SS-GB review: isolated Britain falling under fascist rule. Imagine that

An economically suffering Britain falls under the influence of fascist rule. Thankfully nothing as unsettling as the BBC’s gripping alternative history could happen in reality. Wait a minute . . .

Sam Riley as detective superintendent Douglas Archer in SS-GB.  Photograph: Laurie Sparham

Sam Riley as detective superintendent Douglas Archer in SS-GB. Photograph: Laurie Sparham

 

Let’s start with the unavoidable comparison. In The Man in the High Castle, the Amazon drama that imagines post-war America under Axis rule, the resistance movement put extraordinary faith in the power of movies.

Here, the protagonists risk their lives, and sacrifice others, to pass on reels of footage that show the Allies winning the war – history as we know it. “That film shows the world not as it is,” the heroine insists, “but as it could be.”

It’s a neat conceit, folding in on itself like an origami eagle. In their entrancingly bleak imaginings, “counter-factual” dramas do the same thing, making history seem as capricious as a coin toss. Now we can add the BBC’s more modest, but enjoyably gripping SS-GB, set in a 1941 Britain (well, London, really) under Nazi rule.

Together, these make for two chilling visions: a divided America, seething with persecution, under an aging hysterical tyrant; and an isolated, suffering Britain falling to hideous right-wing influence. The world as it could be, I guess.

There’s someting unsettling about how it imagines a nation adapting to life under the führer

Based on Len Deighton’s 1978 novel, SS-GB is really an adaptation of Vichy France – its moral current flows between the ignominy of collaboration and the tragic glamour of resistance.

The Holocaust is invoked, as a quietly advancing project, but there’s something just as unsettling about how it imagines a nation adapting to life under the führer, making an accommodation with the unimaginable.

Detective Douglas Archer (Sam Riley) of Scotland Yard is somewhere between the collaboration and the resistance, supposedly “non-political” but answering to a Gestapo boss.

This weary ambivalence – much like the nicotine gravel of his voice, rakish fedora, flirtation with a femme fatale (Kate Bosworth) and a fling with his resilient secretary, Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) – marks him out as a film noir detective, a role that fits.

Writers Neal Purviss and Robert Wade, concocters of the recent Bond films, slip comfortably into that genre, leaving it stirred, not shaken, by the imagined setting. The budget doesn’t appear to extend to convincing CGI, but the incidental details of the programme also deliver the frisson of good disaster movies: a blast-pocked Buckingham Palace, a gouged Trafalgar Square, the sight of the Houses of Parliament (and, more disorienting, of Dermody) draped in swastikas.

Director Philipp Kadelbach prefers handheld cameras, as though this alternative history must be persuasive above all

Archer, meanwhile, is just trying to get on with his job. He has a murder to unravel – a body bleeding out clues to Resistance plans – and the case has attracted the attentions a hypnotically severe SS officer, Oskar Huth, direct from Berlin (played by the terrific Schaubuhne stage actor Lars Eidinger, who might leap through the screen at any moment). But the Resistance is all around, trying to persuade him to their cause, by force if necessary.

Director Philipp Kadelbach prefers the twitchy verisimilitude of handheld cameras, as though this alternative history must be persuasive above all, but the story is more contentedly breathless and so stylishly told.

That verve is enough to mute your more annoying questions (how is Irish Neutrality going, for one?), and yet it still leaves room for some nicely leavening wit.

Take Huth, as he warns Archer about the cost of sedition, for which he could be hung, under British law, and shot under German rule. Which would come first, asks Archer.

“We must always leave something for the jury to decide,” considers his commander, with no apparent irony. At least they still have an alternative. 

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