I may be the greatest fan of Wolfgang Petersen´s “Das Boot” for sure. The recently deceased director created one, if not the, best German movie of all times and literally the best submarine movie of this genre. This is why I am a bit reluctant to watch World War II submarine movies, especially when it comes to German subs. The awful “U-571” may serve as only one example why. Similarly reluctant to watch “War Sailor” on Netflix, I gave it a go two days ago. And it was a damn good decision: This movie is absolutely great!
To start with my usually at the end awarded rating: This 3-parter is a 10 out of ten! So, if you haven´t watched it yet, grab yourself a sixpack of beer, a large salty pretzel and turn it on. The three parts, all of which last approximately an hour, can – and maybe must – been watched as a whole in a row. Although this movie is a deeply moving tragedy, it is a stunningly beautiful masterpiece of filmmaking, having excited me like it is seldom achieved by cinematic art.
No spoilers: The story of “War Sailor”
So, without spoiling you, let me tell a bit of this story. It comprises of three major acts, spanning the adult lifetime of the two protagonists, Alfred and Sigbjoern. Starting in 1936 shortly before the war in the small Norwegian coastal town of Bergen, the first part shows the life of those two friends before and shortly after the war has begun. Both are sailors in the Norwegian commercial shipping fleet – which, as we learn right at the end before the credits roll – has significantly contributed to the survival of Great Britain under the German submarine blockade. Ten per cent of these sailors died, almost half of all Norwegian freighters lost to German U-Boats.
The war, of course, is a major caesura for all characters: Alfred and Sigbjoern being drafted to serve as seaman delivering vital goods to the Allieds in the infamous convoys. The film switches back and forth to the family of Sigbjoern, still living in Bergen, under German occupation. These pictures are so strong, so believable and memorable: Right next to the school where Sigbjoern´s daughter and son are taught, a huge U-Boat base is constructed – whereas exactly those U-Boats hunt and kill out in the Atlantic Ocean, cumulating finally in the destruction and sinking of Alfred´s and Sigbjoern´s ship, resulting in a traumatic time drifting on a raft, not knowing if they´d survive or not.
They do get rescued, but as broken men. The third act shows the life of our protagonists after the war. Broken people, haunted by their memories, destroyed by a war in which they had to play their roles, but as non-combatants being absolutely inhibited, stunned. Helpless and without any chance to change or do anything, the roughness and cold reality of war. People who have nothing but to function, taken in by a huge vortex of raw violence without any hope nor any action.
What is a family?
Apart from this new and interesting angle – seldom shows a “war movie” the fate and tales of civilians – “War Sailor” perfectly portrays what family is all about. How a family bond is formed and which variations this social construct can have. In this, the colorfully thrown together crew of Alfred and Sigbjoern´s ship, consisting of old and your, rookies and sailors, even a kid, is shown how the horror of being the prey for the U-boats can bring together people.
In this, the movie takes its time to make us get invested in the characters, learn about their pasts, their hopes and fears. The heavier and abrupt, the more violent our reaction when some of them get killed in the war and leave the family.
It all gets so much stronger when we simultaneously watch the “real” family of Sigbjoern struggle to make a living under German occupation. His wife, Cecilia, growing to supernatural powers to withstand the fear and circumstances of a hard life. As I said, I don´t want to spoil you, but the solution of this movie is a masterpiece in writing, a masterclass in acting. Wonderfully cut, underlined by a great score that does not push itself in the foreground.
Award material for sure!
“War Sailor” was Norway´s entry to the Oscars 2023 as best international Film, which it did not won – nevertheless, the movie rightfully had been nominated for various other awards and won the award by the American Society of Cinematographers for best camera. If you ask me, there should be much more praise for this movie. It is gripping, absolutely heartbreaking, exciting and so damn saddening. A perfect example how to make a tragedy.
I was left speechless and deeply mournful. In the face of so many wars having been going on since this one, in the face of the tragedy that is hurting so many Russians, Ukrainians and other people not so far away from here, in the face of so many family tragedies, this movie is a significant and important piece of art. On so many levels, delivering emotions and being interesting in so many layers. Heavy duty, for sure, but a movie that absolutely should be on your list of must-see on Netflix.
My assessment: A rare and well deserved 10 out of 10
Pictures © by Netflix
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