The Heavy Water War: TV review

If you’re looking for some terrific television to Netflix, I have a recommendation for you. It’s called various things: The Heavy Water War, The Saboteurs, Kampen om Tungtvannet. It’s a six part miniseries, which also happens to be the most popular television program in Norwegian broadcast history. It was recommended to us by a friend, and my wife and I decided to watch the first episode. We found it so compelling, we ended up bingeing the whole thing. It’s in several languages, so you’ll have to read a certain amount of subtitles, but I promise you, it’s worth your attention. We were completely riveted.

It’s about the Allied effort to destroy a Norwegian factory that was the main European source for heavy water: deuterium oxide. Heavy water was, in the 1940s, a significant element in nuclear energy research, including nuclear reactors attempting to produce isotopes to use in building nuclear weapons. In short, heavy water was needed by the German nuclear program. There was only one place they could get it from: Norway. And so, for the Allied forces, it became a matter of some urgency to prevent the Germans from getting it.

So the series cuts back and forth between essentially four locations. First, Ryukan, a small town in Norway, built by a waterfall, next door to the Vemork power station, where the heavy water was produced. We primarily focus on Axel Aubert (Stein Winge), an executive with Norsk Hydro, the power company that owned the factory. Aubert was in charge of the Vemork plant, tasked with increasing production–this was a lucrative contract for the company. But his wife, Ellen (Maibritt Saerens), desperately lonely, is also deeply concerned that his professional actions might constitute collaboration with the German enemy. Which is a fair thing for her to worry about. And of course, everyone there is under constant Gestapo scrutiny.

Second, cut to England, where a Norwegian scientist, Leif Tronstad, the man who designed the Vemork facility, puts together his Norwegian team of saboteurs. Their training is supervised by Major Julie Smith (Anna Friel), a tough-as-nails military planner, who, over time, finds herself falling in love with Tronstad, and he with her (though both are married to long-absent spouses). They never act on their mutual attraction, but that tension underlies their scenes together. Third, we follow two teams of Norwegian saboteurs, code-named Operation Grouse, and then, when that failed, a second group, called Operation Gunnerside. The Norwegians in Grouse were meant to parachute into the bleak Northern mountains, then rendezvous with a British team coming in with gliders. But the gliders malfunctioned, and the captured British commandos were executed by the Gestapo. The Grouse men were able to ski clear, but had no supplies, and had to survive in some of the most desolate terrain on earth. At one point, they find some moss, boil it up, and choke it down; that’s all there is, until a lucky kill of a reindeer. Eventually, they did meet up with their Gunnerside colleagues; their combined teams skiied in, blew up the Vemork plant, then skiied 300 kilometers east to safe haven in Sweden.

The fourth main story the series follows takes place in Germany, and follows Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), as he attempts to unlock the secrets of the atom, and built a nuclear reactor. And, of course, Heisenberg’s work on the German atomic program is one of the central enigmas of the whole history of science and politics.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to direct Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s wonderful play about Heisenberg and a meeting in Copenhagen between him and Niels Bohr in 1941. (There’s also a 2002 film version, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea). Directing that play was one of the great experiences of my professional life. Of course, if there’s one word that popularly captures Heisenberg more than any other, it would be ‘uncertainty.’ Did he, prior to 1945, solve the mystery of how to build a bomb? If he had made such a discovery, would he have shared it with the Nazi authorities who were so ubiquitous in his lab?

For what it’s worth, The Heavy Water War does include a shorter version of the meeting with Bohr. The suggestion is that Heisenberg wanted Bohr to know (and to pass on to the Allies) the fact that he was, in fact, working on building a reactor. The series goes on to further suggest that at one point, Heisenberg did have the creative and intellectual breakthrough he needed to figure out how to build an atomic bomb. And that he erased it. Loyal and patriotic German though he was, Werner Heisenberg was also a decent and loving human being. Eventually he could not bring himself to give Adolf Hitler the bomb.

If this is the case, then the Allied efforts to destroy the heavy water factory were not necessary. But there’s no way they could have known it. Certainly, from an Allied perspective, if there was any possibility that the Germans might be on the way to completing an atomic bomb, and if preventing them from getting heavy water might forestall that possibility, then their actions had to one of the war’s highest priorities. Norwegians are immensely proud of the fact that it was Norwegian saboteurs who destroyed the Vemork plant, and who sank the ferry that was shipping the last of its heavy water to Germany. They should be proud. And the story of those two great operations, Grouse and Gunnerside, is a powerful one, beautifully told in this series.

But did they prevent the Germans from building (and subsequently deploying) a nuclear device? This series should be applauded for suggesting that no, we don’t know the answer to that question, but probably not. Probably Heisenberg either couldn’t build it, or, more likely, decided not to.

In any event, this series does a tremendous job of telling a powerful and important historical story. And it does not shy from certain central moral ambiguities. Even after Vemork blew, a ferry full of heavy water was shipped out from Ryukan. The Allies knew that ferry needed to be destroyed. It was a passenger ferry, and carried a number of civilians, including families with small children. Nineteen civilians died. Those deaths, Julie Smith argues, were military necessities. Yes. But she’s crying when she makes that argument; not quite convinced.

And yes, it’s a very good thing that Hitler never had the Bomb. And a good thing that the Allies did have it. Hitler would have deployed it, over a civilian target. As we Americans did, over a civilian target. As President Obama just reminded us, speaking in Hiroshima.

I’m not going to re-litigate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we must mourn. Our hearts must be filled with compassion, with humility, with a profound sense of loss. Maybe, strategically, the decision was inevitable. But as President Obama reminded us, sixty million people died in World War II. And that war made little distinction between civilian and military targets. Every one of those losses, every single one, diminishes us. Every life was precious, every one beloved. Surely, at least, our response must be ‘never again.’




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