How’s your World War II history? How about your Norwegian World War II history? If, like me, it’s a bit ropey in places then The Saboteurs, a new Norwegian/British/German co-production, will be a welcome sight. However, if you’re confident you know your Operation Grouse from your Operation Gunnerside, well, there’s still something for you to enjoy here too. Because The Saboteurs is a fine piece of television.
The series weaves together a large number of storylines, taking in German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), Norwegian resistance fighter Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner) and British SOE operative Julie Smith (Anna Friel). What connects these disparate figures is a hydroelectric plant in Norway which produces heavy water – a key component in atomic research. The Saboteurs then is based on the real life attempts by the Allies to destroy the plant and halt the Nazi nuclear program in its tracks.It’s important to note that the series is only based on real events, including several fictional characters. Whilst this may lessen the show’s impact as a work of history, it makes it a more effective piece of television. Ellen Henriksen (Maibritt Saerens) the lonely wife of the plant’s director, is entirely made up, yet through her we get the most exploration of the series’ main theme – to whom do you owe your loyalty? She and Heisenberg are interesting opposites here; though Ellen is unhappy following her husband to the remote factory, though she dislikes the idea of collaborating with the Nazis, she knows it is in the best interests of her family and the families under their employ. Heisenberg, meanwhile, fixates only on the possibility of scientific advance. It seems his loyalty is to himself.
A lot of time is devoted to Heisenberg in the first half of the series, only for him to take a backseat as the Norwegian missions truly get underway, and he may be the series’ weakest component. It’s almost as if the show pulls its punch with his motivations, throwing as many excuses at the wall and hoping that they’ll all stick. At first he is strong-armed into joining the Nazi atomic program, threatened with allegations of homosexuality and sympathy towards Jewish scientists. Later he seems blinded by his own ambition, ignoring the Nazis’ interest in an atomic bomb, but he comes across as neither naïve or stupid enough to truly believe this.
Whilst the first two episodes are rather slow in pace, introducing the many characters and the task at hand, the latter half of the season is where it really lets rip. Not only is there a truly riveting ski chase, but the main attack on the factory, Operation Gunnerside, is an achingly tense sequence. The commandos’ silent assault on the factory, after scaling a snowy ravine, is played out almost in real time, making you feel every second. It’s also beautifully shot; the snow-covered landscape under a full moon looks like an alien world.
The Norwegian resistance fighters are the real stars of the show, though (as they should be). After being left to fend for themselves on a mountain plateau when a mission goes tragically wrong, they slowly starve, surviving only on moss. Did they ever waiver in their resolve? Did they ever start to wonder if they’d been abandoned? We don’t know. It seems a shame that for such major characters, we didn’t get to spend more time with them. As it was, I had difficulty keeping track of them all.
Though you of course go into it knowing that the Nazis’ nuclear program was unsuccessful, it is the fate of the individuals which packs the most punch. But, as with any historic adaptation, you have the inherent trouble that real life does not always come with a happy ending. But that shouldn’t put anyone off. The Saboteurs tells an important story, and tells it very well indeed.