The scores of Anglo-American movies about World War II leave a lot of the history of that global conflict uncovered, especially the episodes that don’t flatter the domestic movie markets of the English speaking Allies.
But there are riveting stories to be told, of an air raid gone wrong in Copenhagen (“Bombardment”) and of the brief liberation of “Narvik,” Norway during the Allies’ darkest hours — the spring of 1940. Some of the smartest money Netflix is spending these days is on these riveting history lessons in an always popular film genre.
“Narvik” is a Norwegian production about how Norwegian neutrality was violated, and not just by the Germans, and about the coercion used by even the good guys in a desperate struggle to keep Swedish iron ore from turning into German Panzers.
It’s compelling, compact and action-packed, a thriller that begins with testy negotiations and tense stand-offs in the Norwegian port city where Swedish ore was being shipped to both the Germans and the Brits, showing us the difference between Norwegians who chose to surrender to “save the town” and those who chose to fight.
That’s both text and subtext in this up-close-and-personal take on the Norwegian and Allied effort to retake the city from the Germans, a futile fight, history reminds us. But as the historian David McCullough reminded me in an interview once, “The folks making history don’t know, going in, how things will turn out.” That goes for the officers leading the battle, and the civilians struggling to survive the slaughter unleashed on them and all around them.
Erik Skjoldbjærg’s combat thriller personalizes the story by focusing on a Norwegian corporal, Gunnar (Carl Martin Eggesbø), a member of that one company of garrison troops whose commander (played by Henrik Mestad) refuses to surrender, a young man who as a civilian worked on the railroad with his father and thus has experience with explosives.
As his unit marches out of town under the threat of German machine-gunning, Gunnar’s hotel waitress wife Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen) is pressed into service by the Germans as their translator, but also coerced into helping the local British consul escape the enemy’s clutches, hiding him and even pressed into intelligence work.
Because the Allies can ill afford to give up Sweden’s ore and Norwegian access to it. The Brits mine the harbor, and when the Germans attack Norway, the Royal Navy shows up with French and Polish troops to help the Norwegians take it back.
I like how Christopher Grøndahl’s script paints most of the players, nation-actors and characters caught up in the fight in shades of grey.
The neutral Swedes are doing more than just shipping iron ore to any and all buyers. They’re supplying the Germans with ammunition. The Brits were violating Norwegian neutrality every bit as much as the Germans.
And the Norwegians, united as they seemed, didn’t all have the spine to fight. One of the war’s first contributions to global slang was “Quisling,” another word for “traitor” thanks to the Norwegian Nazi (not mentioned here) who helped turn the country over to the Germans.
The only characters who aren’t “grey” here are the ones clad in grey. “Narvik” reminds us that then as now, there’s no such thing as a “good” or “very fine” Nazi or Nazi sympathizer.
Like most war films, “Narvik” ends up over-simplifying the murky politics of survival under occupation. If you’re trying to save yourself, your family and your child, “patriotism” and “national sacrifice” are flowery sentiments that could get you killed.
Skjoldbjærg, who directed the Norwegian thrillers “Pioneer” and “Pyromaniac,” gets maximum suspense out of the stand-offs and visceral action out of the firefights and a tense attempt to dynamite a bridge. The measure of a combat thriller director is how she or he stages the harrowing business of “taking out that machine gun nest,” and Skjoldbjærg passes that with ease.
Convincing digital backgrounds show us the small town as it was in 1940, with much of the fighting staged under grey skies in the deep snowpack of April and early May.
There’s a bit of Norwegian flag-waving in this, another thing that makes “Narvik” different from the hundreds of widely-seen World War II genre thrillers that preceded it — seeing a different flag
But Skjoldbjærg and Grøndahl keep the tone bittersweet. And their stars remind us that for all the maps, strategies and geopolitics taught about World War II, for everybody on the scene and on the ground, the stakes were life and death, and there’s little romantic about that.
Whatever else Netflix is financing these days, they’re getting a great bang for their buck out of every Scandinavian WWII combat film that they back.
Rating: TV-14, violence
Cast: Kristine Hartgen, Carl Martin Eggesbø, Christoph Bach, Henrik Mestad
Credits: Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, scripted by Christopher Grøndahl. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:49