Martin Amis wrote that ‘countries are like people’ and ‘people are like countries’. When watching Peter Bowker’s brilliant, devastating and occasionally funny WWII drama World on Fire, you observe that the characters are their countries and the countries are their characters. The nations of 1940s Europe – many diseased by Nazi occupation – conflict, collaborate and merge with each other, and their citizens (displaced or trapped) also push in those directions.
The Polish waitress-turned-Nazi-killer-turned-refugee wife Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz) is the most fractured example. She married the privileged English translator Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) in Poland and, after escaping the Nazis, they flee to England – to his mother Robina’s Dickensian manor in Cheshire. Kasia is baffled by ‘the English way’: the repression, the politeness, the prejudice. These social tenets clash with her lingering traumas, tested during an altercation with a tea-room xenophobe.
Zofia Wichlacz as Kasia. Photo: BBC/Mammoth Screen
In sharp and entertaining contrast, Robina is reluctant, bitter and stuck-up. She empathises sparingly as a conservative widow with shelves of presumptions about different peoples. But since sheltering Kasia’s brother Jan (Eryk Biedunkiewicz), whom Harry brought back months ago in series one, Robina's humanity is beginning to crack through a callous exterior.
Almost rebelling against the country's emotional dishonesty, Kasia says Robina is 'afraid of strong emotion’. Robina replies: ‘Not afraid…I just don’t approve of it.’ Nothing sums up traditional Englishness better, captured so perfectly by Lesley Manville. Robina’s a character you can’t help but loathe and love, built as if Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey had a soft spot for Oswald Mosley.
Lesley Manville as Robina. Photo: BBC/Mammoth Screen
In Manchester, the restless singer Lois (Julia Brown) abandons music to drive an ambulance through a maze of crumbling brickwork and skeletal beams. Predatory German bombers fly overhead, meeting RAF resistance in the storm clouds. The war has finally crossed the Channel.
Lois had Harry’s baby while he was married to Kasia,
making the atmosphere unbearably awkward when they’re thrown into a room
together. In series one, she was often frustrating but these latest episodes (only two available for review) improve your sympathies; her less pleasant traits serve to finesse a more genuine character.
Meanwhile, in swastika-smothered Berlin, a 16-year-old member of the League of German Girls, Marga (Miriam Schiweck), is selected for the Lebensborn program. Continuing World on Fire’s excellent handle on horrific stories rarely told – like the euthanasia of disabled children in series one – the systemic impregnation of girls and women to perfect the Aryan race is another repulsive, underrepresented arena in Nazi eugenics.
As well as its practice, the environment is surreal in its banality. Sweetly, Marga and her friend Gertha (Johanna Gotting) walk arm in arm, enjoying each other’s company while clad in Nazi uniforms. These delicate nuances are near-impossible to write well, and yet Bowker achieves an achingly human result.
Miriam Schiweck (right) as Marga. Photo: BBC/Mammoth Screen
Offering a heavy contrast, series two also travels to the Sahara desert. The sandy visual effects aren’t overwhelmingly impressive, but mostly they work – crafting a near-opaque wasteland, hot enough to boil eggs on a car bonnet. Here, the Brits fight alongside Indian Sappers against the Italians. Leading the Indian troop is the courageous Rahib (Ahad Razamir), who skilfully disarms mines buried in the sand. He’s a much-needed addition, showing how vital India and South Asia were in the war effort.
In its distancing from endlessly depicted battles, from well-established victories and defeats, from direct collisions with Churchill or Hitler, World on Fire is tangible enough to burn at the touch. The escalating fears of another world war via Ukraine and the tide of far-right populism only spread the drama's flames into your living room. This isn’t fabricated, indulgent jingoism: this is the real world on fire.
World on Fire, series 2, airs on Sunday 16 July at 9pm on BBC One.
|What||World on Fire series 2, BBC One, first look review|
16 Jul 23 – 16 Jul 24, ON BBC ONE / iPLAYER
|Website||Click here for more information|