It’s hard not to be fascinated by the dark premise behind SS-GB: What if the Nazis had won the war and imposed their brutal rule on England? If there’s one way to renew interest in World War II and its done-to-death genre stereotypes, Len Deighton’s alternate history thriller, written in 1978, could be it. Not just an Orwellian fantasy, SS-GB is also an espionage story and a murder mystery about the investigation of a Scotland Yard inspector in 1941 London and his ambivalent relationship to his German overlords.
Perhaps there’s too much plot for a movie, but it seems like a good fit for a five-hour miniseries starring Sam Riley (Control) and Kate Bosworth. It was adapted for the BBC by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, whose screen credits include six James Bond films from The World Is Not Enough to Spectre. Judging by the first two episodes, which screened in Berlin’s increasingly popular TV sidebar and where the German audience reacted very warmly, it’s an addictive watch likely to have wide appeal. It will begin airing on BBC One this Sunday.
There is something about the story that eerily resonates with the current world situation of political uncertainty and uneasiness. Strikingly, the story opens during German-Soviet friendship week, after peace has been made with the Soviet Union. Raising moral questions about resistance to tyranny, this is one fantasy with a serendipitously topical side.
German TV director Philipp Kadelbach captures the surreal atmosphere of a post-war London that has escaped the Blitz and bombing, but fallen victim to military occupation. A year after the Battle of Britain was lost, London is a gloomy city of gray stone draped in bright red swastikas, where men in German uniforms terrorize the population. The story opens on two killings: a Resistance fighter shoots a Luftwaffe officer on the street, and an antique dealer is found shot to death in his office. The Yard’s brilliant young inspector Douglas Archer, played by Riley as an uneasy political fence-straddler, is on the scene of the second murder with crusty older Sergeant Harry Woods (Scottish actor James Cosmo). It looks like a cut-and-dried case of a black marketeer who got his, but the details don’t add up.
To complicate matters, the thoroughly dislikable SS colonel Huth (Lars Eidinger of Personal Shopper) has been sent by Heinrich Himmler himself to oversee the investigation. Much to the chagrin of Archer’s boss, the gentlemanly General Kellermann (Rainer Bock) who has been running the place up to then, Huth pulls rank and sets up shop in the Yard. He lets Archer continue his work but watches him like a rattlesnake, while a power struggle develops between him and Kellermann.
Though at first the superimposed genres of spy thriller, murder mystery and alternate history seem a most unnatural mix, the swift-moving intrigue soon sweeps the viewer up in the action. But even so, some of the scenes are frankly ridiculous — why would the Germans arrest an entire boys’ choir just because they suspect the Resistance intends to kidnap Archer’s son in the church? And even the ever-ready Riley seems at a loss when suddenly confronted with the charred, crucified body of someone he knows, hung in the rubble of his old house “as a warning” to him. These far-fetched scenes make it that much harder to assimilate a parallel universe.
Another weak spot are the female characters who are given no more depth than in the novel. Admittedly the widowed inspector is incredibly young and good-looking for his job, but wherever he turns, he’s confronted with Archer girls. Who’s that seductive blonde in pink mauve slinking away from the scene of the crime? It’s Barbara Barga (Bosworth), an American reporter who flew from New York to London on the inaugural Lufthansa flight with the German big-wigs. An insubstantial character who talks with cinematically-inspired sophistication, she seems to exist only as a love interest for Archer. He has just cut loose from his angry secretary and erstwhile lover Sylvia (Maeve Dermody), who left the Yard after stealing a bunch of German passes and is now on the wanted list. Then there is his lonely landlady, who like him has lost her spouse and is raising a young son single-handedly.
In the opening episodes, Riley walks the razor’s edge between his feeling of duty towards upholding the law and his obvious revulsion at how the Nazis are destroying his country. His compromised position working with them has already put him in danger of assassination by the Resistance, but his conscience is bound to develop over the course of the series.
Production company: Sid Gentle Films
Cast: Sam Riley, Kate Bosworth, Lars Eidinger, James Cosmo, Rainer Bock, Maeve Dermody, Aneurin Barnard, Jason Flemyng
Director: Philipp Kadelbach
Screenwriters: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, based on the novel by Len Deighton
Producer: Patrick Schweitzer
Executive producers: Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Lucy Richer
Director of photography: Stuart Bentley
Production designer: Lisa Hall
Editor: David Blackmore
Music: Dan Jones
Casting directors: Kelly Valentine Hendry, Victor Jenkins
World sales: BBC Worldwide
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
117 minutes (Episodes 1.1 and 1.2)