Acorn Media // 1978 // 663 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // February 11th, 2009
"When will it be not just survival? When will it be helping the enemy?" -- Olive Martel
Those aren't questions that most people in Britain had to deal with during World War II, but they became relevant for residents of the Channel Islands on June 30, 1940, as the Germans began an occupation that would last nearly five years. The islanders had to have a good sense of self-preservation, since they could have ended up in German camps or prisons, as more than 570 of the roughly 70,000 people remaining on the islands did.
Those moral questions made the German takeover a fertile subject for drama. Enemy at the Door: Series 1 concentrates on those questions to create a most unusual series about war. It delves into the issues involved in the occupation from both the British and German points of view, as embodied in Dr. Philip Martel (Bernard Horsfall, Braveheart), a Guernsey islander who represents the citizens' interests with the Germans, and Commandant Richter (Alfred Burke, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), a British-educated German officer.
Enemy at the Door: Series 1 contains 13 episodes:
* "By Order of the Führer": At the start of the German occupation, Peter Porteous (Richard Heffer, The Martian Chronicles) and a friend plot an escape. A committee of islanders, including Dr. Martel, starts working with the Germans.
* "The Librarian": SS boss Reineker (Simon Cadell, Edward & Mrs. Simpson) is slightly hurt in a scuffle with the librarian over a banned H.G. Wells novel. If she doesn't apologize, the consequences she'll face won't be slight.
* "After the Ball": A patrol comes across an island woman who's running from the Nazi soldier she was dancing with at a ball set up by Reineker for propaganda purposes.
* "Steel Hand from the Sea": British military man Clive Martel (Anthony Head, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) returns to the island to spy on the Germans, but he must visit friend Peter and sister Clare (Emily Richard, Lorna Doone).
* "The Laws and Usages of War": A British raid on the island goes badly. Peter takes in a badly wounded soldier. Dr. Martel learns his son Clive is on the island.
* "V For Victory": Police chief Kluge (John Malcolm, War and Remembrance) takes an interest when a boy is caught in a trap meant for a vandal who's making his "V" mark with paint and fire.
* "The Polish Affaire": An escapee from a labor camp poses two problems: he once had an affair with an island woman, and he may have typhus. Dr. Martel is ordered to round up bicycles for the German troops.
* "Officers of the Law": Kluge drafts a local copper to help him crack down on the black market. Too bad Dr. Martel has just gone to a shady character to get pills to help a dying boy.
* "The Jerrybag": When a German soldier gets a Guernsey woman pregnant, he wants to marry her but is sent to the Russian front. That leaves her alone to face taunts from both islanders and Germans.
* "Treason": A German officer visits his sister's ex-husband, a former British military man who lives in Guernsey, and asks his brother-in-law to deliver a message to London about German opposition to Hitler.
* "Pains and Penalties": Dr. Martel tells a man that he and his invalid mother need to boil their food and water, but is surprised when the man steals coke from his gas company job to do it.
* "The Prussian Officer": The rivalry between Reineker and a fellow officer leads to tragedy when Reineker's ex, now a prostitute, turns up in the local brothel.
* "Judgement of Solomon": Peter takes a photo of a new German war ship for the French Resistance. An unwitting Dr. Martel gets caught with the photo as he embarks on a supply run to France.
Enemy at the Door starts off rather slowly as it establishes its situation and cast of characters. A scene in the first episode as the German officers meet the islanders' committee is best described as tedious, especially as I was trying to figure out who's who and which characters would prove important.
However, Enemy at the Door proves to be compelling drama if you give it a chance. Although there's action, the stories tend to revolve around moral dilemmas. In "The Laws and Usages of War," one of the strongest episodes, the raid is seen in the opening scenes, but the consequences are the focus. Peter finds a prisoner who will soon die of his injuries if he isn't treated at a hospital. Will he turn the man in to face years in a German prison or let him die? Dr. Martel wants to help his son escape from the island -- until the Germans arrest an innocent man for planning the raid. Kluge, the German police chief, seeks the truth when he suspects his informant may have had personal reasons for fingering the wrong man.
Dr. Martel may seem weak at first, but Bernard Horsfall gradually reveals the strength of purpose behind his actions. Martel's determined to protect the islanders, weighing his actions carefully. He seems slow, but quickly develops a sense for German traps as he tries to figure how far the men on the other side will go. Helping Dr. Martel are his daughter Clare, an outspoken opponent of the Germans, and Peter Porteous, a glib landowner who doesn't seem to take anything seriously. Both of them lend a hand when someone on the island is in need. Their points of view, along with the cautions of Dr. Martel's wife Olive (Antonia Pemberton, A Passage to India), help shape the moral drama.
The moral wrestling extends to the German side of the equation as well. Commandant Richter was educated in England, and you can see the nostalgic glow in his face as he recalls his days at Cambridge. At the same time, he's devoted to duty, and he faces pressure from above to keep the peace. Police chief Kluge thinks like the Hamburg copper he was before the war, always digging to get at the truth. SS chief Reineker (Simon Cadell) doesn't show much in the way of inner workings, though. He's devoted to the cause and will be as violent or devious as necessary. Cadell's face even seems to twist a little as he delivers Reineker's lines. However, his lack of conscience affects others. When Kluge willingly uses him to question a youth about vandalism, the policeman is visibly upset by the brutality of Reineker's tactics.
While there is some action and location shooting, Enemy at the Door is typical of British dramas, often setbound and talky. The transfer isn't in bad shape, but flaring and hard-to-read night scenes are present. I had no problems with the sound.
The main extra is a better-than-average text feature on the occupation. There's also a brief clip from Island at War, a more recent series on the German invasion; it's hard to tell from the snippet whether that one's worth a look.
Enemy at the Door adheres to the conventions of series TV. You'll note the tendency for guest stars to meet with misfortunes that prevent return visits, such as death or German prison.
Anthony Stewart Head is listed as a star on the DVD cover since he's had some work since 1978, but he only appears in two episodes. Since he's a guest star, it's safe to say Clive meets with misfortune.
The Germans on the show talk among themselves in English. They also spend a lot of time debating their points of view with the islanders. Both of these things seem rather unrealistic, even if they help to create a picture of wartime Guernsey.
Enemy at the Door is a memorable series with a thoughtful take on war and human morality that will leave you thinking afterward. The demands of weekly television kept it from reaching perfection, but it's worth a look for viewers who demand something more than a distraction.
If you do require nice, safe television, be aware that Enemy at the Door: Series 1 has an ending that's a shocker, hitting home the dangers that the islanders lived under during German occupation. There is a second season indicated on IMDb, but with some cast changes.
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 663 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text History