And just like that, between the end of the first episode of The Passing Bells to the beginning of the second, things have gone from sweet and sad to unsettlingly gruesome, from idealistic and innocent youth to the grim realities of armed combat.
The quiet horror of the mustard gas attack, and its aftermath, is beautifully directed by Brendan Maher: figures shuffling, sallow and half-dead, across a barren plain, littered with bodies. That look shared between Thomas and the German soldier expresses so much and so many conflicting and confused sentiments with such poignant visual economy that not a single word needs to be spoken.
Meanwhile, Michael is granted four days of leave to return home to Germany, after enduring the Russian cold. We are now also privy to the essential boringness that accompanies the times between battles where the young soldiers have little to do but wait, attempt to eat impossibly hard bread, and write carefully-worded letters to their loved ones back home.
It seems to have become something of a coming of age tale, filtered through the experience of the war. We continue to see how parallel the lives of British Thomas and German Michael are, and romance comes into play for both young men in this episode: Michael’s hastily planned impromptu wedding to his sweetheart, and Thomas’ encounter with a kind Polish nurse while recovering in hospital, respectively, are a welcome reprieve from the brutal reality of battle, which remains a dark presence lingering in the background of these happy moments.
I find myself invested in the lives of these young men in spite of myself: you know there’s a staggeringly good chance that things won’t end well (it’s not a spoiler to say that a vast number of the young men who went away to war never came home, and that most of those who did were forever changed by their experience) but I can’t help but hope, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, that things will work out all right for these two.
Aired at 7pm on Tuesday 4 November 2014 on BBC One.
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