It’s not a remake of the movie
While it shares the name of the classic 1981 movie, this isn’t a remake. Technically it’s another adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s classic semi-autobiographical novel Das Boot, but it’s really its own show, using the backdrop of the Battle of the Atlantic to tell its own stories.
Even when elements from the original do crop up, they’re often given an ironic spin: the title “Old Man” was given to the U-Boat captain in the movie out of respect, whereas here it’s an ironic joke on his lack of experience. In some ways, the opening scene in episode one is like the original film packed into ten minutes – and with that out of the way, the real story can begin.
There’s conflict on land…
The major difference between the series and the film is that roughly half the series takes place on dry land in the occupied French harbour town of La Rochelle. There the focus is on Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps) sister of the U-612’s radio operator Frank (Leonard Scheicher) and translator for the German navy. She starts out as both naïve and something of a true believer (in the German side more than the Nazi party), but when she gets dragged into her brother’s black market morphine dealing she rapidly realises things are a lot more complicated than she first thought.
Much of the first series sees her torn between two sides. On one hand Carla Munroe (Lizzy Caplan), leader of the local chapter of the French Resistance, wants her on board for her usefulness to the cause… and she also becomes Simone’s lover. On the other, local gestapo chief, Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha), is also clearly interested in her – and while his interest might initially be romantic, having a gestapo officer obsessed with you isn’t exactly ideal when the local Resistance leader is sharing your bed.
… and at sea
On the U-612, the battle isn’t just with the enemy. The sub starts out with a new captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) who’s inexperienced and by-the-book, while his second in command Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein) is more experienced, more eager for battle, and secretly a bit of a speed freak. It doesn’t take long for the crew’s loyalty to be split, especially after Hoffman follows orders that leave their fellow U-Boats in the lurch. Giving these guys a top-secret mission to perform a prisoner swap in mid-ocean probably isn’t the best idea; when tensions boil over, not everyone makes it back to port.
It’s not a simplistic look at the war
One thing the series does carry over from the film is a refusal to look at the war in simple black and white terms. There’s plenty of action, especially out at sea (being trapped underwater while the enemy is dropping explosives on you can’t help but be tense), but a lot of the drama comes from the friction between characters who are supposedly on the same side.
We’re accustomed to think of the French Resistance as about as pure as good guys get, but Carla is a Spanish Civil War veteran and communist who’s happy to kill innocents if it’ll get the job done, while Forster is charming and urbane while also being a committed anti-Semite. Out at sea, clichés are turned on their head as the by-the-book officer turns out to be a calm and level-headed leader – who still gets deposed by his men in a mutiny. This war isn’t a mighty clash between two unified sides, but a struggle where every person has to figure out their own duty for themselves. And not everyone chooses the right side.
Season one ended on a huge twist
Season one wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops in its final episode. A surprisingly large number of characters won’t be back for season two, with Strasser now on her own with her efforts to secretly help those suffering under the Nazi occupation. After her betrayal of Forster at the end of last season, things are only going to get more difficult for her.
Things aren’t much better at sea in season two, with the U-612 now commanded by Ulrich Wrangel (Stefan Konarske) the exchanged prisoner who helped drive the crew’s mutiny. They now have a new mission: to intercept fellow submarine U-822, which is currently on a mission to drop off spies in the US and is suspected of planning to defect.
But the biggest development in the second season came right at the end of the first. Cutting from France to New York, we’re reintroduced to American Samuel Greenwood Jr (Vincent Kartheiser), the other captive swapped in the mid-season prisoner exchange. It was a win-win for the Germans: they got back an important U-Boat captain, and with Greenwood Jr returned, his father would continue to covertly buy Nazi war bonds to help finance the war effort.
So when a mysterious visitor turns up at his office, the surprise isn’t that it’s a German – after all, they’re secretly helping their war effort. It’s that it’s Hoffman, who was set adrift in a lifeboat after the mutiny mid-season and hasn’t been seen since. How did he survive? How did he get to New York? How is Greenwood supposed to help him? They’re all questions for season two.
Das Boot seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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