The new Netflix film “The Bombardment” isn’t for the faint of heart. Danish filmmaker Ole Borndahl’s World War II historical drama tells the heart-wrenching true story of Operation Carthage, the 1945 British air raid on Nazi-occupied Copenhagen that went horribly wrong. Borndahl is very well aware of the weight of the material he’s covering, and he doesn’t hold back in telling this crushing true story. It makes “The Bombardment” tough to watch, but it treats the actual account honestly and the many lives it impacted with reverence.
In 1945 the Nazis had occupied Denmark. With their numbers dwindling, the Danish Resistance repeatedly sent requests to Britain’s Royal Air Force to carry out an air raid on the Gestapo headquarters located in the heart of Copenhagen. The Brits initially turned down the request but later accepted. On March 21st British aircraft left RAF Fersfield to carry out their surprise attack. But during the raid the unthinkable happened. While the Gestapo HQ was hit, several bombers mistook the Institut Jeanne d’Arc school for girls as their target. By the end, 19 adults and 86 children were killed when the school was mistakenly hit.
“The Bombardment” opens with a young boy named Henry (Bertram Bisgaard) witnessing a horrible tragedy. In a possible bit of foreshadowing, a taxi carrying three young women to a wedding party is shot to pieces by a fighter plane on a country road. Henry is the first to see the carnage and is left traumatized – unable to speak and constantly looking at the sky in sheer terror.
Henry is sent to spend the month with his aunt in Copenhagen with the thought that the less wide-opened sky may help him overcome his fear. He’s quickly taken under the wing of his compassionate and outgoing younger cousin Rigmor (Ester Birch Beck) and her best friend Eva (played by the effortlessly expressive Ella Josephine Lund Nilsson). The two precocious girls show him around town, treat him to the local children’s legends, and get him comfortable in their school.
Meanwhile Borndahl (who writes and directs) introduces us to a number of other characters, all of whom will have roles to play as his story unfolds. There’s the troubled Sister Teresa (Fanny Leander Bornedal) who helps at the local Catholic school. There’s a conflicted member of the Gestapo-sanctioned auxiliary police named Frederik (Alex Høgh Anderson). There’s a British pilot burdened by conscience. And a Danish resistance fighter who is our eyes inside the Gestapo HQ.
Early on the movie may seem a bit scattered is it hops back-and-forth between these seemingly unconnected people. But their connection becomes crystal clear as the movie moves towards the violent and deadly tragedy marked by the film’s title. It becomes a case where you know where things are heading, and no matter how you brace yourself for the impact, the wrenching horror of the event as it unfolds on screen still shakes you to your core.
Thankfully Borndahl is smart about it. He doesn’t exploit or manipulate the story for a dramatic effect. He lets it speak for itself both through his script and his camera. It’s never gratuitous, yet it is honest. It makes for a story that’s as eye-opening as it is heartbreaking. And for those of us unfamiliar with the disaster that was Operation Carthage, the film follows the tracks of other insightful international features. Those that shed lights on lesser known or untold stories which give us a deeper and fuller picture of World War II. “The Bombardment” is now streaming on Netflix.