ENEMY AT THE DOOR 3 ½ stars Cast: Alfred Burke, Bernard Horsfall, Emily Richard Richard Heffer and Simon Cadell Distributor: Acorn Media Not rated
Not all Britons were spared from being conquered by the Nazis during World War II. The British Channel Islands were deemed by the British government to be undefendable - they are much closer to France than England - and were occupied by the German army for five difficult years.
The conflicts and efforts at coexistence between the islanders and the occupying forces made for compelling, real-life drama. So it’s a bit surprising that so few movies or TV shows, besides the British miniseries “Island at War,” which aired on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” in 2005 and is available on DVD, have been based on this history.
But now Acorn Media, a video company that specializes in releasing British TV shows on DVD, is bringing out Series 1 of “Enemy at the Door” (four discs, $59.99, not rated), the first 13 episodes of a miniseries that ran on British TV from 1978-1980. Although an Acorn press release maintains that “Enemy at the Door” aired on U.S. public television, I have found no information to substantiate this. Outside of a very limited DVD release of the miniseries in 2002, it’s reasonable to assume that this new DVD box set will offer most American viewers their first opportunity to watch this fine drama.
Set on the island of Guernsey, “Enemy at the Door” is about those islanders who didn’t flee to England just before the German occupation. Among the protagonists is Dr. Philip Martel (played by Bernard Horsfall), who remained out of his sense of duty to his patients. He gets drawn into working with the Germans as the islanders’ representative for health care matters. This sometimes places him in conflict with his virulently anti-German daughter Clare (Emily Richard), who feels that her father’s frequent contact with the Germans makes him close to a collaborator, and her friend Peter Porteous (Richard Heffer), who stayed in order to care for his aging, invalid mother yet engages in various acts of subtle resistance to the occupiers.
As for the Germans, their commanding officer, a veteran soldier named Maj. Richter (Alfred Burke), tries to rule with honor and propriety. But his compassion towards the islanders is tempered by his own military rigidity when it comes to enforcing regulations, his sense of German superiority over a conquered people and his recognition that other Germans, particularly the top-ranking SS officer on the island, Hauptsturmfuhrer Reinicke (Simon Cadell), desire to install a far more autocratic, malevolent rule.
The 13 episodes in the first series (with more episodes due on DVD in November 2009) allow enough time for the filmmakers to develop nuanced characters who evolve over time. At the center of the story is the relationship between Dr. Martel and Maj. Richter. It is often adversarial, as they argue over a variety of issues, from the German requisition of automobiles and enforcement of a rigid curfew to the availability of needed medicines and food supplies. Yet both men seem to recognize, though they never express themselves openly, that each is trying to do his best under very difficult circumstances.
Over these 13 episodes, the stories explore such issues as resistance by the islanders, the appearance of British commandos, the relations between ordinary islanders and German soldiers, the black market, the importation of slave laborers from conquered Poland, and the growing shortages of virtually everything.
Budget limitations keep much of the production indoors and somewhat more stage-bound than it might have been. But the literacy of the scripts, the overall excellence of the British cast and the inherent drama of the situation make for compelling television.