Narvik: Hitler’s First Defeat streaming on Netflix
Norwegian blockbuster film makes its US premiere
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
Films about the Norwegian resistance in World War II have been made—four during the war—but not many came from Norway, a country that was strategic in the war effort. Two of the most prominent acts that altered the course of the war were the sabotage at the Vemork Norsk Hydro plant outside of Rjukan in 1943, where Germans were harvesting heavy water needed to make the atomic bomb, and the cutting off of iron ore exports through Narvik to Germany in 1940.
NRK produced a 2015 miniseries about the former, Kampen om tungtvannet (literally, “The battle for the heavy water,” released as The Heavy Water War), and Nordisk Film created a full-length feature film, similarly named Kampen om Narvik (“The Battle for Narvik”) in 2022. The latter was given the English title Narvik: Hitler’s First Defeat.
At a cost of about NOK 80 million, it is one of the most expensive films ever produced in Norway. It became an overnight blockbuster in Norway, and after it premiered on Netflix on Jan. 23, it quickly became a hit, ranking between the fifth and seventh of their most watched movies in the United States.
In Narvik, all the Norwegian characters are played by Norwegians. Norwegian, German, French, and English are spoken by the respective cast, with English subtitles in the Netflix version. This casting gives the film a strong sense of authenticity, and, all in all, the film is well cast. The actors look their parts, with a naturalness not made in Hollywood.
We see them in both everyday settings and highly suspenseful action scenes, believable every step of the way. They are placed against the magnificent scenery of northern Norway and the carefully recreated town of Narvik. With this stunning backdrop, the film takes on epic proportions to draw you in.
As the film opens, it does a good job of taking you back in time with old black-and-white historical photos of the town of Narvik and authentic newspaper headlines of the day to help set the scene and tell the story.
Before the war, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden all declared neutrality. In the case of Norway and Denmark, Hitler ignored it, but Sweden was allowed to remain under the pretense of being neutral, because it had something Hitler needed. Sweden was responsible for the mining and transport of 85% of the iron ore used by the German weapons industry, which was transported by train from Kiruna in Sweden across the border to Narvik, from where it was shipped. Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, felt it was essential for Great Britain to cut off the transportation of the ore. As Germany invaded Norway on April 8, 1940, the British marine forces mined Norwegian waters.
The movie revolves around a fictional couple, Narvik native Gunnar Tofte (Carl Martin Eggesbø), who is part of Norway’s neutrality forces who arrive at Narvik unaware the neutrality pact has been violated, and his wife, Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen). They have a 6-year-old son, Ole (Christoph Gelfert Mathiesen), and Gunnar’s father, Aslak (Stig Henrik Hoff), lives with them.
The tug is how people survive in different situations of war. The war Gunnar fought in the mountains is different than the war Ingrid and Ole and other civilians experience back in Narvik. This results in different, difficult decisions.
Then, there was the naïveté that you could negotiate with the Germans.
When Gunnar’s battalion arrives at Narvik, there are Germans and British in town. He is allowed to take leave until midnight for Ole’s birthday. He goes to the Royal Hotel, where Ingrid works as wait staff and serves as an interpreter for the German Consul Fritz Wussow (Christopher Bach). Narvik’s mayor, Theodor Broch (Emil Johnsen), is giving a speech to German and British officials.
“Our ore is sought after all over the world … There will be more than enough room for everyone. I guarantee it. German and English industry have one thing in common with us here in little Narvik. You all profit greatly from the peace and security of our harbor… Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that several ships, both German and British, have been sunk after leaving port. This affects both of us. Since both German and English representatives are here today, I would ask you to speak with your governments about an agreement guaranteeing that all ships from all nations can count on safe passage.”
After the speech, British Consul Ross (Ollie Campbell) asks Ingrid if Wussow said anything about the mayor’s speech:
Ingrid: “He just asked me to translate.”
Ross: “I wouldn’t give in to every request.”
This dialogue serves as an uneasy premonition of the fate that Ingrid will face. Giving in to every request does become a dilemma for the young Norwegian woman and mother.
When Gunnar returns to his unit, there is a standoff with German troops. The German commander says, “We control every town in Norway. You don’t stand a chance.” While the Norwegians retreat, the Germans march into Narvik and take over the Royal Hotel evicting guests and announcing they are there “to protect Norway from the English.”
Moments later, Ross and fellow Brit Giles Romilly (Magnus Dugdale) approach Ingrid, telling her that she must protect them. She suggests a remote cabin and enlists the help of Bjørg (Mathilde Holtedahl Cuhra), another young server.
As the situation escalates, Ingrid, her son, Ole, and other civilians attempt to evacuate by ferry but are told they are not permitted. They switch to the train. Concurrently, Gunnar and two others are tasked with blowing up the bridge to stop the train. The Germans kicked off the civilians, saving them. Gunnar and the two others are captured.
But Ingrid is naïvely hopeful, and back in Narvik, she tells Wussow that her husband has been captured, that he was one of the men that blew up the bridge. Meanwhile, the British are asking her for help.
“We need to know where the German artillery positions are hidden in town,” they say. “It’s not the German fleet out here that worries us. We have the world’s most powerful navy, but our lads cannot come ashore to liberate Narvik unless you find out from Wussow precisely how they plan to defend the city.”
The British start bombing. The conundrum is that they were able to save Narvik, but their bombs kill Aslak and wound Ole. One night, the little boy develops an infection, and the only doctor is a German one, whose priority is the wounded German soldiers. When her son is dying, what is the mother to do? It’s the most difficult decision she has to make.
By the first week in May, Germans had established an iron ring around Narvik. French and Polish troops disembarked to attack from the north and south. First, the Norwegians had to neutralize the German positions in the mountains. The victorious Norwegians enter Narvik on May 28, 1940, Hitler’s first defeat. Norway conceded on June 8. Local fishing boats rescued civilians. The Germans destroyed Narvik.
It was surprising to learn that the Battle for Narvik lasted a short time at the beginning of the occupation. It left me wondering what happened to the iron over the next five years. As most Norwegians know, the iron ore transport continued in all directions from neutral Sweden, but for viewers outside of Scandinavia, this history is less known.
For those less versed in this history, there could have been a reference to the fact that Norway was occupied for five more years. The battle for Narvik was not a victory to end the war; rather, it was a chapter in the beginning of the occupation, followed by a long struggle for freedom.
Nonetheless, when all is said and done, Narvik: Hitler’s First Defeat is a compelling film for all audiences. Its plot is full of action and suspense, and it is easy to find empathy for the fictional Norwegian couple who are torn between loyalty to their country and loyalty to their family. In their struggle to survive, we see that decisions are not always black and white, especially when all circumstances and outcomes are not known.
Importantly, the film also holds relevancy in respect to the situation in Europe today. As the war in Ukraine is unfolding, you have to wonder what kind of decisions ordinary people are forced to make on a daily basis—leading to heart-wrenching insights.
On several levels, Narvik is successful: as a war story packed with suspense, as a love story filed with tenderness, and as a story about the moral duplicity we can face as human beings. As the film’s credits start to roll, you are left wanting to know more about the history of World War II in Norway to understand the twists and turns of the story even better. For my part, I have already watched Narvik two times—and I expect you will, too.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.