Details: (M), English
Synopsis: Set in Occupied Belgium, The Secret Army followed the activities of Lifeline, a secret organisation set up to help Allied airmen and agents escape back to Britain across German lines. Its most deadly enemy was Standartenführer Ludwig Kessler (Cliffford Rose), fanatical head of the Gestapo. The Secret Army ended with Kessler making good his escape rather than face retribution for his war crimes. This series picks up Kessler’s story 3 years later.
An understated take on the Nazis-on-the-run fable.
Two of the biggest best sellers of the 70s were The Boys from Brazil (1976) by Ira Levin and The Odessa File (1972) by Frederick Forsyth. Both novels were based on fact building from the premise that former Nazis of World War II had worked their way into high ranking positions in European industry and government and at home in Germany, or else fled to South America, where they lived freely under assumed names as respected 'businessman'.
For a generation of readers this set-up was hardly news. The dogged efforts by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to locate and bring to trial Nazis was a favourite of Sunday supplement editors the world over and the spectacular kidnapping by Israeli Mossad agents of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in1960 was a media sensation. Known as the “architect of the Holocaust”, Eichmann was convicted and hanged by the Israeli’s in 1962. Still, in these novels, both made into films, the doings of old war criminals wasn’t quite enough.
Both Levin and Forsyth speculated freely that coming was a Fourth Reich and in the best airport novel tradition they mobilised two scientific bogeys to underscore Nazi evil…in Odessa it was the threat of germ warfare (the warheads destined to destroy Israel) and in Boys it was a cloned Hitler!
Originally airing on the BBC in late 1981, Kessler is a much less sensational make over of its more fanciful and better known fore runners of the Nazi-on-the-run template. It is a kind of sequel to the popular BBC series about the Belgian underground Secret Army. At the end of the third season, Secret Army’s chief villain, SS commander Kessler, escaped, his fate unknown. This six parter picks up the story in the late 70s. Kessler (a fine Clifford Rose) is living his life as a successful industrialist, Dorf. When a TV journalist exposes his past, Kessler escapes to South America, pursued by a German intel officer Richard Bauer (Alan Dobie) and a former Israeli army vet Mical Rak (Nitza Saul).
Kessler is a typical BBC action series of the period; dour, (some would say po-faced) with pretensions to seriousness, the plot stops every now and then for long solemn speeches about the “nature of evil.” Shot on film and tape (as was typical for a lot of up-scale shows of the time) Kessler’s production values range from strong to stringy (the interiors, lavishly appointed still look like sets).
But perhaps the thing that dates the series the most, aside from its pious attitude and clunky styling is the pacing; there’s a lot of scenes where the main action seems centred on some banal activity, like making tea or getting out of a car.
Still, there’s a high body count and some sophisticated plotting (in the nature of Le Carre) where moral urgency is supplanted by political expediency. Here the intelligence agencies of Europe remain un-moved by the thought of rogue Nazi’s on the loose unless it’s going to be embarrassing.
That said, there is material here that remains a little campy; father-daughter conflict here is represented by a sub-plot where Kessler’s daughter finds herself plotting against her father because he’s standing in the way of a neo-Nazi movement!
Extras include an excellent booklet about the making of the series a chatty commentary on the climatic sixth episode and a fairly routine ‘making-of’ which is a series of talking heads from some of Kessler’s key creatives.
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