One of the most harrowing events of not only the twentieth century, but in the history of the world itself, brilliantly comes to DVD via the Mhz/Nordsk Film & TV Fond release of the magnificent 2015 Norwegian mini-series THE HEAVY WATER WAR.
For those unfamiliar with the term “heroes of Telemark” (either the actual operation or the excellent, underrated 1966 Anthony Mann movie), it’s the story of a handful of patriots who risked life and limb to prevent the horrific consequences of Hitler beating the Allies to the atomic bomb.
The series, filmed where it happened (in Norway, Germany and Britain), traces the terrifying incidents that led up to the final, victorious (though admittedly) devastating triumph.
The story began in 1933 at a Stockholm makeshift science summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners. Present were tacticians and other learned men and women who pioneered the then-barely known area of atomic fission…and what that power could do.
By 1939, the Nazis were already thinking of the total destruction and were in the embryonic stages of recruiting scientists from all over the globe. Chief among these was a prime atomic proponent, Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), who had earlier accepted the German offers. Not that he was dedicated to mass murder; rather he was a man obsessed (“War is good for science.”). Like Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson, who just wanted to build that damn bridge, Heisenberg was addicted to getting there first, proving what atomic power was capable of. A childish genius, he thought nothing of the potentially catastrophic results because, as we all know, the Nazis were so altruistic and kind, only thinking of the betterment of the planet. Oy vey!
The other two stories that intertwine THE HEAVY WATER WARS are no less fascinating and far more reasonable. Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Heiner) is a young Norwegian scientist smuggled out of Norway by the British to help plan the race to atomic supremacy with the Americans and the French. Norway became the focal point for this deadly competition because of the Rjukan-based Vemork power plant’s production of heavy water, conducive to the success of atomic energy. The Vermork company was the only dedicated factory able to produce the substance, mercifully a slow process. The Nazi high command immediately took over the concern, lining the pockets of the local big business CEOs with money. (“Heavy water – they want a lot, and they pay a lot.”).
The British and the Norwegian patriots agreed that the Vemork must be either sabotaged or destroyed in toto, no matter what the cost. To this end, a small group of local Norwegian skiers, who knew the area well, were imported to the UK for demolition training. Scandinavian winter was a treacherous time of the year and the implications for failure were grim, and not on the side of the good fight (“They were never meant to make it out” is the grim but honest prognosis).
Indeed, the first of four missions ended disastrously; but the Brits, led by General Wilson (Pip Torrens) and Officer Julie Smith (the wonderful Anna Friel), worked fastidiously with Tronstad, regrouped famously and tried again…and again. The cost of losing this battle was nothing short of Nazi worldwide reign. We obviously all know the awful outcome of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; with the tables turned, it would almost surely have been New York (or Chicago/Los Angeles/San Francisco) and London. Yeah, it was THAT close, with the future of civilization as we know it, in the hands of likely the most courageous team of expendable partisans in recorded history.
The final tale that weaves the complete tapestry is that of a reluctant appointed Norwegian businessman/Nazi stooge/figureheard Bjorn Henriksen (Dennis Storhoi). He and his wife (Maibritt Sarens) live the good life, due to his raise in position (even though their beloved servant staff is being tortured by their country’s occupiers). That Henriksen realizes all too well what could happen (far more astutely than Heisenberg, who’s a lost cause) is a Schindler-esque account with far more potentially calamitous consequences.
The planning, the failures, the regrouping, the traitors vs. raiders, the success, the bittersweet final mission…it’s all here, it’s all true and it’s quite simply one of the best TV mini-series I’ve ever seen!
The six-part show (on three DVDs) doesn’t miss a trick: nail-biting tension, suspense, surprise, even romance. The accounts of a downed group waiting for the “go” signal is absolutely jaw-dropping (trapped without proper food or shelter for a grueling long period). It’s one of those classic instances of “if someone made this narrative up, no one buy it.”
This is all superseded by the heart-wrenching finale, necessary but lethal – an undertaking that compromised scores of innocents, some related to the principals involved.
If that isn’t enough, there’s the climactic capper – the “what happened to the key players post-Telemark” epilogue, some of which will hit you like an iron mallet in the gut.
The aforementioned performances, action sequences, writing (by Petter S. Rosenlund, with script development by Lars Krisitan Andersen, Mette M. Balstad, Michael W. Horstenand Adam Price), widescreen photography (John Christian Rosenlund) and music (Kristian Eidnes Andersen) are superb on all fronts. The engrossing direction by Per-Olav Sorensen is aces on all counts, the stuff careers are deservedly built upon. And MHz couldn’t have done a better job in transferring the series onto a trio of 16 x 9 anamorphic platters (although, as I’ve oft said before, I wish they would move on to Blu-Ray). Nevertheless the images are sharp, the colors vibrant, the stereo-surround (with dialog in Norwegian, German and English, all with nicely-rendered subtitles) quite effective and movie-theater equivalent.
It’s so unbelievable how close we came to a man-made fascist nightmare of apocalyptic proportions. And how much we owe to a small band of freedom fighters who boldly defined the “unsung” part of absolute heroism.
THE HEAVY WATER WAR. Color. Widescreen [1.75:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround [Norwegian/German/English w/English subtitles]. MHz Choice/Nordsk Film & TV Fond. CAT # 16884; SRP: $39.95.