Spies of Warsaw:
The True Story
Spies of Warsaw, based on the novel by Alan Furst and staring David Tennant as Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, Janet Montgomery as Anna Skarbek and Marcin Dorocinski as Antoni Pakulski 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 lawyer. It’s a BBC, TVP1 (Poland), ARTE (France) coproduction.
Note: Spoilers are blacked out like like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To reveal a spoiler, just highlight it.
Spies of Warsaw: Title
The title uses two classic title archetypes, the Setting, Warsaw, and the Premise, which is spying. A simple title, but as I argue in How to Choose a Title For Your Novel, using a simple, clear title is often wise.
Spies of Warsaw: Logline
As the Second World War approaches, a French spy in Poland discovers German battle-plans, and has to fight off Nazi and Soviet assassins as he tries to alert both countries to the danger.
(For more on loglines see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Spies of Warsaw: Plot Summary
After observing German tank manoeuvres, Mercier becomes convinced that they can manoeuvre 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. Frustrating Mercier’s plans are German intelligence, Soviet Intelligence, multiple assassins and double agents and even his own superiors.
Anna meets Mercier when he needs someone to take to a diplomatic reception. They fall in love, but Anna is already living with a Russian émigré writer and the French embassy regards her as a security threat.
The Germans kill Olga, one of Mercier’s agents, but Mercier gets one over on the Russians by arranging the defection of two of their agents. Mercier goes to put flowers on Olga’s grave, and while there German agents kidnap him at gunpoint.
Mercier escapes from his German kidnappers. The Russians he helped defect help him discover more about Germany’s plans for the invasion of France.
The Poles deport Anna’s writer boyfriend back to the USSR, and probably 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. Although Mercier kills several assassins, the Nazis and Soviets are running rings around him. [blackout]He discovers that Anna’s boyfriend is not in fact dead but is working for Soviet intelligence.[/blackout] Although the French won’t listen, the English spies take Mercier’s warnings seriously, and agree to pass them on to Winston Churchill.
Eventually as the Germans overrun Poland, Mercier 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 are the main ongoing themes. With three hours to play with (two 90 minute episodes) the screenwriters 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. Of the 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 few shootouts. There is though a lot of moodiness. For example:
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 have a powerful pre-war atmosphere, and the series captures that well.
It’s not a simple or heroic story. Instead, it comes across 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 this story’s world.
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 business, such as it was.
The low key ending disappointed me, although it was in keeping with the realistic feeling of the entire series. The train journey to Romania involved a limited amount of action, some tension and a lot of looking sad. Here, for example, is Pakulski feeling gloomy about the dismemberment of his country between the voracious war machines of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
And well Pakulski might look sad – the epilogue informs us the Germans and Russian destroyed ninety percent of Warsaw during the Second World War.
Alternative Movie Poster
Here’s my design for an alternate poster for Spies of Warsaw. The idea was to produce an image that focussed on the miniseries strength – atmosphere. I based the poster on the picture of Marcin Dorocinski above, and the font and the stark black and white are both reminiscent of classic films of the 1940s and 1950s like The Third Man. Click the image to see my alternative posters for other spy thrillers.
Spies of Warsaw: My Verdict
If you like slow-paced, atmospheric spy stories then you’ll like this.
Want to Watch it?
Here’s the trailer:
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