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The Saboteurs, More4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Saboteurs, More4

The Saboteurs, More4

Jaw-jaw not war-war makes for an involving and tense drama

Anna Friel and a gravity defying hat try to stop the Nazis

The 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, documenting the Allies' mission to stop the Nazis from going nuclear, is to historical accuracy what David Starkey is to tact. Or common decency. The Saboteurs however, a Norwegian/Danish/British TV co-production, seems to be keener to explore the truth behind the mission. Or at least as much of it as is known.

After the first episode’s slow, measured pace, we began the second in a secret military base in Scotland with a stronger sense of urgency. If we had any doubts as to just how urgent things were, these were soon quashed as the entire plan was explained to us via a clipped, businesslike walk and talk down a busy corridor with Captain Smith (Anna Friel), Colonel Wilson (Pip Torrens) and Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Hoiner). The eyes-front team talk accomplished what it set out to, but it did leave me wondering whether, given the fact they were explaining every detail of one of the most important missions in the whole of World War II, they might have considered doing it in a room with the doors closed. Also, try talking to someone behind you and listening to the answer without turning round. Go on, try it. It’s the conversational equivalent of eating a doughnut without licking your lips. The West Wing has a lot to answer for.

A summary execution by German forces gave the prospect of living on a diet of moss and splinters a certain appeal

In any case, the operation – codename Grouse – was now clear: to blow German nuclear ambition out of the "heavy water" it depended on to bomb the world into submission. Like the series opener, there was more jaw-jaw than war-war, and it’s to the show’s credit that this didn’t mean a shortage of tension – the bustle of the British and Allied armed forces is set against the crystalline calm of their target – a snow-covered factory in Rjukan, Norway, and this allowed for an effectively unsettling push-pull as we switched between the two. Things – and people – in Norway were calm, understated and so naturalistic that it was, at times, in danger of shining a too-harsh light on the comparatively heavy-handed acting elsewhere, leaving it looking overloaded and feeling exposed – much like the members of the Norwegian team parachuted in to the middle of nowhere with half a ton of equipment to pave the way for the soldiers who would follow in their wake.

Given the appalling conditions, and the fact they were dropped way off course, the show seemed to skip over the plight of the plucky Norwegians somewhat. I will concede, however, that there’s much to get through and worse to come as both supplies and time run out. Having said that, as the follow-up team of commandos crashed and were summarily executed by German forces acting on direct orders from Hitler himself, the prospect of living on a diet of moss and splinters gained a certain appeal. The contrast with the pace up until this point gave this scene genuine shock value – the first real sign of the brutality of war in this wartime drama.

While all this was going on, there was another story being told – one that has a similar factual root, but with the fine detail moot. The role of Werner Heisenberg in the "Uranium Club", spearheading German research into nuclear fission, is equally fascinating and its depiction here, no less interesting. In particular, the 1942 meeting between Heisenberg and fellow physicist Nils Bohr, made famous in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, was understated yet brimming with concealed fury and consequence. Little is known of what was actually said, save for letters written by the pair that allude to the conversation, but the decision to play Heisenberg’s naivety and arrogance with sufficient nuance to allow him some moral wriggle room further down the line was a good one. “If we let the war serve the science, there is no danger,” he said, seemingly unaware of the crippling irony in someone with such a dedication to science seeing only what they wish to. “They want value for money and results… and ideally something that explodes," was the devastatingly prosaic response from Bohr.

This scene, like many before it, communicated much with little and continued to follow characters rather than story. By focusing on individuals in this way, and micro stories, the outcome of which we are unsure, The Saboteurs manages to convey a convincing sense of foreboding peril with an attractive complexity. Given that we all know how this played out in the grander scheme, this is probably just as well.

It manages to convey a convincing sense of foreboding peril with an attractive complexity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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