What of the most satisfying things about watching TV and movies made outside of the Hollywood/UK entertainment axis is that you're exposed to stories that are centered in unfamiliar cultural experiences. It's always fascinating to see a familiar historical moment framed from a perspective that you had never considered. And it's a special bonus when the project is as well-made as the Norwegian-made film War Sailor.
I call it a film even though it is premiering on Netflix Sunday as a three-part "limited series" because that is the way it was originally released last year in Norway. Krigsseileren (the film's original name) cost $11 million, which apparently makes it the most expensive original film ever produced in the country. The movie ultimately grossed $5.4 million at the box office and was later chosen to be Norway's submission for this year's International Feature Film entry at the Oscars.
The film is now premiering globally on Netflix, albeit re-named War Sailor and cut into three episodes. But no matter the form, the movie is just a stunning piece of work from director Gunnar Vikene, who has crafted an expansive and bittersweet story about the high price paid by the Norwegian merchant fleet in WWII.
Alfred (Kristoffer Joner) is a merchant sailor with a loving wife, young children, and a best friend, fellow sailor Sigbjørn (Pål Sverre Hagen). Alfred is reluctant to go back to sea with a war brewing, even though Norway seems to be out of harm's way for now. But all he knows is the sea and he and Sigbjørn sign on to sail one more time and find themselves caught up in a World War.
The Norwegian Merchant Marine ships are a vital part of the war effort, but they paid a heavy price. By the end of the war more than half the fleet - over 700 ships - were lost and one out of nine Norwegian sailors lost their lives. Alfred and Sigbjørn face danger after danger while separated for years from their home.
But things aren't any better back in Norway. Alfred's wife Cecilia (Ine Marie Wilmann) is trying to raise three children while the shipping company withholds Alfred’s salary until he returns. It is impossible to communicate with Alfred and after the Germans invade Norway, residents have to deal with both an occupation and near-constant bombing from Allied planes. The local school is destroyed and by the time the war is over, no one is sure who remains alive to come back home to.
There are a number of stunning sequences, most notably a long segment where Alfred, Sigbjørn and another sailor try to remain alive after their ship is sunk. And the constant bombings at home have a horrifying and unpredictable feel that brings a real resonance to the suffering of the townsfolk.
The final minutes of the film are quiet, down in a flash-forward of a number of decades. And while I don't want to say anything specific about the scenes, they are as bittersweet and heartbreaking as anything I've seen in a long time.
The cast is uniformly excellent. American audiences might recognize Ine Marie Wilmann from the recent Netflix film Troll and both she and Ine Marie Wilmann also starred together in the series Furia, which recently premiered in the U.S. on Viaplay (I interviewed the duo for that series). The two actors (along with Kristoffer Joner) tackle the complex roles with confidence and precision. It's a joy to see them work and this film makes me want to see more of their past work.
War Sailor isn't always an easy film (or limited series) to watch, but it's worth it all. This is a story that might not an American war story. But it's one that Americans should know.
War Sailor premieres Sunday, April 3rd, 2023 on Netflix.
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