Spies of Warsaw: The True Story

Spies of Warsaw is based on the novel by Alan Furst and stars David Tennant as Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, Janet Montgomery as Anna Skarbek and Marcin Dorocinski as Antoni Pakulski. It's a BBC, TVP1 (Poland), ARTE (France) coproduction.

Warning: my review includes spoilers

The Story

Spies of Warsaw is set in 1938/39 in Poland, although the main characters make frequent trips to Paris and Germany. David Tennant plays Mercier, a French spy working closely with the Polish to discover German invasion plans for both Poland and his own country. Janet Montgomery plays Anna, a League of Nations worker who meets Mercier when he needs someone to take to a diplomatic reception. They fall in love, but Anna is already living with a Russian emigre writer and the French embassy regard her as a security threat.

After observing German tank manoeuvres, Mercier becomes convinced that they are capable of manoeuvring their forces through the forests of the Ardennes (which they of course did during Fall Gelb, the Nazi invasion of France), but will anyone listen? The only people who seem to want to help are the desperate Poles (personified by Polish intelligence officer Antoni Pakulski), one semi-retired French general, and a couple of British diplomats in Paris who pass Mercier's warnings on to Winston Churchill. Frustrating Mercier's plans are German intelligence, Soviet Intelligence, multiple assassins and double agents and even his own superiors.

Anna's writer boyfriend is deported back to the USSR (and presumably to his death) at the instigation of the French embassy. She blames Mercier and cuts him off. He tries to keep going, but finds it difficult to live without her. It becomes clear that the Nazis and Soviets are running rings around him. Eventually as the Germans overrun Poland he has one last mission to help the doomed Poles and a chance to redeem himself with Anna arises.

It's a slow-burner, character driven, with little in the way of driving plot; how will Mercier and Anna develop their affair and will anyone listen to Mercier's warnings being the main ongoing themes.

My Analysis

With three hours to play with (two 90 minute episodes) the screeen-writers maintain a calm pace, building the atmosphere of Warsaw and Paris and the frustrations of Mercier as he tries to warn his country of the danger. There are really only two types of spy drama, the unrealistic and the semi-realistic. This is the semi-realistic type. There are very few explosions (only one really and even that a bit half-hearted) and not many shootouts. What there is is a lot of moody atmosphere.

To be fair there's some great evocative period detail, better I'd say than the recent, high-budget adaptation of Restless. Alan Furst's books are strong on pre-war atmosphere, so the series has captured that style well.

It's not a simple or heroic story. Instead it comes across almost like a dramatisation of real events. There are lots of minor characters who appear and disappear in the story as their paths cross Mercier's. The adaptation could have taken the course of trimming the story back drastically and potentially it would have worked if it had, but I found the sub-plots and semi-realism interesting and eventually engrossing. If you liked Smiley's People you'll be at home in the world of the story.

Which bits were true?

Although most of Spies of Warsaw is fictional, Mercier's final mission is based on the true story of Poland smuggling its gold reserves to France (via Romania) to avoid them being stolen by the Nazis.

The story as told in Hitler's Gold: the Story of the Nazi War Loot, by Arthur L. Smith, Jr.:

The German occupiers found the Bank of Poland almost empty. As the German military forces threatened Warsaw, the chief personnel of the Bank of Poland (Bank Polski) had abandoned the city taking with them some $64 million worth of the Polish gold reserve. Traveling by train and truck south and east through Rumania, Turkey and Lebanon, the Polish bank staff finally arrived in France in late October 1939, where they were granted office space and storage vaults in the Bank of France in Paris and there continued to conduct businees.

I was disappointed with the low key ending. In keeping with the realistic feeling of the whole series, the train journey to Romania involved a limited amount of action, some tension and a lot of looking sad as Poland was dismembered between the voracious war machines of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

And well they might be sad, the epilogue informs us 90% of Warsaw was destroyed during the Second World War.

Spies of Warsaw: my Verdict

If you like slow-paced, atmospheric spy stories then you'll like this.


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