Peter Bowker’s PBS series World on Fire is a sweeping seven-part drama that takes viewers into an immersive journey of life during the Second World War. First broadcast on BBC One in 2019, the show was quickly picked up for Masterpiece’s line-up scheduled for spring 2020. Incisive and well-researched, Bowker’s writing sits comfortably atop a brilliant production that focuses on everyday lives and how they get upended in a struggle to survive.
Sony LIV’s decision of bringing it to wider audiences via the digital platform could not be more well-timed, at least thematically. Ensconced deep within this war saga are themes that ominously reflect present scenarios — whether it be the notorious rise of fascist governments or the constant existential crisis that threatens its people living in unsure times.
Bowker’s creative perspective on a much-dabbled-with subject like World War II is refreshing and cathartic. He chooses to focus on people and their social transactions rather than highlight problematic leaders and their political schemes. Through his human stories emerge strong socio-political motifs that compel viewers to pause and take stock of its relevance in the wider context – homosexuality, rape, mental illness, loss of civil rights are beautifully juxtaposed with themes of loves lost, abandonment, and death.
Hopscotching across England, Germany, Poland, and France, World on Fire deals with the stories of interpreter-turned-solider Harry (Jonah Hauer-King); Lois (Julia Brown), a singer for the British troops; Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz), a waitress who later joins the Polish resistance; Webster (Brian J Smith), a gay American doctor working in France; and his lover and Jazz saxophonist Albert (Parker Sawyers).
The young blood in the cast is ably headlined by a veteran band of actors including Helen Hunt, who plays Nancy, an American radio journalist in Berlin; Sean Bean as Lois’ father and former war soldier, Douglas Bennett and the inimitable Lesley Manville, who plays Harry’s mother Robina, a thorough puritan and a fan of the British fascist Oswald Mosley.
Firmly stacked within the multiple narratives in World on Fire is Lois and Harry’s romantic chronicle that drives the plot. Promised to each other as youthful, passionate souls, the two soon part ways during Harry’s stay in Warsaw where he is compelled to marry Kasia in the hope of safely bringing her back to England post the German invasion. But fate plays hardball and Kasia instead parks her younger brother on the train moments before its departure and decides to aide her widowed mother by staying back.
Harry’s return with Kasia’s (now uprooted) brother raises questions and Lois decodes Harry’s feeble attempts at keeping his marriage a secret.
The PBS series uses the first couple of episodes to settle its protagonists in the vast geographical terrain it aims to chart and once the timelines and narratives are established, it scourges further to explore the political heinousness and its consequences on common lives.
The SS army is refreshingly shown in an ambivalent light. The cruelty and pure animalistic rage is compensated with a handful of breathers in terms of a helpful official who guides Webster after Albert is wrongfully jailed (merely because his coloured identity was too much of an issue when he revolted to the Germans usurping his residence in Paris).
Bowker skilfully weaves watershed moments in history like The Defence of the Polish Post Office in Danzig and the Dunkirk evacuations within his fictional setup to elaborate the timespan between 1939-40, when the German Blitzkrieg was at its formidable best in Western Europe.
Where World on Fire scores heavily is its honest portrayal of the cost of war: the end of regular life, normal worries, everyday cares, possibly forever.
High-standing social citizens reduced to just identification papers, women manhandled and raped at will, fellow comrades bombed to smithereens; family members shot within sight of their children — all become the new ‘normal’ in a matter of days.
The creators don’t stop at simply narrating the atrocity of events, but arouse a sense of acute helplessness in audiences. Concepts of equality, freedom, fundamental rights to one’s thoughts, or even one’s own body, are renegaded to being luxuries that many could not afford at the time. The series attempts to understand what a world devoid of such basic necessities looks like.
For example, Kasia’s involvement in the Polish resistance comes via use of her womanly charms on German soldiers. She surreptitiously seduces them into dark alleys where her associate shoots them from behind. Her activism comes at a personal cost — of losing her dignity and conscience. Initially hesitant to kill innocent German soldiers, she promptly forgets the distinction between the harmful and the innocuous.
Time and again, World on Fire delves into the dilemma of living — the price of an individual ‘innocent’ human life as opposed to the collective, broader concept of the ‘enemy’ — how does one choose, and what is the right choice? The period drama is insured with watertight performances. Bowker peppers his story with compelling characters that demand your attention into wonderment and sometimes, even awe. Manville, whose career graph has suddenly taken a delightful turn, seamlessly slips into the shoes of the gratuitously brutal Robina. Her callow ways and frequent confessions of being a heartless, clueless mother are so perfect, that one can’t possibly judge her.
To draw home her biting realism, Robina casually points out to an unexpectant Harry (while he shaves) that the razor he’s using was the precise instrument his father used to kill himself. Her definitive codes of conduct and strict elitism crumbles quickly when Harry dumps his young brother-in-law with her. Her concerns with the World War are negligible, but her worries as a mother are hardly overt either. She simply gets on with her life of limited luxury, only revealing moments of vulnerability when faced with ghosts of her husband’s past.
Wichlacz’s portrayal of Kasia is achingly perfect. From the once-protected Polish waitress, starry-eyed and in love with Harry, she gradually becomes a cold-blooded murderer who weeps herself to sleep on most nights, longingly staring at a family picture.
The characters battle to cling on to their pasts, one they were familiar with, that reminded them of family, love, and laughter over shared plates of food, but are constantly thrust back to an unforgiving present that requires them to duck from hovering bomber aircrafts or the pistol-laiden Wehrmacht (German armed forces).
World on Fire is by no means ground-breaking work on the Second World War, nor does it provide any new information about the unfortunate spate of events. Bowker’s fascination of storytelling lies in people and their constant sacrifices instead, that made for unassuming and even improbable heroes out of common men and women.
World on Fire is currently streaming on Sony LIV.
(All images from Twitter)