Before tuning into a period drama centered around a war, the first question that crosses one’s mind is, what is the point of telling this particular story? Usually, these stories are available to the public via newspapers, books, and articles on the internet. But it’s possible that people aren’t aware of that or can’t access it for a variety of reasons because availability and accessibility are two different things. Movies and shows are much more accessible as a medium, and hence, putting a story into a film, a miniseries, or both, in this case, makes sense. However, why should one watch a recreation of a horrific time in human history in such terrifying detail? Simply put, it’s to remind us not to reiterate any version of these atrocities and to voice our concerns as soon as we see the symptoms of potential bloodshed and international or national conflict. With all that in mind, let’s talk about the Netflix miniseries titled “War Sailor” or “Krigsseileren.”
“War Sailor” was a 2022 film written and directed by Gunnar Vikene that was sent as Norway’s entry to the 2023 Oscars. Although it didn’t make the cut, Netflix announced an adaptation of the film as a three-episode miniseries, also titled “War Sailor,” which is also directed and written by Vikene. Spanning over three decades, it opens in 1948 with Sigbjørn (Pål Sverre Hagen) finding Alfred (Kristoffer Joner) drugged out of his mind in Singapore, and then takes the narrative all the way back to 1939 Bergen to track how things went so bad for one of the protagonists. Alfred and Sigbjørn are best buddies who are doing their best to get a job and hold on to it. Alfred is married to Cecilia (Ine Marie Wilmann), and they have three children, Magdeli, William, and Olav. One day, Alfred and Sigbjørn are tasked with helping England and the rest of the Allied Forces to fight off Germany. This takes the duo through a tumultuous journey that forces them to see many deaths, dodge a lot of torpedoes, and tolerate all kinds of trauma, while Alfred’s family does the same as Bergen is bombed into smithereens.
“War Sailor” certainly does a lot of things. It explores the dynamic between Alfred and his family and how Alfred’s family views Sigbjørn. As the setting takes to the open waters, Alfred and Sigbjørn’s relationship is fleshed out, and we see how deep their love for each other runs. Then we run into Alfred and Sigbjørn’s crew members, Hanna (Alexandra Gjerpen), Braathen (Arthur Hakalahti), Monsen (Karl Vidar Lende), and Aksel (Leon Tobias Slettbakk), and how they treat each other as the family away from home. They constantly have conversations about the lives they’ve left behind and the lives they think they will go back to. But since the return journey depends on the longevity of the war, Vikene takes a multi-faceted approach to unpack it. He shows the sense of apathy that comes with war. If someone doesn’t care about the country, then they are deemed a coward or a turncoat and denied any form of employment. He highlights how committing to the cause can eventually be futile because the time (and money) that’s lost due to a war cannot be won back. And he painfully illustrates how improper communication can fundamentally alter the trajectories of the aforementioned relationships.
The intimacy of the dramatic moments of “War Sailor,” the action-heavy beats, and every agonizing minute that lies between them are all equally intense in Gunnar Vikene’s miniseries. All the conversation scenes make you feel like you are sitting beside them, trying to make the most of these little snippets of peace that you have and then dreading what’s waiting for you out there. The scenes where cities are being bombed, or ships are being sunk have that same level of immersiveness, as Vikene comes as close as he can to putting you in the shoes of these characters. The slow reveal of the bombed school engulfed in smoke and the shot of a hole in the ship as seen from the inside are etched into my mind. Then there are the scenes where Alfred and Sigbjørn try to pacify Aksel, who is clearly hurting, while a relatively unknown sailor grapples with their predicament by turning to God. It’s so gut-wrenching that every time the miniseries cuts from Alfred’s family to these survivors, you wish that they were dead because death will be a gift in comparison to what they’re going through. All in all, the cinematographer, production designer, editors, art directors, costume designers, sound designers, VFX artists, and hair and makeup designers have done a fantastic job.
The performances from the cast of “War Sailor” are top-notch. I am sure you’ll remember Kristoffer Joner from the opening minutes of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” and with each passing minute of the miniseries, you’ll realize that he’s one of the best actors working in the world of entertainment. The way he essays this feeling of melancholy is incredible. Pål Sverre Hagen brings a sense of warmth to the damp and harsh atmosphere of the miniseries. Every time he’s on screen, you begin to hope that things are going to be alright. Ine Marie Wilmann, who had already impressed me with the Norwegian Netflix film “Troll,” is genuinely amazing as Cecilia. All the child and teenage actors are great, but Henrikke Lund Olsen is a cut above the rest. The rest of the cast, which form the crew members of the ships, stop feeling like actors after a point, thereby giving the miniseries a documentary-like tone. But, out of all of them, I suppose Leon Tobias Slettbakk’s turn as Aksel is going to stick with you the most, not just because of his performance but also because of what his character actually symbolizes.
In conclusion, “War Sailor” is a tough watch, especially if you are aware of all the wars that are being waged all around the world as you read this sentence. Yes, I did start this review by stating that the purpose of war dramas is to remind us that we shouldn’t resort to physical violence on a global scale. But, given the circumstances, I think we are way past that point now, and remembering wars from the past to contextualize the present is a redundant exercise. It’s a well-made and probably well-intentioned miniseries. However, if you require a piece of entertainment to wake up to the gutter that we are in currently, then we’ve already lost. Still, I am mustering every ounce of optimism I can tell you to watch this ode to the Norwegian lives that were sacrificed so that you can be motivated to do your bit to help the lives that are being lost in real time due to idiotic men and their thirst for power and control.