Colditz – Series 2: Review

1 Jul


It was a terrible time, it really was.” Major Pat Reid, Colditz escapee.

 “You know, I’ve been here since 1940. In all that time all I’ve learnt is how to be a prisoner of war” Flight Lieutenant Simon Carter, Episode 12.

 Humanity is at the heart of Colditz. Yes, it is about the war. Yes, it is about life inside a prisoner of war camp. Ultimately, however, it is about human beings and how they cope with situations out of their control, and how they deal with war.

 The introduction, in the opening episode of Series 2, of Major Horst Mohn (Anthony Valentine) adds a touch of nastiness to the proceedings. This is not a pleasant man, and a direct contrast to the Kommandant who does what he can to make the lives of the prisoners at the very least bearable. Mohn goes out of his way to make life difficult and unpleasant for the prisoners, and is quite brutal – he watches on silently as three British Commandos are gunned down, he is a stickler for the rules and a lover of the Fuhrer, his office displaying a large picture of Hitler and a smaller one of him meeting the Nazi leader. Throughout he is a human being of the type that neither you or I would relish knowing. Yet, in showing him leave the castle and go the local public house, uniform hidden, we see that underneath the nasty exterior he is as human as the next man. Scenes with his woman at the pub show a side to him that we haven’t seen before. His exit displays a man scared at the possibility of what will happen to him if the Germans lose control of the castle; he begins small talk with Carter, discussing ‘the Aston Villa’ and attempts to get the British to sign to say that he always treated them fairly. This Carter takes glee in twisting, signing something to the opposite effect. The final straw, which causes Mohn to flee the castle, comes during a meeting with Colonel Preston, in which Mohn seeks his support. A stand-up and cheer moment comes, as Jack Hedley, after a suitably dramatic pause, informs the German that ‘as one member of your international fascist elite, I will give three resounding cheers to see you roast in hell.’ A fitting riposte, and one which leaves Anthony Valentine’s Mohn speechless. It is down to Valentine that Mohn is such a figure of hate – an inspired performance, his presence raises the stakes for the prisoners as well as his superior the Kommandant and security guard Hauptmann Ulmann. What he adds to the drama is a real Nazi threat, one that was less obvious in Series 1, a threat that makes the prisoners think twice about any action they might be considering. Given the way he treated people, it was only fair that they rejected his advances for a personal rapprochement.

 It is of note, as mentioned before, that, apart from the aforementioned Mohn, the other German characters are portrayed as people with doubts, not about their duty but about their government. Bernard Hepton’s Kommandant more and more questions the Fuhrer, but feels unable to take any action that would directly contradict an order. Until the end. With the castle under threat, he takes it upon himself to disobey an order from above, and is complicit in the British takeover of the castle. Such depth is given to him over the series that when he receives news of the death of his son on the front, aged 24, and has to break it to his wife, it is almost unbearable to watch. As he wanders in to bedroom and undertakes small talk with his wife, it is so mundane, so irrelevant in it’s build up that when he finally tells her it is impossible not to shed a tear, equally as affecting as when Colonel Preston received news of the death of his wife. Expertly written, tenderly performed by Bernard Hepton, the Kommandant plays a crucial role in the drama.

 Great performances all round – Hans Meyer, David McCallum, Jack Hedley, Jeremy Kemp, Paul Heffer and the triumphant (in an acting sense) return of Robert Wagner, these are real people that we are watching, transcending the words on the page of the script.

 Beautifully written, performed and directed, Colditz creates a world with such distinctness that as the episodes pass you start feeling claustrophobic yourself, such are the feelings engendered by the ongoing exploits of these characters. It’s a world you are happy to immerse yourself in, and it is most definitely a series that I shall be revisiting. I can’t say much more, other than to urge anyone to watch it. It teaches us of life in a different time, and of life during wartime, real wartime on your doorstep. But it also teaches us that even in war, not everything is black and white, good versus evil. There are shades of grey. Which doesn’t make the death that war brings any easier to stomach.

 Lest any of this be seen to be glamourising the whole affair, let us remember that this was all based on real events, on real people who experienced such a horrendous time. I think the final word should go to Major Pat Reid, on whose experience the series was based, and who was one of just 12 British officers to successfully escape Colditz and make it home:

 ‘It was a terrible time, it really was. I had to go on escaping. My sanity depended on it. And by luck I succeeded.’


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