An art piece in wolves’ clothing
‘I can’t say I am a huge fan of blood and guts in any series, so I was hesitant to view yet another World War II saga’, says Al James. December 2020.
What attracted me to this little jewel of cinematography was that it was purported to be a very strange animal indeed.
While filmed for the most part conventionally, the director of photography in this four-episode series on NetFlix had a lead role in shaping the whole drama.
Computer generated graphics and filters give the series an almost sepia-tone effect, although this palette leans towards the olives and greys in addition to flesh tones, with muted reds and very sparse blue tones punctuating the fog of war.
It is art that you are viewing, with the storyline being both compelling and true (the 45th Infantry division, the 157th unit of the Thunderbirds did exist, and fought valiantly at the Battle of Angio in Italy for example).
Directing such a series undoubtedly presented fresh challenges for the San Francisco-based Polish director Greg Jonkajtys and his actors alike. As director, he did not allow the special effects to drown out the white-hot moral thread of the storyline.
Special effort was clearly required to allow the actors to similarly push through their sparks of ingenuity to make the veil of animation support them, not the inverse.
The fact that A+E Studios (formerly A&E) produced this miniseries, speaks to it’s pedigree as something more than just another soldier story. Ever since Poirot and House of Elliot, I’ve been a big A+E fan.
But the fine work of screenwriter Jeb Stuart in lifting out the best bits from a factual account by Alex Kershaw, stops the whole thing from getting bogged down.
The pace and progress of the storyline is pleasing, without long drawn-out scenes where you lose interest.
The narrative genially moves on to the next confrontation with the Nazis, all the while highlighting effectively the inner personal battles of each character.
The English journalist and writer Alex Kershaw wrote The Liberator, and many will be familiar with other best-selling books, such as The First Wave, The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter. All are available on Amazon.
By the ways Kershaw’s characters become familiar to us, complete with back-stories and flashbacks, the whole experience unfolds in the miniseries into what is really a new art form.
To say that this art piece is “animation” wildly misses the mark. The actors are real, and voices are real, and their movements entirely human and true.
It is the story of 157th’s noble commander, Felix Sparks, played precisely and forthrightly by Bradley James.
The Captain is the fully aware and decisive officer you would want to command any unit. The character has values, elegance and class, adhering to his own morals, and a clear internal compass in his determination to get the job done.
Curiously, the piece promotes empathy too for the opposition forces. Even the crack Nazi SS troops are portrayed realistically, showing compassion, and understanding for their American prey.
Some of the scenes in the snowy Alps are stunning, visually, and emotionally, as the German officers hold fire to allow our hero Felix to retrieve fallen comrades. The ethos of being a gentleman, as many were prior to the horrors of Nazism overtook their worlds, shines through brilliantly.
There were moments in this series where I had to freeze frame on some beautiful scenes, just to take in the sheer artistry of the production.
The overall experience is like touring a moving art gallery, with moving nods to Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Sabin Popp.
The contrast between the violence (which on the main is more suspenseful than gory), and the enlightening sweep of the animation’s mood-defining force, made the series entirely fascinating.
To be honest, the new animation technique was slightly confronting at first. But once I’d trained myself to stop questioning “which parts are real”, the depth of the story and its perfect pace saw me whipping through the four episodes eagerly.
While yes, this seems like an unlikely choice for many, those seeking a shoot-them-up rough-and-tumble boy’s own war flick will be disappointed.
Those seeking a refined, cleverly done, uplifting, moral and artistic series to tuck into on a cold winter’s night, will find the perfect item for a cup of tea and some biscuits.
I found it entrancing and compelling.
Bravo A+E for producing this, and bravissimo Netflix for picking this up.
Worth a watch. Also, all true.