Gunnar Vikene’s War Sailor tells the forgotten story of the 30,000 Norwegian civilian sailors who were conscripted at the beginning of World War II to serve on convoys keeping Allied supply chains open.
Conditions were treacherous with a high risk of being torpedoed by German U-boats or attacked from the air. When ships went down, it was too dangerous for other vessels to stop or turn back to pluck sailors from the water, a fact that would haunt survivors.
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Spanning the years 1939-72 and drawing on true stories, the drama follows the fate of friends and civilian sailors Alfred and Sigbjørn as they face endless perils at sea, buffeted by a war in which they are not playing a combat role.
Back home in Bergen, Alfred’s wife struggles to survive with their three children as the port becomes a target for British bombing raids, due to the presence of German submarine bunkers in it waters.
“I met these sailors when I was 13,” Vikene said Saturday on a panel at Deadline’s International Contenders event. “My father was a painter, and they were his colleagues. They were self-medicating with alcohol and very traumatized. We were painting a flour silo, and one of them took his shirt off and was walking around the edge, 60 meters from ground. He was playing with his life.
“I couldn’t understand why he was doing it,” he added, “but then my father told me he had been torpedoed twice and seen so many horrors. It got to me, and since I have family members who sailed, I started collecting these stories.”
It would take Vikene another 30 years to write a screenplay as he forged a career first as a submarine engineer and then as a filmmaker focusing mainly on contemporary mainstream comedies and dramas.
The Bergen-based filmmaker recounted that the catalyst for finally bringing these stories to the big screen was his daughter’s reaction to seeing images of child casualties in Syria’s civil war on the TV news in 2015.
“There was an image of a boy in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust with big, shocked eyes,” he said. “She started to cry and said, ‘I am so glad we don’t live in a country where we have to experience that’. I pointed out the window and said, ‘Well, over there, our family lost children.’”
He was referring to a British air raid that accidentally hit a primary school and homes on the outskirts of the city, killing an 8-year-old second cousin to Vikene’s mother.
“At the time, there was a lot of discussion over how many war refugees we could afford to accept, when we are one of the richest countries in the world,” he said. “I’d been thinking about the film for 30 years, and I wrote the first version in 1½ months, with a kind of anger.”
Vikene was joined on Saturday’s panel by co-stars Kristoffer Joner (Alfred) and Pål Sverre Hagen (Sigbjørn).
“I read the script, and it’s not often you get a script that kind of just floats. It’s a page-turner,” said Joner, who also starred in Vikene’s 2002 debut feature Falling Sky as well as international films such as Mission Impossible – Fallout and The Revenant.
“My only reservation is that we’re friends, our kids grew up together, and now suddenly he was going to be my boss,” Joner added. “We talked about it and decided ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Hagen, whose credits include Kon-Tiki, Troubled Water, Amundsen and The Middle Man, said he was drawn to the project for its civilian focus.
“Wars are not only won on the battlefield, sometimes it’s just ordinary people doing their job,” he said.
War Sailor is lead produced by Maria Ekerhovd at Norway’s Mer Film in co-production with Germany’s Rohfilm and Falkan Film.
The film world premiered at Haugesund’s Norwegian Film Festival, winning the audience prize, before its international premiere at Toronto in the Contemporary World Cinema and has since played at Camerimage.
The drama has also enjoyed a strong box office at home, grossing more than $5M since its Norwegian release in September.
“We have sold so many more tickets that we hoped for, but what has been really, really great and moving to all of us is the stories we have gotten from people with a connection to this story,” said Vikene.
Check back Monday for the panel video.