War might make villains of us all, but in season 2 of World War II drama Das Boot, one villain stands out from the pack.
As U-Boat captain Ulrich Wrangel, Stefan Konarske plays an erratic sadist who torments and brutalises his crew. In the first season he orchestrated a mutiny to take over the U-612, then led the sub on a suicidal attack on an American convoy. This season he’s given the job of hunting down a fellow U-Boat his commander thinks is planning to defect; turning on his comrades is no problem for him.
“He’s kind of the bad guy in the story,” says Konarske over the phone from Paris, where the German actor currently lives and works, “but he’s really an interesting character because he’s switching between the hero and the bad guy of the story. For me, he’s not only the bad guy, but he’s also the saddest guy of the whole series.”
For Konarske, the reason for Wrangel’s sadness – and badness – is painfully obvious: he has a crisis of masculinity brought on by an incident last season.
“At the beginning of the first season Wrangel 'lost his balls' during an incident when he was picked up by the Americans. And that’s the reason why he is like he is, he lost his entire manhood. He’s really sad about it and that’s why he’s losing control. He’s waiting for death, but he’s not able to do it himself.”
Konarske has thought a lot about what Ulrich was like before the incident. “I think he was a shy guy, he was the kind of guy who spends a lot of time on his own. There’s no one waiting for him when he’s coming home. He’s not really a lone wolf because that’s too romantic, but he is on his own. That’s the reason why he’s so crazy, he’s got nothing to lose because he’s lost everything already.”
The theatre-trained actor was previously best known for playing police officer Daniel Kossik for five years on the long-running German crime procedural Tatort. More recently, he appeared as Friedrich Engels in The Young Karl Marx and Captain Zito in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. While many of his major roles have been on the side of the good guys, it’s the more villainous roles he really enjoys.
“I love those kinds of characters, because those characters are really difficult to play. I’m always looking for the good side even when I’m playing a bad guy. I think they’re really interesting, because a bad guy transformed into a bad guy after he’s traumatised at one point in his life. That’s why I love to play bad guys, because a bad guy used to be a good guy.”
Featuring three main storylines set on both sides of the Atlantic and on board two separate submarines, the second season of Das Boot is a much more ambitious production than the first.
“We shot in four different countries over ninety days,” says Konarske, “with actors from Germany, from France, English speaking actors as well. We shot with a crew from the Czech Republic, so there were a lot of different languages on set. I’ve never worked on a set with so many people, there were times during lunch break when there were at least 150 or 250 people around. It was the biggest experience of my career.”
While the submarine sequences were mostly shot in Prague, all the external scenes were filmed in Malta, which caused a few problems.
“That was a really crazy experience. We shot the outside parts in Malta in August, when it was 40 degrees Celsius outside, but the scenes were supposed to be in wintertime in 1942, so all the actors were wearing all their winter uniforms. That was a real challenge, for the costume department and for the makeup department as well as the actors. With three different layers to your winter uniform you start sweating really really quickly in 40 degrees Celsius.”
This commitment to accuracy might have been a worry in Malta (the sweating problem was eventually solved by fitting the cast with cooling vests like the ones Michael Jackson used to wear on stage), but it helps give the series a gritty authenticity. Surprisingly though, there is one area where they deliberately went against reality.
“The set was the real dimensions of a real submarine in every way,” says Konarske. “The only thing that was not the same was that the colour of the insides, because normally the U-Boat on the inside is white, but for the storytelling and the mood they made it black.”
This commitment to realism was a big help with his performance. “I try always to work with everything that surrounds me, and to be in this small submarine with between five and ten colleagues, plus ten to fifteen extras and people from the crew, it was kind of intense. It was really hot inside, they need to put a lot of haze inside and you couldn’t breathe. I can’t compare it to the experience of those in the war, but the feeling to be locked into something and not be able to escape, that was a really claustrophobic situation.”
Das Boot has never shied away from the horrors of war. The original film is now seen as an anti-war classic, and the series has followed down this path. For Konarske, the second season makes this stance even more clear.
“I think there’s more of a message in the second season than in the first. This season we are more telling human stories instead of telling war stories – everyone is in a way responsible for what’s happening, and we can see this situation is destroying the young German generation. They have to be hard because they can’t survive any other way.”
Das Boot season 2 is streaming at SBS On Demand from Friday, 26 June. Catch up with season 1, streaming now.
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On this week's Playlist podcast Fiona and Dan discuss the upcoming 2019 Golden Globe awards (01:00) and then Dan chats with Das Boot star Lizzy Caplan (14:56).