Screenwriter Alexander Eik Brings Forgotten WWII History To Life

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For American viewers, the story of Norway’s Crown Princess Märtha is likely mostly unknown. But the Crown Princess’ World War II influence was a surprise even for Atlantic Crossing co-writer and director Alexander Eik, who spent almost seven years researching his miniseries. Eik explains how he found the key to Märtha’s story, and what viewers should anticipate in the next seven episodes, in a new interview.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

The history of World War II has been told on our screens again and again and again — indeed, you’ve seen some of those wartime stories of triumph and tragedy on MASTERPIECE in recent years, and will likely continue to see them for years to come.

But I’d wager you haven’t seen the hidden story of Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha.

CLIP

Reporter: Princess Martha: what do you like best about America?

Märtha: My husband.

Jace Princess Märtha, a Swedish royal who married into the Norwegian Royal Family, was a major influence on the World War II strategy of both her husband, Crown Prince Olav, and that of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

CLIP

Eleanor Norway?

FDR Hm. Or Denmark. Or both.

Eleanor But those countries are neutral!

FDR Explain that to Hitler.

Eleanor Can he really afford to establish another front?

FDR Can’t afford not to Whoever controls Norway, controls the steel. And the Germans need a

helluva lot of it.

Eleanor When could this happen?

FDR Any time – soon.

Jace Atlantic Crossing tells the very real story of Princess Märtha and FDR, and Norweigan filmmaker Alexander Eik helped craft the elegant story set to unfold these next eight episodes on MASTERPIECE. Eik joins us to discuss historical research,  the vagaries of memory and the forgotten legacies of the Second World War.

Jace This week, we are joined by Atlantic Crossing writer and director Alexander Eik. Welcome.

Alexander Eik Thank you Jace.

Jace The story of Crown Princess Märtha during World War II isn’t one that many people know about. Where did the initial idea for Atlantic Crossing come from, and how did you hear about Märtha and FDR?

Alexander Well, it all started back in 2011, I read an article in a Norwegian newspaper that was speculating around the supposedly romantic relationship between Crown Princess Märtha and President Roosevelt during World War II. And I’d never heard anything about this. I hardly knew anything about Crown Princess Märtha at all. And I felt reading the article itself almost too incredible to be true to so just out of curiosity, I started digging for more information on this fascinating story surfaced from the research. And the scope of it was it went far beyond my wildest, wildest expectations.

Jace You used the word ‘digging.’ What was your immediate reaction to the story that you had unearthed? Did you feel in some way like an archeologist who is digging, as you say, digging up this heretofore buried story?

Alexander It was kind of, it was very exciting. It was kind of a detective’s work. I was lucky to have my co-writer, Linda May Kallestein, with me quite early on in the process already from 2012. And she had lots of experience from doing research with her background from museums and archives and as a cultural historian. So she had the methodics of research. Research was something new to me because this is my first historical or based on true events project. So it was quite exciting. But it was also quite at times frustrating because Märtha, she was a shy person and she didn’t thrive in the spotlight. And she preferred to to have, you know, more of a withdrawn role in the royal family at the time. So there wasn’t really a lot of sources to be found regarding Märtha. Lots of books have been written about her husband, the Crown Prince, later King Olav. But Märtha, she was more obscure. She was more hidden in his shadow, so to speak.

CLIP

Märtha It’s so embarrassing

FDR It’s wonderful. ‘My husband!’ I wish my missus would say the same thing.

Eleanor Well, keep on wishing.

Jace What you’re talking about is an immense amount of research. Six to seven years is a huge amount of time to to look into something. On the subject of research. Did you speak to people who had contact with Märtha or were alive at the time of the invasion of Norway? What were the sort of prongs of attack in looking at something, this sort of secretive, almost?

Alexander Yeah, well, of course, we have been working against time all the time because we were seeing that a lot of our first hand sources were passing away as we went along, so we felt that we were in a hurry to to try to trace these people and try to find them and get to talk to them. But we did speak to many first hand sources, especially here in Norway, survivors and relatives of people who were close to the events. And we also spoke with two of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandchildren. And they had vivid memories of playing with the Norwegian Royal children when they were kids, and they could confirm that the two families spent a lot of time together during the Second World War. But also we have of course, we have a lot of primary resources which are including public and private archives, private diaries, autobiographies, Norwegian and Swedish newspapers, governmental administrative protocols, radio speeches, interviews. I mean, lots of lots of sources of firsts or primary sources and secondary sources. So I guess the main challenge was to get to know Märtha because she was such an obscure and very private person. And the few books that had been written about Märtha the authors didn’t really know her personally. And she’s always described at a distance and very cogently and very respectfully. And you don’t really get a sense of who she really was as a person. So I guess that was our main challenge in writing the story, was that how can we come as writers come close enough to Märtha, that we can start seeing her as a person and as a character in flesh and blood.

Jace I mean, I think to me, that’s one of the strengths of Atlantic Crossing, is that we do get this very intimate portrait of this woman and there are a great deal of of smaller, intimate moments within this larger portrait of a war torn era for want of a better term. Do you view the series as a sort of roman à clef involving Märtha? A look through the keyhole at these more intimate, drawing room moments against the backdrop of something like World War II?

Alexander Yes, I think if you watch the first scene in the first episode, we set up this dichotomy between Märtha as a private person, and her official persona when we first introduced her and her husband Olav in the train compartments and we see them making love. And then the next moment they arrive in Poughkeepsie and they have to rush to get dressed. And a couple of minutes later, they step out on the platform and wave to the crowds and they are all composed and playing their part as royals. So, yes, that was my intention to to try and get behind the facade and try to get as close as possible to these characters who are, of course, iconic characters, especially here in Norway, that the royals are iconic. But also we get to know President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was important to me that we really tried to get behind the facade, behind the scene and get to know them.

Jace There’s definitely a delicate line to walk when you’re dramatizing historical events involving real life people. What were the challenges in terms of sitting down to write the story and remaining true to Märtha’s story while allowing yourself dramatic license?

Alexander Yeah, writing fiction of drama inspired by true events is always a delicate balancing act between staying true to history and at the same time creating a compelling dramatization and not least remaining respectful to the subjects, many of whom are still alive today. I mean, Harald in this story is three years old. Up to today, he is our King and he’s 83 years old. So that was something that we really had to bear in mind while writing this story, that not just because he’s the king and he’s royal, but as a person, we have to treat this very respectfully. So I think the main challenge was to imagine what went on behind closed doors, because we know very little about that. And yeah, yeah, I guess that was the main challenge. And that’s also the main reason why it took such a long time for us to research this project, because  we had to approach to writing process as detectives. We had to sort of find all the pieces in this big puzzle and try to find as many as possible in laying it out and then, you know, looking at, ‘Okay, so where are our missing pieces?’ and that’s mostly those situations where we see the characters behind closed doors, that’s where we as storytellers to start our work, which is trying to imagine what happened and to do so in a way that is hopefully as probable and possible as possible.

Jace There was a bit of a will say, a dramatic reaction among some historians when this first aired in Norway. What did you make at the time of some of the more vociferous claims about historical accuracy?

Alexander Well, first of all, I think there will always be a debate on historical accuracy when launching a historical drama. So it was kind of business as usual. I mean, if you look at what happened with The Crown in the U.K., you can there are many similarities to the debate in Norway as well. And I think the closer you get in time with the events that you portray, the the picture and the after the debates, because, of course, there are many people who feel they have special knowledge about these people and these events. And historians are often very concerned about the details. And some can be quick to judge. I think. So there will always be a conflict between historians and storytellers when it comes to historical dramas.

Jace Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachan are phenomenal here as Märtha and FDR. What did they bring to the material and what was it like directing them in scenes together?

Alexander Well, I mean, both are such wonderful actors to start with, Sofia. She was my first choice. I’m a big fan of The Bridge, although the character that Sofia plays in The Bridge, Saga Noren is probably the diametrically opposite of Princess Märtha. But watching an interview with Sofia, I was struck by her charisma and personal warmth. This is many years ago. And and I just saw that many of her personal traits really resonated with the personality of Märtha and. And she had many of the core human qualities that I was looking for in an actress, so I was thrilled when she accepted the part a full year before shooting started. So she started doing her own research very early on, and she even learned to speak Norwegian in Swedish. And I was very impressed by her standardless and her ability to switch between Swedish and Norwegian and English. I think she’s a true character actress. And as for the actor who would play Roosevelt, I really have no clue whom to approach, but luckily we had a US casting agent, Avy Kaufman, and she came on board also quite early. And she told me that we should trust the quality of the script and aim high. So we approached Kyle MacLachan, although I did have my doubts about the chances of getting him on board because an actor of his caliber in a Norwegian production, I mean, I don’t this doesn’t happen too often, to put it that way. But to my surprise, he actually accepted the role. And of course, I was very excited by that. But then the negotiation process with its agents dragged out and I became increasingly concerned that Kyle wouldn’t have enough time to prepare for his role. So. When we eventually got the filius from his agents, Kyle finally came to Prague, where we were shooting and we were already in preproduction and. You know, I was quite relieved and again, surprised that he came as prepared as I could ever hope for. And during our first dinner together, Kyle told me that he, of course, had been preparing for the part almost since he first got the offer. So I was very glad to hear that. Of course, it could have spared me all the worries, but we hit the ground running and it was just such a pleasure to work with this distinguished actor and seeing him shape the character of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, of course, Kyle MacLachan, you know, privately, he’s such a gentleman man, such such a nice human being. So it was really a pleasure on all levels.

Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors 

Jace We begin the series with Märtha loading her camera with film to take a picture of Prince Olav. Without spoiling anything. How important is this image?, and was there a deliberate effort to bookend this image within the series? Märtha capturing another moment in time on film.

Alexander I mean, this is this is where we this is what she does both the first time we see her and the last time we saw in the in the series, I think to me it was important to show this, not just because it is true that she was a keen photographer, but because very often I mean, the whole idea with Atlantic Crossing was, well, to tell a story from World War II with a female perspective. And very often, as we all know, female characters are the objects, the objects of desire, the objects of a man’s gaze, if you can say that in English, I don’t know So seeing her with a camera puts her on the other side of the lens as an observer and seeing her photographing of in 1939 on their tour in America, this is the day when they meet President Roosevelt for the first time and then tying it up at the end of the series when he’s back and they’re, you know, at the beginning of a new leg of the journey, which is trying to find together again after five years of separation. I just feel it’s in a visual way, tie or arc, so to speak, throughout the story that spanned five years.

Jace Märtha is Swedish, not Norwegian. She’s a Princess who never becomes a Queen. She’s a refugee in a country that’s not her own. Is she always marked by what she’s not? Is this ultimately the story of a woman finding agency? And declaring, ‘This is what I am.’

Alexander That it is seeing her evolve through the throughout the story when we first start off, she is and this is before the war. She’s the Crown Princess of Norway. The only expectations towards her as the Crown Princess is that she will give birth to an heir and that she will raise him. She has already done that. She had two daughters and then she had Harald, who is now the King of Norway, so she had fulfilled the expectations. She had kind of done her job now, you know, that was all that was expected of her. She was she was a mother of three. She was her her duties in her daily life was to manage their estate and all the employees. And it was actually a farm outside Oslo. So they had farmland, they had horses, they had cattle and so forth. And that was her job. And she didn’t see yourself as political, really, at all. But then the war breaks out and suddenly Norway is like overnight, literally overnight occupied by the Nazis. And they have to escape. And first, she she escapes to safety, to her homeland, Sweden, while her husband and the King, they continue fleeing northwards in Norway because they didn’t want to leave the country. But she’s safe, at least for a while in Sweden. But she’s exiled. And this is where her journey really begins, because she starts out as this icon of the old world. And when she comes to America, she realizes that, you know, through her very intimate relationship with the American President, the only person that could actually save her country and save the allied and save the world, she could actually influence him. And this is where her political awakening begins, when she realizes that she has that influence and when the Norwegian authorities understand her position and they actually officially actually order her or ask her to to use her influence to speak on behalf of Norway and to try to get some kind of support from America. And suddenly she has this political role and to her…I actually see the story as a coming of age story, although she is already in her 40s when this story begins. But she really it’s a story of emancipation and of awakening. And we see the main character that really has to change your whole mindset and change her whole, the idea of who she is really from the beginning till the end. And when she returns after the war, she’s definitely a changed person.

Jace As the Crown Princess is a rather private and elusive figure, what is your take on who she was as both a character in Atlantic Crossing and as an individual?

Alexander We I did speak to people who knew her and amongst them was an adjutants who works for the royal family for several years before Crown Princess Märtha died. And of all the first witnesses we have spoken with, I mean, all of them describe her as very empathetic. She had of warmth to her character. She could appear quite shy, but in a one on one situation, she would she would be always genuinely interested in the person she had a conversation with, regardless of this person’s status, if it was a factory worker or a royal didn’t matter to her, she was generally interested in other human beings and she was very popular as the Crown Princess with the Norwegian people. She was originally Swedish, but she came to Norway after marrying the Norwegian Crown Prince and I think she was very intelligent, but  she would use her intelligent and in subtle ways and this is something I think she used to her and her country’s benefit when she had this very close relationship with the American President, that she would she would, you know, during their conversations, she would make sure to launch some topics or some concerns that she had in a way that seemed very organic to the discussion. And she would very often get something from Roosevelt without even noticing that she had asked. So, yeah, she was yes, she was a great agent for Norwegian authorities in Washington, I think in that sense.

CLIP

Märtha Have you received any reports from the American intelligence? I mean regarding the threat of a German invasion. Olav fears it could happen, but our government seems to be more concerned about a British invasion.

Florence Oh believe me, your Highness. No one hopes more than I that Norway is spared from this war.

Märtha Please, if there is anything you know — anything…

Florence Well, in times of war, steel is more precious than gold, so as long as most of Germany’s iron has to pass through Norway, yes there’s a risk of invasion.

Märtha Please, Madame Ambassador — is it imminent?

Florence Prepare for the worst.

Jace In the most tense scene of this first episode, Märtha’s motorcade is stopped on the Swedish border despite her being the niece of the King of Sweden and the Crown Princess of Norway. ‘We stop for no one,’ she says, echoing Olav’s words. How significant of a moment is this for Märtha? Is this the sort of first glimmer of steel in her soul that we’re seeing?

Alexander Absolutely, and I think that’s a good observation. Again, this is the first scene where we see her proactively taking such life and death decisions because the Swedish border patrols were armed and they were instructed not to let anyone cross the border. And this scene is actually a very detailed reenactment of the first hand witnesses, among them, Princess Astrid, who very vividly describe this. This is happening at the Swedish border. So we’ve just taken that story and actually just done it exactly as she told it. And also other firsthand witnesses, one of the drivers who also described the scene very cold for her with Astrid’s description. So seeing Märtha saying, you know, we’ll stop for no one and they just drive towards the gates and and they’re actually risking their lives in doing so well to her. It was they were really, really afraid. They had heard several rumors or reports that the Germans were up to them and which they were after them. They tried to kill the king on several occasions and they nearly succeeded in doing so. So for her, it was a natural, for that matter, and she really had to get herself and the children on that. Of course, Harald, who was the heir to the throne. She had to get him to safety. And this is the only solution.

Jace And it’s a stunning one to have to make. But it does show her sort of strength of character and fortitude and tease us about the woman she’s going to become over the course of these next few episodes. What do you hope viewers ultimately take away from Atlantic Crossing or from learning about the Crown Princess?

Alexander I hope the wider audience will experience the as an inspiring, universal story of awakening. The characters are iconic, but I hope the viewers will see them like never before to get to know them as as human beings. Which is, after all, the power of motion pictures, we can get that from the history books on another level, one can see how the pre-war era resonates with current events, how the U.S. public in the early nineteen forties was advocating isolationism, and how the world was influenced by totalitarianism with a growing public discontent, economic decline, political polarization, etc.. All this makes Atlantic Crossing relevant. And sadly so, I would say. But it is a story. I think we have a lot to learn from this story. And I think the message is overall positive that we can and should learn from our past and we should see that. This is not this is not a path we would like to to go down once more, and that’s democracy and freedom are values that we shouldn’t take for granted. It’s so vulnerable and we have to fight for it and we have to do everything we can to to protect these core values to our Western democracies.

 

Jace Alexander Eik, thank you so very much.

Alexander Thank you.

Jace Atlantic Crossing is the rare MASTERPIECE title with a substantial portion of its story told via subtitles — a help for non-Norweigan viewers, of course, and maybe even a help for Swedish-born actor Sofia Helin, who stars as Crown Princess Märtha.

CLIP

Florence: Listen — we’ve had word the Germans might bomb this hotel.

Märtha They don’t even know we’re here!

Florence They have spies everywhere. How do you think they found the King and your husband?

Märtha But this is Swedish territory!

Florence Martha, until a few days ago, no one believed Norway or Denmark would be attacked. You must leave!

Jace Helin speaks in Swedish, Norwegian, and English for her role on the series, but when she joins us here on the podcast April 11, never fear — we’ll be speaking in English.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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