Netflix review: ‘The Heavy Water War’


Photo credit: Robert Holand Dreier

In 1965 a film was made in Britain about the WWII Norwegian Resistance sabotage of the German heavy water project at Rjukan, Norway. It was called Heroes of Telemark, it starred Kirk Douglas, and it was essentially an upbeat and rather frivolous production. Norwegians complained that, in the movie, Kirk personally achieved in about two weeks what it took a whole unit of real saboteurs two years to do.

The 2015 Norwegian/Danish/English production, The Heavy Water War, available for streaming on Netflix, hews closer to the facts. It is artistically superior and far darker.

We follow the main character, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner; in this production, unlike the Douglas movie, the characters go under their real names, except for several fictionalized characters), a Norwegian scientist who escapes to England and joins the British-trained saboteur company there. Leif becomes their leader and gets emotionally involved with British intelligence officer Julie Smith (Anna Freil; a fictional character), but not so far as to actually commit adultery (they’re both married). We follow Leif and his company through the disastrous initial glider operation meant to destroy the Rjukan plant. Then follows the famous raid, where they succeed in blowing up the equipment, housed in the cellar of the factory. And after that, the hard decision to blow up the passenger ferry carrying the remaining heavy water out of the country, at the cost of civilian lives.

But there are actually three main threads in the narrative. We follow the manager of the heavy water plant (another fictionalized character) as he self-justifies his collaboration, and his troubled wife, who diverts her fears by mothering the daughter of her house maid. We also follow scientist Werner Heisenberg in Germany, singlemindedly focused on the scientific aspects of the atomic bomb project, refusing to think in moral categories. Each of these characters is treated as a full, complex human being. The viewer is left to make judgments.

My complaints are few. I wish the actors had looked more like the people they portray. The producers made the decision to suggest strongly that the explosion of the ferry was probably unnecessary (this, I believe, is a matter of dispute among historians).

The Heavy Water War is challenging, and sometimes tragic, but definitely worth watching. Recommended, for grownups.

2 thoughts on “Netflix review: ‘The Heavy Water War’”

  1. This was on our local PBS “3rd” station (we receive three digital signals for our PBS station, one — this one — which tends to specialize in foreign broadcasts) the other night as I was flipping through. Kept seeing “The Heavy Water War” on the station guide & wondered about the program, but flipped past it. Guess I should have stopped! Drat!

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