If war is hell, then the 1981 film Das Boot is a guided tour through the parts of hell reserved for very bad people indeed. As a look at World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic from the inside of a German submarine (or U-Boat), it’s up there with the greatest war movies of all time. It’s a nail-biting claustrophobic nightmare of tension, and it all takes place when the Germans were actually winning the war at sea; now in 2018 we have the sequel TV series that takes place almost a year later, and it’s clear the tide has most definitely turned.
This eight-part mini-series is set in the autumn of 1942, with the focus on the all-new submarine U-612 and its mostly fresh-faced crew of 40 men. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know why none of the original characters or their submarine are back; if you haven’t, this is one sequel where you really don’t need to have seen the original. But there is at least one obvious link to the past, as the U-612’s new captain (Rick Okon) has the same nickname (“Der Alte” – The Old Man) as the grizzled old salt played by Jürgen Prochnow in the film.
But this time around that name is ironic: rather than being an experienced leader, he’s a first-time captain from a naval family with high expectations of him. It’s his first officer (August Wittgenstein) who has the experience of both the sea and combat but not the rank, and it’s no surprise that their relationship isn’t always a smooth one.
If you’re a fan of submarine movies you’ll know that trouble in the chain of command is one of the elements that make it such a fun genre to watch. And this Das Boot doesn’t hold back on all the other things that make sub movies edge-of-the-seat viewing, as it opens with a U-Boat surfacing just in time for the crew to a) watch some dolphins swimming in their wake; and b) come under attack from an Allied anti-submarine patrol. The next nine minutes pack in everything that makes submarine movies great, including someone saying “silent running”, everyone going quiet while the enemy sonar pings, someone shouting “depth charges”, and the classic moment when the submarine, in trying to avoid attack, goes past the maximum safe diving depth.
The opening is a reminder of the dangers that await out at sea, and at this stage of the war things are very definitely not smooth sailing for the Germans. Since the events of the first film the US has entered the war (the surface sailors seen in the opening sequence are American), and the German Enigma code has been cracked, giving the Allies a much better idea of the U-Boats movements in the North Atlantic. The submarines are still taking a heavy toll on Allied shipping, but there’s a very good reason why the German U-Boat fleet had the highest level of casualties of any branch of their military in WWII.
While the big explosions are taking place out at sea, a good slice of this series’ drama takes place back on dry land, where it soon becomes clear the situation can rapidly turn just as deadly. The focus there is Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps) the sister of the U-612’s radio operator Frank (Leonard Scheicher). She starts the series taking on a job as a translator for the Germans in the occupied French harbour town of La Rochelle, but what seems a safe and steady position rapidly becomes a lot more complicated when she’s drawn into her brother’s side business selling morphine.
When he heads out to sea she has to step up and she finds herself rapidly drawn into the orbit of the local branch of the French Resistance. That’s not good, especially as her bungling messed up a drug deal the Resistance was counting on; what’s worse is that now she’s also come to the attention of the local Gestapo chief (Tom Wlaschiha), and working as his translator is a very dangerous place for her to be.
Das Boot is a German story but this production has attracted an international cast, most notably Lizzy Caplan (from Masters of Sex) as one of the leaders of the local Resistance cell. Later episodes see the appearance of Vincent Karteiser (Mad Men) and James D’Arcy (Broadchurch, Dunkirk), so the war will definitely be taking on an international flavour.
Still, it’s the undersea action that really makes this series stand out. Submarine warfare is cramped, dirty, and dangerous even without enemy attacks, and Das Boot brings all the tension and frustrations to gritty life. With 40 men jammed into cramped quarters (the sub is basically just one long corridor filled with machinery) it’s not always clear where the real enemy is – until they start dropping depth charges on you.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Das Boot are now available to stream at SBS On Demand.