Director: Gunnar Vikene (Norway). Year of Release: 2022
1939, 8 months before the German occupation of Norway, the Bergen shipyards. Alfred (aka Freddie) is really a cook, but he’s recently only been able to find work as a labourer. Even then, he’s only had one paid day in the last 3 weeks, and is struggling to provide for his wife Cecilia and their three children. Freddie’s friend Sigbjørn suggests that they get work on one of the ships. The work is guaranteed and it means that they can visit New York, or Trinidad and Tobago.
Alfred’s family, especially his young daughter, Magdeli is less impressed. Wasn’t a ship recently bombed to smithereens? Yes, but that was near Amsterdam. They’re crossing the Atlantic and the US hasn’t entered the war. Nonetheless, on the morning that Alfred is due to set off, Magdeli hides the papers that he needs to travel. Although he tries to reassure her that they’ll be perfectly safe, and that Sigbjørn will bring him safely home, she has had a premonition and is not convinced.
A few months later, and Alfred and Sigbjørn are looking from the deck of their ship at some people floundering in the water. They try to throw a rope down, and Alfred climbs down the rigging to help a couple of them into the ship, including Aksel, a 14.year old boy. But not everybody makes it. Alfred calls to them by name as they disappear into the distance. The ship’s captain sails off, scared at the danger posed by the combined threat of German bombers and U-Boots.
We are about 10 minutes in, and I’m already gripped. Unlike several films I’ve seen recently, we have some real jeopardy. What people do has serious implications. We don’t know any of the characters very well, but we already care what happens to them. Maybe I’m just too cynical, but I found myself wondering whether the film would be able to keep up this level of dramatic tension for 2½ hours (answer: yes it could, albeit not always at this frenetic pace).
The captain tells Alfred to gather everyone together, as he has an announcement to make. Norway has been invaded, and most of its fleet has been seconded to the Royal Navy. They are now in a state of war. Sailors will not be allowed to go home. Alfred and Sigbjørn decide that they’ll support the war effort, but only to protect British babies, not because some “pigs up there” order them to. Alfred continues to write letters to his wife and children, which he knows will never be delivered.
When they dock in New York, the sailors discuss desertion. They support each other, and are particularly worried about the under-age Aksel, Hanna, a woman who was rescued alongside Aksel, and Alfred whose children need a father. This is before they hear that the next journey is to take explosives to Murmansk. It’s close to home but incredibly dangerous. Aksel and Hanna are urged to try to fail the medical check-up (“tell the doctor you have bleeding diarrhoea”).
War Sailor is Norway’s contender for Best Foreign Film, or whatever it’s called, where it’s almost definitely going to be beaten by All Quiet on the Western Front. This is a shame, as I think that War Sailor is not just a superior film, it is a much better anti-war film. And unlike most war films, whether pro- or anti-, it concentrates not on the soldiers, but on the collateral damage – the workers and the people left behind, who also bear the brutal force of military attacks.
Alfred and Cecilia’s stories are told in parallel – he sailing between New York, Liverpool and Malta, and she left alone with the kids in Bergen. There is a phenomenal short section when Bergen and Alfred’s ship are attacked simultaneously – by British and German bombers respectively. The camera switches from Alfred, adrift on a piece of wood in the middle of the ocean, and Cecilia scouring the rubble of her children’s school to see if they were among the fatalities.
War Sailor does not just give us scenes of carnage. It also shows us how war brutalises people. Particularly the men are prone to bouts of mindless violence – at one stage on the makeshift raft where there is literally nowhere to run. A coda at the end set on Alfred’s 70th birthday shows how the damage is permanent. Although this final scene didn’t quite work for me, it does emphasize the message that the victims of war are not just those on the battle field.
And then, with still an hour or so to go, we move into a different film entirely (well, almost). It’s 1947, and both Alfred and Cecilia have received government letters informing them of the death of their spouse. Cecilia had, in fact, moved to a new village, leaving just hours before Bergen was reduced to rubble. Alfred and Sigbjørn survived their time afloat in the ocean and were eventually rescued. But when he heard of his wife’s apparent death, Alfred disappeared to Singapore.
Sigbjørn visits Cecilia to tell her that her husband is still alive, although he has no idea where his friend ended up. Tired and lonely, she lets him stay on the sofa, even though he is way too tall to fit on it properly. She tells him to stay as long as he wants, then one night tells him that it’s time for him to sleep in a proper bed. Sigbjørn becomes part of the family, particularly as father to young Olav. Then he receives a letter, written in his old friend’s handwriting.
I was put off from going to War Soldier because of its length – I only went today as it’s about to disappear from the Berlin programme. Don’t make my mistake, and try to see it as soon as you can. It is a powerful film full of moments which are literally breathtaking – I found myself having to gasp for breath as I’d been so caught up with the intensity. Or maybe you enjoy a film more when you know little about it and are expecting nothing. In which case, unread my review and just go.