War Sailor film review

Freedom isn’t free

war sailorJohn Smistad
Olympia, Wash.

The Netflix three-episode miniseries War Sailor is a gut-wrenching saga of mostly Norwegian civilians thrust full-force into the fire of savage battle during World War II. Though not soldiers, these remarkably courageous men and women fought with pride and ferocity in defense of their families and their country. The toll taken would devastate these lives far beyond war’s end.

Episode 1

Young people of Norway, America, and the balance of the free world. If not already fully aware, please come to understand this: liberty didn’t just happen. It is not the way it has always been.

It was fought for. It was bled for. In buckets. By those whose sole mission was to protect and preserve a way of life God intends for all of us. Many of those who valiantly rose up and resisted evil with all their might selflessly gave their very lives in the fray. They did this so that we could be free.

You could be free. I could be free. But our freedom wasn’t free. It never will be.

It is precious.

Know this. Value this. Embrace this.

For those you love. And for all time.

In the riveting debut installment of War Sailor, Norwegian best friends Alfred and Sigbjørn (summarily spectacular performances by Kristoffer Joner and Pål Sverre Hagen, respectively) leave their loved ones behind in Bergen to set sail on a merchant ship bound for New York City even as World War II rages. Soon after departure and despite Norway’s formal declaration of neutrality, their home country is invaded and occupied by Nazi forces.

Almost immediately, the vessel and crew are surrounded and attacked at sea by German U-boats. Engulfed suddenly by death and destruction, Alfred and Sigbjørn become wary leaders of a group of common folk, altogether ill-prepared to battle back against the vicious war machine mercilessly assaulting them from all sides.

As we see time and again, from now on even the most brief of lighthearted moments are fated to be shattered, violently exterminated by the jarring explosions of relentless attack.

Episode 2 

It is said that war is hell. If you’ve ever needed confirmation of this stark truth, then I invite you to watch Episode 2 of War Sailor.

Writer/Director Gunnar Vikene (Himmelfall, Here is Harold) pulls absolutely no punches here, plunging his audience full force into an unrestrained and unflinching eyes-wide-open nightmare rife with the savagery and brutality of war.

This is perhaps the most spirit-crushing, dismal, and depressing stretch I have ever personally experienced in my decades of watching cinematic productions. Friends, comrades, fellow countrymen are all reduced to little more than primitive animals in a barbaric struggle to survive the humanity-shredding ravages of war.

I must warn that it is enormously difficult to witness. Yet herein lies the point. Freedom isn’t free.

Alfred is given news in as cold a manner as is conceivable that his life has effectively ended. Already severely psychologically scarred and brittle, we watch as a man emotionally leaves us, disintegrating into detached madness before our eyes.

And as the harrowing opening scenes of Episode 1 have already revealed, Alfred as we once knew him may never again return.

Episode 3

This powerful limited series finale turns what we have gathered thus far in War Sailor completely on its ear.

It is impossible, not to mention unfair, to share the shocking revelation Vikene stuns us with in the final hour of the agonizing journey this supremely talented filmmaker has so ingeniously taken us on.

It is nothing short of masterful. And nothing less than overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

The final frames of this profoundly affecting story are as emotionally stripped bare as I have ever processed in a motion picture. Without uttering a single syllable, Alfred and Sigbjørn, now in their 70s, are sharing a drink together at a dining room table. As with most elderly Norwegian men, they soon run out of things to say to each other. Then, without uttering so much as a single syllable, the pair “speak” to each other only through their eyes. Eyes that lock with shared recollection. Eyes that begin to blur with mutual sadness that will never let them go. Eyes that convey the spirit-vanquishing memories of unspeakable atrocities. Of that terrible time in their lives when everything changed. For them. For the world. Forever.

Again, as gifted to us by Joner and Hagen, these moments are so astonishingly real, so emotionally arresting, that while moving beyond words, they are hard to watch.

As Episode 3 concludes a series of grim statistics are presented detailing the mammoth losses and staggering death toll suffered by the vast Norwegian merchant marine fleet during World War II. Just before the closing credits roll, the critical and egregiously under-recognized role these ships and their crews played in the Allied forces victory is made startlingly, and in no uncertain terms, resoundingly clear.

Such haunting reminders serve to accentuate the heroic and everlasting legacy of those who sacrificed so much for so many they will never know.

And for those alluded to previously who may not heretofore have been fully cognizant, we shall all know now.

Freedom isn’t free.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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John Smistad

John Smistad is a published author of short stories, poems, essays, and movie reviews. He lives and loves with his family and cat in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. He is the fiercely proud son of a native Norwegian dad. (He loves his mom, too.) You can follow him as on his blog at thequickflickcritic.blogspot.com.