The Moral Question of Narvik

Once again, my Norwegian mother got me to watch a Norwegian film on Netflix. This one, if I understand correctly, is a historical film, telling a very real story in connection with the Battles of Narvik during World War II, with fairly little dramatic license taken. If nothing else, that is a fairly impressive feat of self-restraint, considering how my family still tells stories of the Norwegian resistance as a matter of national and cultural pride, and Narvik was known as Hitler’s first defeat in the entire war. The urge to sensationalize would certainly be strong, but they did not do so.

What they did instead was present an account of the situation and an overview of these events. It is a stark, straightforward style which does not exaggerate. This bare-bones approach highlights a moral question which I personally find to be so riveting that I find myself compelled to focus most on this, rather than speak much about the excellent acting, the cinematography, and everything else which we usually talk about in reviews.

Narvik centers on a single family, the Tofte family, consisting of a young soldier named Gunnar, his wife Ingrid, their very young son Ole, and Gunnar’s father, Aslak. When the Germans take over their small town, wanting to monopolize the high-quality iron coming out of Narvik’s mines, the family is inevitably, despite their best efforts, separated from each other. Months pass before they can be reunited, and by then, within so short a time, the bitter complications of war take a severe toll on the Tofte family in many ways.

Ingrid’s ordeals are given much of the spotlight. She works in a hotel but, being able to speak at least three languages fluently, she is also called upon to act as a translator. Thus, she is involved with the parties on every side of this conflict: German, English, and her own Norwegian countrymen. She ends up having to navigate through this entire mess while striving to protect her family, which leads her to making a terrible choice which her people quickly come to hate and spurn her over.

This seems to be the true thrust of the film, and thus is also where the film actually makes me, personally, rather uncomfortable. Somehow it feels almost like the entire movie has been specifically tailored to justify Ingrid’s actions, and the betrayal she commits, to the condemnation of those around her. From her perspective, the horror of war did not truly touch her home when the Germans invaded, not even when Norway’s troops in Narvik went AWOL and resisted on their own. No, the flame of war only began to burn the town when the English struck back, and Ingrid was helping them.

The English ambassador and his aide begged her for help and she gave it, enlisting a friend and risking her life and her family to hide them. Then, even more, she gained and betrayed the trust of the Germans at the ambassador’s behest, providing information which they assured her was crucial to the English coming ashore and liberating the town, and they promised it would be very soon. But that promise was not fulfilled, and before she even got home that night, the English forces bombarded her home, albeit inadvertently, killing Aslak and wounding Ole such that his injury became infected and threatened to kill him.

After weeks of waiting for the English to keep their promise, to materialize and save her home and family, with her son’s life on the line, she made a deal with the Germans: she sold them the ambassador and his aide in exchange for a doctor to save Ole.

It was a terrible thing, to betray the men who had trusted her with their lives, and her neighbors certainly judged her harshly both for this and for her association with the Germans in general. But the movie paints it only in terms as one must sympathize with Ingrid. She had risked her life for the English, trusted in their promises, and seen her family deeply hurt in exchange, all for nothing. She had a son to save, and he was all that was left to her now, as her husband’s fate remained unknown to her. She risked much just revealing that she knew where the English were, and was only driven to it by extreme circumstance. And then, of course, there’s how disloyal their allies turned out to be before long, as the same countries which intervened on Norway’s behalf, who sent their soldiers to bleed and die and kill alongside them, ended up pulling out without even telling Norway about it, leaving them to face Germany’s swift wrath alone. Against all of this, with her own trust in the English having been betrayed first, how could anyone blame Ingrid for doing what she did?

Right alongside this is shown what Gunnar went through. As a soldier, he believed in giving everything for his country and his people, and it must be said, he did not shrink from the price. He took part in sabotaging a bridge which was essential to Germany’s plans, an incident which could have easily ended with his family being killed by his own hand. He was taken prisoner and endured all sorts of physical trauma and deprivation. He heard about his father’s death from gossip, found an opportunity to break free and strike back again, and he sneaked and shot Germans in the back even after realizing they were just like him, young men with sweethearts of their own back home. He did things which may have caused him to not sleep so well at night, but is the audience ever to judge him, a man fighting to get back to his family? No.

Ingrid is the only one so judged by those around her.

And then there’s the leader of the Norwegian troops. He was the first to lead his men in defiance of German occupation, and he made tough calls quickly and effectively. One of the best and most inspiring scenes in the movie is when he and his soldiers reunite with Gunnar Tofte, who has just learned of his father’s demise and has no knowledge of his wife and son. As Gunnar is at his lowest and most desperate, his superior officer helps him to his feet, and speaks to his men of what they are truly fighting for: each other.

But then, not long after, he rallies these same men, preventing things from turning into a rout and a defeat, by firing his gun, grabbing one of them, and threatening to shoot the next man who runs away. When they finally reach Narvik and Gunnar learns what his wife has done, German retaliation has already killed one of his comrades, and the same officer speaks again, standing over this soldier’s freshly roasted corpse, about fighting for each other and the need for those who will sacrifice everything. But now it rings hollow and vain from one who would shoot his own men and use the death of another as an opportunity to pontificate.

The call to sacrifice anything and everything is easy to issue when it’s someone else doing the sacrificing, yes? What right would anyone have to demand that a mother sacrifice her son for the sake of faithless “allies,” and ostracize her when she does not? If the soldiers are indeed fighting for each other, so hard that they do questionable things, why can a mother not do something questionable as she fights for her son?

Narvik seems persistent in its insistence that Ingrid’s actions were fully justified. Maybe she was, in truth, but the story feels so one-sided that I can’t help but rebel against it. She wasn’t weighing the love of her son against the good of her nation, not really. She gave of herself, believed promises which were made to her, lost much, and was on the brink of losing what was singularly most precious to her, so she chose to turn on the people she’d helped. She protected her own at a severe cost paid by others. There’s no escaping how dirty that is, and her son was consigned to know as an adult that his life came at the cost of two men who trusted his mother with theirs. Who knows how he ended up taking that?

I do believe that her people, the neighbors who ostracized her, could and should have been kinder in their judgment of Ingrid Tofte. I can’t say that I would have done any differently in her place, especially not while watching my child slowly dying before my eyes, and I can say that I agree with Gunnar’s decision, which he had to wrestle with, to stand by his wife’s side.

At the same time, I wish that they could have shown something more balanced, enough to admit that Ingrid did do something wrong, or at least something not entirely right. That may come from how I personally find it more respectable to carry one’s shame honestly, rather than try to avoid shame altogether with excuses and rationalizations, which the movie provides plenty of on Ingrid’s behalf.

Who was right? Who was wrong?

We forget that often, especially in war, people are often both right and wrong simultaneously.

This entry was posted in Discussion, Miscellaneous, Movies, Tuesday Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Moral Question of Narvik

  1. moyatori says:

    Skimmed through most of this review this time because I hope to watch the movie, but it cool to see that you enjoyed it. Showing part of the story from a translator’s angle sounds unique and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ravenslocker says:

    “I can’t decide if Ingrid is a hero or a villain in this story. Bet she won’t be getting any ‘Neighbor of the Year’ awards though, especially after that betrayal. Sorry Ingrid, no bake sale for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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