war who step up with heroism and save the day. I was happy to be totally wrong. You get the heroism–the quiet, desperate, personal, I-have-no-choice kind–but the story is relentlessly bleak, with even the happy endings being their own brand of sad, almost absent of much-desired catharsis.
The filmmaker interviewed numerous merchant sailors and their families to incorporate as much realism into his tale, and it shows. During the war, 1,100 commercial ships were drafted into the Atlantic supply chain keeping England and the USSR in the war, and around 4,000 died at sea due to plane and submarine attacks. This is their story, and again it’s not a happy one.
The actors are all terrific, the characters human and likable. There are skips in time right into slice-of-life action that are a little jarring, and there are slow moments showing the characters waiting–presenting war’s tedium–but then everything gets torn apart in an action scene that is frankly horrifying. In one scene, the churn of the ship’s engine becomes a soundtrack building tension until the startling moment the SHTF and everything goes sideways.
At the end, you see the quiet desperation of a man who was broken by what happened to him, no longer the man he was, unable to talk about it. There’s a incredible moment when he sees a comrade from the war after many years, and they fall into a teary silence as seeing the other man triggers a flood of memories. So much drama packed in a single minute between two men sitting without dialogue.
Overall, I loved WAR SAILOR and would happily recommend it, though note it becomes steadily more bleak to the point of helpless frustration–which is the series’ point.