“War Sailor (Krigsseileren)” is a Norwegian Tale of Two Sailors. It’s a somber World War II sea saga of sorrow, sacrifice and everything that can go wrong when you sail your merchant ship repeatedly into harm’s way.
Writer-director Gunnar Vikane (“Trigger,” “Vegas”) expertly tells us a grim, reality-based, sometimes melodramatic story of the unique fate of sailors in the Norwegian merchant marine during the war. In three installments, he takes us from 1939, when friends Freddy (Kristoffer Joner of “The Wave”) and Sigbjørn (Pål Sverre Hagen of “Kon Tiki”) put to sea, all through the perils they faced as their country was occupied by the Germans and Norwegian sailors were pressed into service with the Allies for the duration.
In brisk, claustrophobic and impressionistic strokes, Vikane takes us through almost everything such unsung heroes of the war experienced — homesickness to losing comrades, a sinking and a near sinking — traveling from New York to Britain, Malta to Halifax, Nova Scotia in U-Boat infested waters, facing air raids as well any time they approached German-occupied Europe.
We also catch glimpses of life in occupied Norway as Freddy’s wife (Ine Marie Wilmann, who played Sonja Henie in “Sonja: The White Swan”) and three children struggle on, without his income, bartering for food and trying to maintain some semblance of normality in the Laksevåg corner of suburban Bergen until their husband and father comes home.
“The fog of war” is never mentioned or referenced, but it’s here from the start as Vikane’s script accurately limits what every character and any civilian at that time knew and didn’t know. Nobody could tell how long this would last. No letters got through, even though Freddy writes (and narrates) them from every ship they’re posted on, from every port of call.
Wife Cecilia gets Sigbjørn to make a promise about Freddy as they depart, pre-war. He will “look after him and bring him home,” Sigbjørn vows (in Norwegian with subtitles, or dubbed into English).
But the nature of the service and Freddy’s unique gifts at managing the crew as a mate (and union steward) mean that he’s the one looking after engine-room mechanic Sigbjørn much of the time.
They’re traumatized by survivors of other sinkings that they’re not allowed to stop long enough to pick up. And when they do get a survivor on board, both men make keeping young, illiterate orphan Aksel (Leon Tobias Slettbakk) alive. He started work at 14, never learned to swim and is only useful as galley labor with the cook, Hanna (Alexandra Gjerpen), the lone woman on board when the ship is pressed into service, with Norwegian government in exile permission, to feed and arm Britain to fight on alone against the fascists.
That’s one big fact that this Around the World with Netflix series reveals to the world at large. These seamen had no choice and no respite. They had no home to go home to, would be treated as “traitors” if they jumped ship, even moreso if they actually made their way back to Norway. They were working for shipping concerns most of them had learned not to trust, organizations that held their pay and their combat bonuses pretty much throughout the war.
These were ordinary men and boys, with some 100 women among them, according to a graphic in the series, who were basically galley slaves, undecorated combatants trapped on board helpless floating targets for six years.
The performances are understated for the most part, appropriately desperate and at times, the very emobidment of knee-buckling grief at others. Vikane and his players don’t spare us the consequences of combat — grievous wounds seen in close-up, bodies suspended beneath the surface of the sea, children’s corpses gently carried away from a bombed school.
In the slow-to-get-going first installment, we meet and get to know our protagonists and invest in their fates. Episode two is when the terror becomes most real, with air raids, “TORPEDO!” alarms, a catastrophic bombing on the shooting-gallery journey to British Malta in the Mediterreanean, and the grim realization that they’ve got to get off their latest ship as the war has tested and run through all of their luck. They know it’s time to go when they’re assigned to make the deadliest, least-survivable voyage of all — to Soviet Murmansk, northeast of Iceland, due east of the farthest point north of Norway.
And episode three doesn’t let the viewer off the hook, as we take in the anticlimactic “end” to the war and the PTSD aftershock of everything everyone went through.
One of the things being a global streaming service has taught Netflix is the sorts of titles each culture’s national cinema creates that travel best and translate most easily abroad. We’re treated to Spanish sex farces, rom-coms and dramas, French and Polish thrillers, Korean and Vietnamese action and horror, Chinese and Taiwanese period pieces, dramas and ghost stories, Italian sex comedies, and from Scandinavia — movies or series about a corner of World War II that the rest of the Netflix world knows little about.
“War Sailor” joins Denmark’s “The Bombardment” and Norway’s “Navik” as Netflix gems that bring the broader scope of World War II in Europe home to the parts of the world that shipped food, weapons, soldiers and sailors to save. These aren’t “forgotten” episodes so much as simply history that’s not public knowledge outside of their home countries.
And Vikane, using hand-held cameras to take us into the chaos of air raids on board ship and in occupied Norway, does a fine job of putting us in the manic middle of it all. Parallel editing makes such raids coincide, with Cecilia frantically rushing to fetch her children as Freddy dashes from bridge to deck to engine room shouting “Alarm!” because there was no intercom, no klaxon of warning on board the often-aging and despairingly disposable merchant ships and the men and women who sailed them.
Rating: TV-MA, violence
Cast: Kristoffer Joner, Pål Sverre Hagen, Ine Marie Wilmann, Alexandra Gjerpen and Leon Tobias Slettbakk.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Gunnar Vikane. A Netflix release.
Running time: 3 episodes @:56 minutes each