To write his television serial Foyle’s War (2002–2015), Anthony Horowitz armed himself with history.
Spinning tales based on actual events in England during and a couple of years after World War II, he reminds us that life is the best friend fiction ever had. Most of the episodes are mesmerizing as they plumb the depths of human grief, fear, foolishness, and cupidity, and rise simultaneously to the heights of human integrity and dignity through the intelligence and stalwart commitment to justice of the show’s protagonist, Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), a police Detective Chief Superintendent, in Hastings, a town and borough in Sussex, on the southern English coast. (Geography alert, American readers.) I can’t say that Horowitz revolutionizes televisual storytelling, as do his American cousins, David Lynch, David Chase, and David Simon in their landmark shows, but I can say that he takes the old narrative machine out for a spin, polished to a startling brilliance, and he is an innovator in his own way.
Michael Kitchen as Foyle
Although none of Horowitz’ public statements indicate any intention to alter the terms of homefront drama, as I read the stories of the first five seasons, from “The German Woman” to “All Clear,” Horowitz rings some interesting changes on his portrait of the civilian side of war that have given me substantial food food thought. (Discussion below) So, much as I may admire the totality of the now complete Foyle’s War, I want to isolate for comment those particular narratives.
Foyle’s War begins in May 1940, and its first episode, “The German Woman,” maps out the show’s unorthodox homefront parameters. Not only is it, as far as I know the only homefront story ever to be a television serial, but it departs from the pattern established in Hollywood movies that tend toward a simplistic polarization of the evils of war and the simple morals of bedrock America. In the canonic movie of this type, the homefront is an icon (and reminder) of peace in a time of war, and sometimes also informs us that “no man is an island,” all wars afflict all people everywhere.” Foyle’s War touches both of these bases, and then runs around third (baseball metaphor, English readers) as it questions the homefront ideal, and then digs hard for home plate to thin out the line between war and peace altogether. It’s very impressive.
Misdirection characterizes our first sight of “The German Woman,” which seems to be about to honor the hoary convention of polarizing the war and the iconic homefront, by invoking the sweetness of the innocent, unblemished English countryside, far from the war in Europe. It opens on a low angle camera shot peering romantically through grass on a hill overlooking the sea, complete with soundtrack of trilling music, and a charming (British?) middle-aged couple on a picnic. But this idyll is soon troubled. The man takes a photo of the woman, not noticing that in the distance a German U boat has surfaced. Already, the war has contaminated ordinary British life. And then the polarities that the pastoral image initially summons collapse. This isn’t an English couple, but Thomas and Elsie Kramer (David Horovitch and Elizabeth Bell) a pair of German refugees—although she was born in England–who under some recent war legislation are not permitted to own a camera. Observed by a civilian defense worker as Thomas is taking a picture of Elsie, while–bad luck!–”Jerry” has shown himself in the distance unbeknownst to them, the refugee couple is soon removed to a center from which they are scheduled to be deported. Profoundly anti-Fascist, they are now forced into living with the very people they ran from Germany to escape. She has a heart attack and dies, apparently because no medical help was summoned. The soldiers in charge of the facility are unsympathetic to “the enemy.”
The images that convey the ordeal of this couple eat away at pristine distinctions that might be drawn between the war on the Continent and England’s residential non-combatant areas. The Kramers are awakened in the middle of the night by the kind of knocking associated with Nazi invasions of Jewish homes, and, since the Kramers are not Jewish, the association bleeds out into an evocation of the intrusion into the homes of any that the Reich considered hostile to their goals and needs, as some unidentified men barge into the Kramer cottage. There are also images of the kind of rolls of barbed wire on the Hastings coastline reminiscent of any film I have ever seen about the D-Day invasion. Civilian areas and the battlefield are being conflated slowly, and this matters a lot in a story whose central character is a policeman who wants to be on the battlefield not on the homefront, since it seems he is in both places at once, and doesn’t know it. Yet.
While other European countries were afflicted by Hitler’s boots on the ground and planes in the air, and the American homefront was completely removed from wartime action, England was in the unique position during World War II of both being in the thick of the battle and having a homefront. This renders England ideal for the double vision of Foyle’s War, and for featuring Foyle, somewhat irritably confined to a small town police station, as a lens on the indeterminacy of the distinctions between combat and civilian life. We begin our voyage looking at the contrast between the government’s treatment of the Kramers and the government’s pampering of Greta (Joanna Kanska), the “German woman” of the episode’s title. Greta, who is actually not even German but from the Sudetenland, is married to Henry Beaumont, a rich magistrate. Beaumont, a doting, much older, stodgy husband, has used his influence to bend the law for his personal pleasure to make sure that Greta is not taken to a detention center as she would have been, under the new wartime regulations, especially since her brothers are highly placed Nazis in Germany. (It should be noted here that Beaumont shows no concern for the Kramers when their plight is called to his attention; he considers it unfortunate, but who are they? Nothing to him.)
At first it might seem to some that the episode is dabbling in superficialities about the British class system or stereotyping, and all that is there, but ultimately we see that Foyle, marooned in Hastings though he is, is at the heart of the war effort, when Greta Beaumont is killed and almost everyone but her grieving husband says in various ways that Foyle should not “waste his time” finding the murderer. Circumstantially, it seems like a slam dunk. Evidence points toward a crime motivated by rage against Germany. Greta is a typical Nazi style beauty, a Dietrich clone; she is killed after a German bombing of Hastings that kills an innocent village girl; and a swastika is carved into a tree near where Greta’s body is found. So, what’s another dead “enemy”? There are more important police matters to attend to.
Joanna Kanska as Greta
Not so for Foyle, who initially seems like merely another of those fictional onscreen detectives who take a serious interest in the job with a monomania that passeth understanding, and certainly is not generally to be found in real life police detectives. So, we watch with the usual suspension of disbelief as Foyle’s investigation, not unexpectedly, takes him to a deeper level at which he finds that the killer’s motives are based on garden variety reasons like money and sex, and lies. Greta, it seems, has been killed because of her affair with an attractive man her own age, whose career and social prospects will be jeopardized if the truth comes out. Watch the show if you’re interested in the narrative details; it’s a great pilot, mostly because that’s not as deep as it goes.
As Foyle unearths the true motives for murder, the episode takes a sharp turn, and we begin to see that it is precisely about what most of Hastings is not interested in: the death of Elsie Kramer at the detention center and the murder of Greta, which concern only those who knew and cared for them personally. The Kramers had seemed to be only a prelude to the Greta story, but it turns out that both deaths are both a part of a very deep level of pervasive crime for which their exists no statute, a “lawlessness under pressure,” that is to say a profound disregard for the law when push comes to shove, which we are encouraged to engage as precisely what motivates the Nazi regime. And this is where the homefront and the battlefield amalgamate.
Foyle sounds the opening notes of this homefront theme in the last moments of “The German Woman” after he has officially brought the murderer to justice and his adorable, otherwise very decent and humane driver, Sam(antha) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) tells him she still can’t see why it matters who killed “just-a-German” Greta. “That doesn’t make any difference at all,” says Foyle. “She was a human being; she was murdered. Murder is murder. You stop believing that and we might just as well not be fighting the war. Because you end up like the Nazis.” Foyle doesn’t care who Greta was because the law that separates us from the Nazis and their war machine doesn’t. Were not the “enemies” of the Reich dehumanized in exactly the same way that even sweet, red-haired, freckle-faced Sam dehumanizes Greta?
Honeysuckle Weeks as Sam
Ironically, Foyle and Sam both depersonalize Greta, but in different ways. She is just the enemy to Sam, and just a human being to Foyle. And this distinction makes all the difference. Whatever Greta may be for the characters, in the episode she is intentionally drawn as a cypher, but as Foyle sees her, and as he believes we all must appear before the law. Any real knowledge about her is withheld except that she was a glacially blonde “German woman.” It is impossible to tell from anything we see or learn whether she was a good or bad person; a Nazi, an anti-Nazi, or apolitical; a greedy slut who married a rich old Brit for his fortune; or a genuinely loving wife, who fell under the spell of a vicious seducer. And we never know because it is irrelevant. There is much sympathy created for the Kramers, and nothing but indeterminacy that surrounds Greta, but that is also beside the point. An impersonal, impartial standard of true justice is set up at the get-go that is clearly intended to express the basis of the legitimacy of the Allied cause and the standard that Nazi Germany fails to measure up to, and Horowitz uses Foyle to force us to ponder the lapses of homefront observance of that standard and what that means.
What that means is tested with a vengeance when Foyle discovers that, all expectations to the contrary, the murderer turns out to be Michael Turner (Dominic Mafham), a military man leading a team effort to work out codes that will be crucial to the Allied cause. There is a breathtaking collision between pragmatic plausibility and cravenness when the murderer too, despite the fact of his own carnal involvement with Greta, possibly as her seducer, dismisses her as “only a German woman,” the enemy, and asserts the superior value of his own life because it is essential to the war effort. Turner, like so many, averts his gaze from what Foyle sees as the actual enemy in Hastings: the comparative weighing and measuring of the value of a human life, the rot at the heart of the war’s darkness, and also the crimes Foyle investigates. As Foyle begins to police the homefront for that kind of enemy infiltration, Horowitz achieves a moral richness reminiscent of that of Joseph Conrad.
“It’s the war,” all the characters but Foyle intone over and over when things go wrong, and it is, in certain very specific and immediate ways, but it’s also what was there before the war began and will be there when it is formally over: a certain tendency toward inhumanity by humankind. And Foyle’s Warcontinues to hammer home the ambiguity and complexity of its central verity, always dramatizing both the loneliness of Foyle’s battle and how hard it is to recognize that inhumanity in ourselves, for if the official war will end, that battle will not. The lesson is never learned diegetically on Horowitz’s homefront.
“The German Woman” sets the pattern for Foyle’s discoveries of rot on the homefront, varying slightly in degree of depth and darkness. “Fifty Ships,” the first episode of the second season, is noteworthy and exemplary of Horowitz’ achievement as one of the darkest and most unnerving episodes, as it casts a cold eye on the American homefront, the much touted Fortress of Democracy. The plot of this episode concerns the visit to Hastings of one Howard Page (Henry Goodman), a wealthy and influential American businessman who holds the key to America’s lend-lease policy without which England hasn’t a hope of keeping the Nazis off the island, and the inconvenient truth that Page turns out to have arrived in England a thief and a liar, and intends to leave England, as a man who has also murdered with impunity.
The most unconventional and piercing aspect of this episode is that, with his prominent hook nose and his slight Bronx vocal intonations, Howard Page, toting a Protestant sounding name, comes across unmistakeably as an assimilated American Jew, an impression all the more eerie since there is not a whisper of explicit reference to this possibility. Our hindsight knowledge of the suffering of the European Jewish communities that inevitably shadows any World War II story, and our tenderly cherished mythology of America as the savior of the free world clash uneasily with the self-serving, predatory aggression of the possibly Jewish Page, and with his ugly pre-war history so resonant of the kind of no-holds-barred competitiveness with which America is also famously associated. Whatever else Page may be or may seem, while he is visiting Hastings, he kills Richard Hunter (Tom Georgeson), an English man he once knew at Oxford who, once a scholarship student like Page, is now a broken shell of a person, useless to himself and his family because of what Page did to him. A decade earlier, Page viciously covered up his theft of Hunter’s invention, from which Page made millions, and now having killed Hunter so that his theft won’t be revealed, relentlessly discounting Hunter’s humanity and value in comparison with his own, Page expects to get away with it.
Howard Page committing murder
And he does. The highest level of British authority prevents Foyle from administering justice because if Page is arrested, or so the government believes, America will identify his sympathy for the English war effort with his newly revealed criminality, and the lend-lease will not go through. The line between war and ordinary law-abiding life is seriously blurred when Foyle is forced to let Page return to America. Foyle submits to his role in the hierarchy, but he makes a point of arriving at the airport just as Page is about to board his plane, promising Page that he will come and get him after the war is over. Page is silent. Locking eyes with Foyle, Page pits the dark side of the unbridled, individualist American “can-do” spirit against Foyle’s defense of the depersonalized limits of justice. Which has won in this moment? Is the victory in the mere exposure? Or is that merely a soothing fairy tale we want to tell ourselves?
Horowitz’s series will not, as does the British establishment, measure the value of the life of a non-functioning alcoholic against the value of Page’s life as a bulwark of the war effort, outspokenly anti-Nazi and Pro-British, and possibly a member of a group against which atrocities are being committed. By honoring the irrefutable reality of such a decision, Foyle’s War avoids naïve idealism. By refusing to rubber stamp it, Foyle’s War promotes a tonic disturbance
The post-war episodes, in Seasons Seven, Eight , and Nine—from “The Russian House” to “Elise”–which Horowitz privately calls “Foyle’s Cold War,” are powerful and vividly recreative of the extreme paranoia of that period, but are more routinely melodramatic mystery than the homefront episodes. (FYI: Howard Page is never mentioned in the post-war stories.) They are certainly passionate exposes of terrible secrets that the post-war period revealed about the behavior of Britain’s and America’s industrialists during the war. “Elise,” now officially described as the last of the Foyle’s War episodes, packs a knockout punch that will leave the Foyle aficionado reeling. But for all that, although Foyle’s Cold War cases make for great television they don’t achieve the complex kind of originality of the homefront shows.
The concept that motivated the homefront episodes has caused me to give some time to pondering the genre of “war entertainment,” a genre I dislike, generally avoid, and have never before given a lot of thought. Vaguely, I’d previously imagined my disaffection had something to do with the way Hollywood tends to use war movies to pimp a kind of quick draw masculinity I find repellant, and to glorify the violence that fuels that stereotype. Or maybe I’d presumed that I was alienated by the general absence in war movies of women who had significant lives and individual identities. And I’m sure that’s all true. But now I’m wondering whether there’s more to it. Perhaps, war movies/television are repugnant to me because they are also generally filled with a form of cultural denial that doesn’t exist in the homefront episodes of Foyle’s War, and that is why I watched this particular series with interest.
Maybe, on some level generic war movies and television encourage us to cling to the illusion that there is a clear line we can draw between war and peace. And perhaps that is the unspoken reason why World War II films are all about concentration camps; cities exploding into rubble; and caper films that pit clever American heroes against vicious German commandants. (The spoken reasons all have something to do with “violence sells.”) After all, those are the aspects of that time in history that carve out a very clear and comfortable separation between war and peace. But until we come to the Cold War episodes, Foyle’s War presents us with the ways in which they are marbled. Foyle’s (Cold) War episodes reveals how the war contaminated the post-1945 peace, but that’s a different story. Horowitz says of those later episodes, “These are stories that should be told.” Yes.
However, I can’t help feeling a greater admiration for the episodes in which the series makes the homefront visible as part of a continuum rather than the utopian alternative to spectacular bellicose eruptions. Foyle appears to have learned this when the show reaches the end of the homefront episodes. In the final minutes of the ironically titled “All Clear,” while everyone else is popping champagne and dancing in the streets, as if something has been concluded or achieved, he retires to his home to face another day.
Martha P. Nochimson’s 26 year career as a University Professor of film and literature is only part of her story. In addition to the pleasure she has taken at being in the classroom at Mercy College and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she has worked as an editor for Cineaste magazine, written for American television, and has had the privilege of being in long running conversations with both David Lynch (25 years and counting) and David Chase (ten years and counting). She has published six books and is about to start work on Inner Tube: Television Beyond Formula for the University of Texas Press.