SS-GB episode 1 review

This new BBC Len Deighton adaptation SS-GB imagines an alternative 1941 in which Germany won the Battle of Britain…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

Nuance and Nazis rarely go hand in hand. It’s the skulls on the hats – they invite more shades of pantomime than subtlety. Mega successful Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade don’t miss an opportunity for Nazi or noir cliché in the first episode of SS-GB, their five-part adaptation of Len Deighton’s bestselling alt-history novel.

We’re introduced to high-ranking Nazi officer Standartenführer Huth (Lars Eidinger) overseeing an autopsy from the shadows. His subordinate Kellerman (Rainer Bock) has “the subtlety of a pig” he complains, before stubbing out his cigarette in a specimen dish and stalking off, black cane in leather-gloved hand, promising our hero “We are going to be busy, you and I”. A case of the topf calling the kessel schwarz?

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Said hero is Chief Superintendent Detective Douglas Archer (Sam Riley), whom we meet in post-coital languor with his secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody). Having defiled a Nazi official’s swanky hotel room with their tryst, Archer is clearly no convert to his country’s occupying force. His defiance, however, doesn’t extend as far as Sylvia’s. She wraps her naked body in a Swastika flag and flaunts her disobedience on the street-facing balcony.

Sylvia is with the Resistance, we learn. “Well, you can hardly blame her,” says Archer’s colleague Harry (James Cosmo), “having her parents killed like that”. You might however, blame the writers for clunkers like that one. Or for the one where, solely in the service of exposition, Sylvia asks Archer “Were you always like this or was it her dying that did it to you?”.

‘Her’ is Douglas’ wife, who was killed by a German operation, leaving him alone with son Dougie (Though not entirely alone; their domestic arrangement includes Dougie’s school friend and his mother, whose husband is being held as a POW.) Incidentally, that’s House for anyone keeping track on their detective drama Bingo cards: morally conflicted widower with past trauma, motherless child, an eye for the ladies and the habit of sitting alone on the edge of his bed, drinking and listening to the Blues. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Young Dougie’s fate hangs in the balance at the end of the first episode. The credits roll with a one-armed man poised to kidnap the schoolboy in order to bring his dad under Resistance control. In true detective style, it’s all tied up with that first act corpse – a murdered scientist displaying unusual physical symptoms that may have something to do with the development of the A-bomb. That’s the heightened detective world SS-GB deals in: one-armed men, mysterious scientists, heel-clicking Nazis and bombshell blondes hiding secrets.

Enter: Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth), a Yank who catches Archer’s eye while exiting the scene of the murder. She’s beautiful, connected and appears to be cut from the purest noir cloth. The same can be said for her and Douglas’ dialogue, which, from the moment he hung his hat to the moment he watched her slink away—a seductive question mark in 1940s tailoring—was so generically familiar it verged on the parodic. “Outfits like that are always going to get you noticed” he tells her appreciatively. “Foul play? Isn’t that what you call it over here?” she asks, leaning in for Archer to light her cigarette. It’s the kind of scene we’ve watched so often, it’s less drama now than background noise. 

More captivating than his flirtation is Archer’s new position under no-nonsense Nazi (if that isn’t a tautology) Huth. Thus far in the Occupation, Archer’s been a pragmatist telling himself he had no choice but to work with the party and is only doing so until, as he says to his son, things return to how they once were. Over the next four episodes, we’ll presumably watch Archer turn from detached collaborator to Resistance fighter.

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Not much in the way of fighting goes on in this slow-build opener, which is light on action and so far, on world-building too. We’re yet to get into the real texture of what the German occupation has done to England – to its schools, to the still-resisting North, to its work camps… all that is hopefully yet to come.

Instead, episode one makes its impact with the shock of seeing English symbols defiled by Nazi iconography. Swastika banners hang from the Houses of Parliament and a bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace, those images doing the job of the car chases and gun fights so far missing from this detective noir.

The episode resonates, though not because its characters or story are gripping. It’s because of an unignorable question with which it leaves the audience: what would you have done? If England were occupied by an enemy force, would you collaborate or resist? That’s how this opener makes an impression, drawing us in to what may well be an inadvertently relevant story at this point in history, more’s the pity.

SS-GB continues next Sunday the 26th of February on BBC One at 9pm.