The Border – On the Box

From HBO Europe (which is a thing, it turns out, and no bad thing either) may I present the first Polish drama ever to be shown in the UK, on Channel 4. Somewhat bravely it was shown late in June, a couple of days before he UK’s fairly disastrous referendum on leaving Europe.

It’s a timely story torn from the headlines surrounding the current European immigration crisis. The Border is a six part drama set in the lush rural Bieszczady Mountains, on the Ukrainian-Polish border. In Polish the title is ‘Wataha’, meaning the pack. You can see why the name change for the international version, given the animalistic rhetoric around this ongoing heated debate. We are introduced to the Polish Border Guard, protecting the “wildest EU border”.

So far, so stereotyped – the guys are drinking, singing and shagging in an isolated hunters cabin. These macho guards are celebrating a retirement in time-honoured fashion. And boom – a bomb goes off, killing everyone inside. Well, that sure got my attention.

The series follows the lone survivor of this attack – Captain Wiktor Rebrow. The by-the-book uptight DA is suspicious of him as he seems to receive a text message warning right before the attack (it all happened so quickly though I doubt if he’d been inside and received the warning he would have been able to move fast enough to save himself). Rebrow, consumed by guilt over the death of his friends, comrades and his foxy girlfriend Ewa, wants to quit his job and drink himself to death, but the new commander still needs him and he finds himself pulled back in.

So we wonder, is this survivor guilt, or did he really have something to do with the bombing, as unlikely as it seems. Does he know more than he’s letting on?

The Border_7
Polish Border Guards – macho in the extreme

The pack we learn the most about are the guards themselves – a tight-knit group with an extremely difficult job. It’s not as simple as a bunch of miserable frightened migrants versus a well-equipped military forces.  Early on we learn both sides are mixed up with local gangsters and organised crime.

Please excuse me one foreigner’s question – is Rebrow guilt stricken and drowning in drink or do Poles just drink like that all the time? Boy has he got a strong stomach! He seems to be invited in for moonshine in the same way Miss Marple would drink tea. More 60% proof Vicar?

The tone and the look of the indoor scenes especially reminds me of Braquo the bleak French cop drama from Canal+. It’s all very grubby and quite sleazy; tired-looking people living hard lives in the relative poverty. The lines are blurred between the Border Guards and the people smugglers with everyone living cheek by jowl in these small towns.

The Border_9
Welcome to Poland

The guys all seem to be macho hunters and woodsmen – big, beardy and bleary. Probably quite rough-looking from all the home-made moonshine. The women however all look young, slim and athletic. Their characters seem better defined than the men – Olga who maybe has too much heart for the job, the DA determined to do things right (who has introduced herself at least three times but I’ve still not remembered her name) and the new recruit Natalia who is delighted to be working with her hero Captain Rebrow. Are they better written or just a bit two-dimensional? I can’t be sure.

The countryside is very beautiful, like an extremely frightening version of Scotland. Rebrow is haunted by a wolf. Is it real or his imagination? Certainly there was one very real bear. So it seems this the sort of show where a vicious bear attack comes as light relief. Rebrow and rookie Natalia are chased down by a large bear, and hide underwater in a stream. Quite some first day! I wonder, does that really work? As Mr H points out, it doesn’t work too well for salmon.

The Border is a serviceable, very serious drama. Ostensibly about illegal immigration, but the immigrants themselves haven’t been in it all that much. After two episodes it’s not outstanding, but developments at the end of episode 2 suggest a conspiracy at work. And Rebrow certainly feels guilty about something, telling his friend Luczak that the DA is “on to me”. The difficulty with subtitles is always wondering if that was an exact translation, or did we miss something? I’m intrigued enough to definitely watch the next episode, and at just a six-episode series our Polish friends don’t out-stay their welcome.

I wish I could verify this but I read one internet commentator who said The Border had double the ratings of Game of Thrones in Poland. Whether this is true or not, it’s certainly doing something right. It was written as a stand-alone series but HBO Poland have just announced that a second season is in production. The drama has proved a success across the world, and new episodes will be arriving in Poland later this year. Which is great news for them, and for fans of international drama.

THE BORDER is released on DVD on Monday 5th September by Nordic Noir & Beyond

Try before you buy? Episode 1 is available on All 4 now.

Author: sarahhamstera

Mum always warned me watching too much tv would give me square eyes - let's find out if that's true! TV reviewer at Birmingham, UK

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