When the UK started to take notice of the fantastic drama being produced across Europe, it was BBC Four that was the place to find it – with Wallander and The Killing being followed by a wave of worthy successors. Since January this year, however, Channel 4 is the place to go for quality foreign drama, thanks to its Walter Presents platform – a set of foreign programming curated by Italian producer Walter Iuzzolino.
One of the latest entries to Walter Presents is The Border, which became the first Polish show broadcast on UK television when it aired this summer. And, if it’s any indicator of the quality of Polish drama, then it might not be long before a few more productions find their way on our screens.
The Border, originally titled ‘Wataha’ – translated literally as the ‘pack’ or ‘wolfpack’- is set in the stunning Bieszczady Mountain range, along the southernmost part of the border between Poland and Ukraine, and focuses on members of the border patrol unit stationed there, specialising in human-trafficking – the titular pack, referring both to their nickname in the show and their wolf-life mentality patrolling the border. Yet after an explosion at a cabin leaves only one survivor – the border units own Captain Wiktor Rebrow (Leszek Lichota) – tensions naturally arise amongst those who remain.
The border control aspect makes for an unsurprisingly topical show – all the more so as the Poland-Ukraine border is not just a border between nations, but a key part of the border to the European Union and the mainland Schengen Area – a pact that creates within the participating states (crucially not including the UK nor Ireland, both of whom maintain conditional opt-outs) an area with common visa eligibility and soft borders.
It’s natural then that access to the area itself would be a particularly important affair, and that’s before considering the current political climate of Ukraine – as of this week, 25 years on from their secession from the USSR and subsequent Declaration of Independence, yet still facing major interference by Putin and Russia.
While the exact situation might be different to that of the UK, the sentiments and situations as a result of border control efforts will certainly be familiar to British viewers. The show opens with the pack tracking a group of Chechen refugees making their way through the mountainous border passage, yet the thermal imaging, local geographical knowledge and sheer manpower at the disposal of the border guards showing the enormity of the task facing those trying to cross, stopped in this case with ease.
What is important to note however, is that the show tries to present a balanced view of the situation. The border is shown to be used for humane and inhumane efforts – with smuggling of people and assets rife as it is in real life – while there is no one universal attitude towards the border within the unit or the show at large. The Bieszczady Warrant Officer Nathalia (Magdalena Popławska) is sympathetic towards those trying to cross, in particular a young girl who is orphaned at the start of the show who she tries to take care of; yet many of the local villagers around the border are particularly hostile to those they consider foreign in culture and identity. Neither is presented as the ‘right’ approach, allowing the viewer to make their own conclusions.Yet while the eponymous divide is an important part of the show, it isn’t the single focus and catalyst for all that occurs. Instead – much like the most recent series of Line of Duty, which took in the ongoing investigations into historical sexual abuse of children as a backdrop – the border serves as a framework to the unfolding drama surrounding the explosion, those it affected, and the deceit it uncovers. It’s certainly a key factor – not least in that nearly all the main characters are based in and around the Polish side – but it’s not ultimately the driving force behind the plot. Rather, the crime drama itself has enough substance to it to stand on its own, and, equally, this allows a realistic and effective exploration of the issues surrounding smuggling, migration, movement of labour and identity that naturally occur in such an area.
Indeed, the plot is one that wastes no time in driving itself. Minutes after the Chechen migrants are captured, the whole show turns on its head. Just as viewers might be getting comfortable, as Rebrow, Ewa, his girlfriend & another member of the pack, and other members of their unit celebrate a retiring colleague, ‘boom’. Rebrow leaves the cabin to wait for Ewa, only to receive a text containing that four-letter word moments before the explosion kills all but him. This unsurprisingly draws suspicion towards him, in particular from the District Attorney, Iga Dobosz (coincidentally played by Aleksandra Popławska, elder sister of Magdalena), setting in motion a plot that evolves and develops speedily over the course of the six episode first season. This – if anything – is the only potential flaw of the show, with the pacy nature meaning it’s occasionally hard to keep track of some developments, with a few ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moments throughout. Yet this doesn’t really detract from what is an unusually tightly knit plot for a crime drama, with no particular leaps of logic needed to keep things going.
It’s a classic ‘no-one is definitely innocent’ drama, which benefits from a strong central performance from Lichota as Rebrow – equal parts wounded hero and questionable villain. Alongside him the supporting cast more than carry their own, all of which means it’s hard to know who to truly trust, and indeed more than one character has something to hide. While the end of the season brought the plot to a satisfying climax for now – revealing at least some of the perpetrators behind the explosion and the wider conspiracy – the final shots suggested that yet more still hasn’t been revealed, with a second series confirmed by producers HBO Europe.And let’s not forget the beauty that lies in the scenery of the Bieszczady Mountains. It would be hard for such a landscape to be portrayed badly – look on Google Images and you’ll get the idea – but the show still does a great job of using the location and accompanying atmosphere at the right moments. It’s a stunning area, but a dangerous one all the same, with a number of predators roaming the mountains.
All in all, The Border is a must-watch. Combining a gripping crime thriller and a topical backdrop relevant not just to Poland but to the UK as well, it’s exactly the kind of show that’s perfect for television right now.
The Border is released on DVD on Monday 5th September by Nordic Noir & Beyond.