Produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, The Saboteurs (re-titled for UK audiences from The Heavy Water War) is an account of Norway’s role in the race to build the atomic bomb during World War II. Heavy water, a product solely produced by Norwegian company Norsk Hydro, was deemed essential by German physicist Werner Heisenberg for development of a nuclear reactor, and from this, an explosive. The series charts joint Norwegian and British efforts to sabotage its production.
Series director Per-Olav Sørensen and his writing team have structured The Saboteurs very awkwardly. The first part of the story follows the attempts to sabotage the heavy water factory, led by scientist Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Hønier) and Captain Julie Smith (Anna Friel). The second recounts the day to day lives of factory owner Erik Henriksen (Dennis Storhøi) and his wife, Ellen (Maibritt Saerens). The third focuses on Heisenberg’s (Christopher Bach) efforts to develop a reactor in Berlin. The relevance given to the Henriksens’ private lives and Heisenberg’s marriage is unclear, and the inclusion of the latter two storylines gives the sense that the script needed padding to generate six episodes’ worth of content.
These ill-assorted plotlines are symptomatic of The Saboteurs’ key flaw: the show doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It frequently comes across as a docudrama, as it charts in unnecessary detail the manoeuvres of the sabotage team, giving minor characters extensive introductions. Other moments could be construed as romance: Smith and Leif fall for each other despite a complete lack of chemistry, and the show gives significant screen time to the marital arguments of Heisenbergs and Henriksens. Some episodes run close to espionage thrillers, with gripping action scenes of the sabotage operations at the factory. Finally, there are hints – but only hints – of social commentary. Heisenberg exemplifies those who passively watch their government commit atrocities – politics is nothing to him, he explains, as long as he can pursue his research. In Norway, a character chooses to surrender to the Germans, knowing that he will live comfortably in prison until the end of the war, and treated as a hero after the Allies’ victory.
While some of these elements are well-executed – espionage thriller and social commentary, for example – others are shoddy, and the mix leaves the show unfocused and unmoving. This isn’t helped by catastrophic dialogue and characterisation. None of the characters other than Heisenberg and his wife are credible. Smith, for instance, is a perfect example of the tough-woman-who-is-actually-a-softie trope, and is utterly irritating. Tronstad quips awkward sexist comments and is surprised when people die in his operations, leading to a painful scene in which Smith explains to him that people do in fact die in war. Espen Klouman Hønier recites, rather than acts many of Tronstad’s lines.
The plot also leaves many questions unanswered. Why don’t the Germans build a heavy water plant in Germany? Why is heavy water so important to the creation of a nuclear reactor? Why are the allies surprised that the Germans rebuild the factory after it has been sabotaged?
The Saboteurs is not uninteresting. It deals with a chapter of WWII history that has received little attention and even Heisenberg’s research has not received much dramatic coverage. The ski chases and operations scenes are gripping. It is a pity, however, that Per-Olav Sørensen couldn’t to decide on a tone or approach; and that the show’s dialogue, acting, and credibility suffer so much.