Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air
On Television

War on Nazis in Oz and in the air

LeBor reviews Our Dad the Nazi Killer and Masters of the Air

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One cold February morning in 1999 I walked down a muddy path from the village of Domachevo in Belarus into a nearby forest. In 1942, around 2,900 local Jewish people had taken the same track from the nearby ghetto to be machine-gunned into a mass grave.

I was on assignment for The Independent. The first — and only — British Nazi war crimes trial to reach a verdict was also the first time that a British court had convened abroad, complete with judge and jury. Anthony Sawoniuk, an elderly retired British rail ticket collector, was eventually found guilty of murder. Sentenced to life, he died in prison six years later.

Britain, like Canada, the United States and Australia, gave sanctuary to legions of Nazi war criminals after 1945. They included Ukrainians, Belarusians, Hungarians, Latvians and Lithuanians who had joined the Nazis’ auxiliary forces. A good number of the mass killers found refuge in Australia.

Many were recognised by Jewish survivors who passed on their details to the police. They refused to take any action. Instead, as Our Dad the Nazi Killer reveals, the police tipped off the killers that they were being watched.

Danny Ben-Moshe’s engrossing, moving documentary, showing on BBC iPlayer, follows Jack, Jon and Sam Green as they try to uncover the mystery of their father Boris’s life in post-war Melbourne. Apart from his brother Fima, Boris’s entire family was murdered. Boris joined the partisans, where he became an expert in explosives.

Baltic and Ukrainian Nazis aside, post-war Melbourne was a peaceful, seaside paradise. Yet during the 1950s and 1960s former Nazi auxiliaries began to meet mysterious deaths. One man had explosives attached to his head. This was judged a suicide. Others died in freak accidents or were found washed up on the seashore.

Was this the work of Boris? The brothers had long heard whispered stories about their father. Boris met the two key criteria of any murder investigation. He had the means — his skills as a partisan —and the motivation — the loss of his beloved family. Boris ran a jewellery shop where other survivors gathered and reported on the perpetrators they had spotted.

They then retreated to another room where very serious discussions continued. His sons hired a private investigator, John Garvey, to dig much deeper. Garvey turned up all sorts of telling information and nuggets pointing to Boris’s involvement in the curious deaths. There was no concrete proof, but that did not really matter.

Our Dad the Nazi Killer is a both a riveting historical investigation into a dark episode of post-war history and a nuanced exploration of the ethics and morality of justice, no matter how rough. Unlike Anthony Sawoniuk, Nazi collaborators in Melbourne did not live in peace for more than 40 years.

Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air

Masters of the air, now showing on Apple TV+, is one of the biggest blockbusters in television history. With a budget of $250 million, no expense has been spared in telling the story of the US Eighth Air Force 100th Bomb Group.

Its Flying Fortresses, stationed in rural East Anglia, were deployed in some of the most dangerous bombing runs over Germany. A decade in the making, Masters of the Air is the third Second World War series to be produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

Masters of the Air is a companion to The Pacific, which followed a company of Marines, and Band of Brothers, which told the story of a group of paratroopers in the 101st Airborne Division. All three are based on historical accounts and real-life stories (the earlier two series are currently available on Now TV).

The hazard for any wartime series is so much combat at the expense of storytelling

This enthralling trilogy is the anti-Marvel. While Hollywood churns out endless, instantly forgettable superhero franchises, Hanks and Spielberg’s wartime dramas show that viewers still hunger for emotionally engaging, long-form immersive storytelling. The courage of so many young men, who willingly risked and often sacrificed their lives for their country, still inspires awe and admiration.

Masters of the Air’s visuals are spectacular. If you don’t own a decent-sized flat-screen television, ideally with surround sound, then find a friend who does and watch it together. The arial combat scenes as the German fighters roar in, swerving and banking while the bomber gunners twist and spin in their seats, trying to shoot them down, are nail-biting.

After 25 missions the aircrew were stood down, but the odds were against survival. Britain’s bombers operated at night but the Americans flew during the day. That made it easier to hit the target but also ramped up the danger.

Bombing an aircraft factory in Regensburg in August 1943, the group, dubbed the “Bloody Hundredth” lost nine of its 22 airplanes. Each plane had a crew of ten, all either killed or captured when an airplane went down.

The period details are evocative and beautiful. Everything feels right, from the clothes and hairstyles to the wartime pubs, clothes and cigarettes. Wartime London is vividly recreated with its smoke-filled bars and alcohol-fuelled couplings.

The hazard for any wartime series is that there is so much focus on combat that the storytelling takes a back seat. The first couple of episodes do lack sufficient character development. Initially it was hard to work out who was who and who mattered. But after that wobbly start the characters emerge and the series rapidly finds its feet, or rather its wings.

Several promising storylines include downed airmen escaping from Nazi-occupied Belgium.

Apple releases an episode a week and I have now watched four. Masters of the Air is marvellous, masterful television drama.

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