Coming off of Netflix this week is a Norwegian TV mini-series, The Heavy Water War (originally Kampen om tungtvannet). The six episode series is a dramatization of the Nazi nuclear program, the Norwegian Deuterium Oxide factory that supplied it, and the British operation to disable the program. It is in the appropriate language for the scene and characters which means, variously, English, Norwegian, German, and Danish.
Once again, this is a series pushed onto me by Netflix (using their old rating system), which I ignored until they threatened to remove it from streaming (and it is not available from them on DVD). Once again, I am pleased that I was pushed over the edge. This series was well worth the time.
The story starts before the war and gives the background of the German atomic program and the use of heavy water, which they purchased from Norway’s Norsk Hydro. A single production facility, at the Vemork Hydro-electric plant, was responsible for all the world’s heavy water. As war began, the Allies were aware of Germany’s use of it in their program and, via the French, secured all of the Norwegian stock to prevent delivery. Once Germany took Norway by invasion, they had direct and unimpeded access to the production.
The heart of the story, and most of the episodes, covers the commando raids run out of Scotland to disable the production through sabotage. After an initial failure to insert British commandos, a second successful raid was conducted by entirely Norwegians.
What I really appreciate about this series is the production value. The props and costumes seem well researched, and the quality is excellent – particularly for made-for-television. The actors match (at least for the most part, I didn’t look them up one-by-one), in language and nationality, the characters that they portray. This adds another level of fidelity. When an American begins shouting about bombing the factory, I know they’re using a real American by the accent. Similarly the Norwegian who “grew up in America” has the right accent.
I wasn’t watching every aspect of the firearms usage, but they appeared to make some extra effort in that regard as well. When the commandos prepare to use their pistols, the hammer is actually back – a detail neglected in many Hollywood usages of single-action pistols. Firearms run out of ammo and otherwise seems realistic when used. The range of weapons used also seems to have been researched. In actuality, the use of Thompson submachine guns by the successful raid was an important part of the plan. The saboteurs left a Tommy gun behind to demonstrate that it was a British-executed attack, not the work of locals – thus attempting to avoid reprisals.
Similarly, those characters that are living through depredation genuinely look pretty haggard. I don’t think the actors actually starved themselves for the roll, but a little bit of beard and makeup can go a long way. There have been too many series where the lead characters can be in the wilderness for weeks or months, and still have perfect hair and makeup.
Oddly enough, the scenes sneaking into the factory gave me some Medal of Honor flashback moments. I guess its the combination of the German guard houses and their unique paint schemes, which I only recall from within the video game. It may also have something to do with the similarity of the mission to the final Medal of Honor:Allied Assault mission. I also had a nice James Bond flashback. A dramatic scene has one of the Norwegians fleeing the site of their hideout on skis, at which point he is pursued by a squad of skiing Germans. Where James Bond did (and many a production would be tempted to do) have active shootouts and stunt jumps punctuating the chases, this one is portrayed in what to me seems like a very realistic manner. For the shootout portion, the German and the Norwegian actually stop, struggle to dislodge their pistols from their winter overclothes, and then somewhat-awkwardly exchange fire.
As nearly always is the case with a historical drama, details have been changed to serve the story. In several cases non-historical characters play a major role and details of the events have been tweaked. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand, I don’t know enough about these historical events to realize what I was missing. I was able to enjoy the story and accept it as it was told.
The story set viewing records when it was aired on Norwegian television in 2015. Sadly, it will never get that level of viewing in this country. I’m glad I managed to catch it as I could.