Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) set yet another record on Sunday evening, when 1.2 million viewers sat down in front of their televisions to watch the latest episode of a series entitled “Kampen om tungtvannet” (literally, “The Battle for Heavy Water.”) It’s the latest dramatization of one of the most heroic sabotage actions in Norway during World War II, and it’s generated huge public interest.
In addition to those watching the series on their TVs, the “total screen rating” that includes all forms of viewership is also breaking records. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Tuesday that an average of 550,000 viewers (roughly 10 percent of Norway’s entire population) have watched every episode of the Heavy Water series either online on NRK’s “nett-TV” or via re-runs.
All told, an average of 1.7 million viewers in Norway have followed all of the first four episodes of the series, in a country of just over 5 million people.
The remarkable response has greatly pleased the show’s producers, Filmkameratene AS, and NRK. It also reflects Norwegians’ keen interest in their own war history, even though the series has been criticized for taking what some historians claim is far too much artistic license. The historians complain the series has falsified some historic events.
The series presents the latest dramatic portrayal of how a small group of Norwegian resistance heroes blew up Norsk Hydro’s industrial facility at Vemork in Telemark County that was producing heavy water sought by Norway’s Nazi German occupiers. The famous sabotage action has been depicted before, most famously in the Hollywood film The Heroes of Telemark from 1965.
The new portrayal of the real-life sabotage in the winter of 1943 takes a much different approach than the film of 50 years ago. It plays out simultaneously in Germany, where top-level military and academic officials were using the heavy water in various experiments; in England and Scotland, where allied military brass and exiled Norwegian professor Leif Tronstad were planning the sabotage action; and in Norway, where it was carried out.
Director Per-Olav Sørensen has defended his dramatic interpretation of events, which is much more brutal than in the Heroes of Telemark film. Sørensen depicts, for example, how the resistance fighters nearly starved to death while waiting in a freezing mountain hut for instructions and reinforcements from across the North Sea, and how they finally hunted down a reindeer and were so hungry that they it raw, out in the snow, right after it had been shot. Sørensen also opted to portray Gestapo soldiers executing the wounded crew of a crashed plane in the mountains of Telemark, because they were suspected of being resistance fighters. One bites into a cyanide tablet he had under his tongue, and commits suicide on screen.
“Even the most gruesome events we portrayed are true,” Sørensen insisted to newspaper Aftenposten earlier this month. “We moved the executions forward a few days in time and closer to the scene of the crash, but the fact is that everyone on board that plane was executed, and we show that in all its horror.”
Sørensen claims the historians can’t take away the producers’ right to dramatize events. He concedes that some characters portrayed in the series didn’t really exist, but represent a “blend” of those in real life. Debate continues, however, over whether Nazi Germany really was trying to be first to build an atomic bomb and therefore was so eager for Norsk Hydro to produce the heavy water. Thor Brynhildsen, an assistant professor and former department head at Norway’s military museum (Forsvarsmuseet), wrote recently in Aftenposten that German atomic researchers were not building a bomb and that not even Adolph Hitler had an “atomic bomb program” like that going on in the US at the time.
Rather, Brynhildsen argues, the researchers (as portrayed in the Heavy Water series) tried to distract military bosses from any thoughts of bomb-building, to instead use the heavy water for generating nuclear energy. Hitler also needed vast amounts of power plants to achieve his goals. American researchers examining German archives after the war, Brynhildsen wrote, didn’t find a single document indicating that the reasons for the German nuclear research, and their desire for heavy water, were tied to building an atomic bomb.
Undisputed heroes, but issues around Hydro
The Norwegian resistance team sent from England succeeded in disrupting the production of the heavy water, and the later sabotage of a ferry carrying what was salvaged further frustrated the German occupiers. No one has disputed the heroic work carried out by the young Norwegian resistance fighters in Telemark.
The series also has reignited disturbing issues about the operations of one of Norway’s largest companies, Norsk Hydro, during the war. Hydro’s executives cooperated with Norway’s German occupiers, and seemed more intent on keeping the company strong and profitable than on the politics involved or loyalty to Norway.
“Norsk Hydro’s leaders were pragmatic and didn’t evaluate the moral issues involved in their cooperation with the Germans,” Anette Storeide, an assistant professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, told Aftenposten. She has written a book about how Norwegian industry worked with the occupation forces during World War II. It’s been argued that Hydro executives weren’t sure themselves why the Germans wanted their heavy water, which was simply a byproduct for the company at the time. Hydro bosses were very aware, however, of why the Germans wanted light metals (to build aircraft), and seized the opportunity presented by the German occupiers to launch into the aluminum business.
Hydro and its executives were mostly exonerated after the war, in contrast to the harsh punishment felt by others who collaborated with the Germans, not least Norwegian women who had romances with German occupiers. Modern-day Hydro officials, however, have since acknowledged that the company’s war years were not their finest hours. “Our conclusion is that Hydro’s top management was weak when Hitler’s forces invaded Norway in 1940,” Hydro’s boss for internal communication wrote in 2009.
The Heavy Water series, meanwhile, has already generated interest outside Norway. Distributors in 15 countries have secured broadcast rights for it, reported NRK, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Poland, Spain, the US, Denmark, Canada and France.