With War Sailor (Krigsseileren), writer-director Gunnar Vikene has brought to the surface a piece of World War II history that has been buried.
Alfred Garnes (Kristoffer Joner), married and the father of three children, is having trouble making enough money to take care of his family even though he is a hard-worker. His best friend, Sigbjørn Kvalen (Pål Sverre Hagen), who does not have a family, convinces Alfred to join the merchant marines. They are supposed to go away for 18 months. Alfred’s daughter, Maggie (Henrikke Lund Olsen), is convinced that her father will never return. Alfred’s wife, Cecilia (Ine Marie Wilmann), makes Sigbjørn promise that he will protect her husband and bring him back alive.
This does not appear to be a difficult proposition, but while Alfred and Sigbjørn are out at sea, World War II breaks out, and all Norwegian civilian sailors, 30,000 of them, are ordered to join the war effort by delivering weapons and other cargo. “They’re all the unsung heroes of that war,” says Vikene. “They were caught up in it and they couldn’t decide for themselves if they wanted to enlist.” They are constantly aware that at any moment they could be attacked by German submarines.
Meanwhile, Cecilia and the other women left behind in Bergen, are trying to take care of their children and each other. Then, on October 4, 1944, a horrible true incident took place. British bombers, trying to destroy a German submarine bunker, dropped 1,432 bombs on Bergen and its environs, killing 193 civilians, including 61 children in the Holen School. Among the victims was the 8-year-old daughter of Vikene’s mother’s cousin.
Alfred is informed that his wife and children have been killed. And Cecilia is informed that Alfred has been killed.
War Sailor concludes with a coda that takes place in 1972, a reminder that the traumas of war do not end when the fighting stops.
The Norwegian sailors of the Merchant Marine were not recognized by their government until the 1970s. “After the war,” says Vikene, “they didn’t fit into the idea of the war hero because they had no uniform and had no guns. When they were finally awarded medals, the sailors had to pay for the medals themselves.”
Vikene explains that he was first inspired to make a film about the war sailors when he and his then-12-year-old daughter were looking at images of a wounded child in Syria. “My daughter said, ‘I’m so glad we don’t live in a country where we experience that.’ And I pointed out the window and said, ‘Relatives of your grandmother were killed right over there.’ My daughter didn’t know.”
Vikene himself had been a submarine officer before he became involved in filmmaking.
British and U.S. merchant mariners were also corralled into the war effort. Between 1939 and 1945, 243,000 members of the U.S. Merchant Marines served in World War II, and 9,521 were killed. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, this was a higher proportion than in any branch of the U.S. military. In fact, Germans and Japanese sank six Merchant Marine ships in 1941 before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Merchant mariners did not become eligible for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs until 1988.
The composer for War Sailor. Volker Bertelmann, was nominated for an original score Oscar for Lion in 2016.