Back in 1981, an unlikely German-language movie surfaced to break all the rules. Das Boot, following the day-to-day routines of a Second World War U-boat, was then the most expensive feature film to come out of postwar Germany. And it’s now been adapted into one of the country’s most expensive television shows.
A multiple Oscar nominee, the film took us from the bravado of the U-96’s pre-sail celebrations to the stress of cat-and-mouse engagements with Allied vessels in the Atlantic – and the outright terror of depth-charge attacks.
The grimy procedures of the sailors’ jobs and between-battles tedium were recorded in unsparing and claustrophobic close-up. But above all it presented its Kriegsmarine as flesh-and-blood individuals, not the cartoonish tropes that cinema audiences had been used to seeing in American blockbusters, while its anti-war agenda was shockingly conveyed.
It introduced us to a number of Teutonic talents who then hit the big time, from director Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire, Air Force One) to star Jürgen Prochnow (Dune, Beverley Hills Cop II) and even composer Klaus Doldinger (The NeverEnding Story), whose theme tune is subtly echoed in the new series.
Like the film, the story of the new €26.5 million eight-part series is derived from the books of U-boat veteran Lothar-Günther Buchheim. But the re-Boot is set in the autumn of 1942, months after the film ended, and the drama has been opened out to include the story of the Resistance in France, as well as the journey of the U-612.
The series has already received critical acclaim at home in Germany, and on its debut on Sky in Italy last month, Das Boot achieved the best ratings ever for a European production on pay TV.
“From the beginning, we were convinced that we could create something extraordinary together with our partners, featuring a multilayered yet entertaining story and an outstanding cast,” said Marcus Ammon, senior vice-president of original production for Sky Deutschland. “Now we’re looking forward to working on a second season.”
In the series, tensions quickly arise between the inexperienced but principled young captain Klaus Hoffman (Rick Okon) and his twitchy First Watch Officer (August Wittgenstein), who disagree over everything from military protocol to the rules of engagement. Both are fleshed out with believable back stories.
On the French mainland, meanwhile, we follow the Alsace-born German interpreter Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps), who is assigned to the submarine base at La Rochelle in occupied France.
Simone’s loyalties, however, lie with the burgeoning Resistance movement, and her undercover activities for its American guerrilla, Carla Monroe (Master of Sex’s Lizzy Caplan), have to be carried out under the watchful eye of Gestapo chief Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha), who has taken an unwelcome shine to Simone.
Among the excellent cast, the latter is a good example of a face that will be familiar to viewers of other quality shows (Wlaschiha appeared in Game of Thrones as Lorathi criminal Jaqen H’ghar).
And there are plenty of others, whichever way you look. Rainer Bock, whom Better Call Saul fans will know as ill-fated German architect Werner, here plays Nazi commander Gluck, while Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men’s self-serving Pete Campbell) turns up as an American quisling.
Shot over 105 days in Munich, La Rochelle, Prague and Malta, Das Boot has already been sold to more than 100 territories. Director Andreas Prochaska admits that coming into the project was a big responsibility. “When you do something with this title, which is almost like a brand, you know that you get awareness all over the planet.
“In the end it has nothing to do with the original film. And the storyline in La Rochelle really expands the view on the German and French relationship during the occupation.”
There is often a risk of wartime dramas lapsing into a no man’s land of tired cliché. But such dangers are averted not just by characters speaking in their mother tongues – German, French, English – but also by the sheer scope of the enterprise. This is both expensive and expansive television.
It’s something you’re aware of from the opening shot, as the camera swoops from on high – down onto an Unterseeboot as it breaks the waves. And the submarine-in-dock scenes were shot in La Rochelle, the site of an actual German naval base in the Second World War. It was used as a location not only in the original film, but also in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But the cartoon villains of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster are the kind of stereotyping Das Boot steers a definite course away from. Director Andreas Prochaska, with four sons of his own, is keen to explore why young men volunteered for the German army, and for submarine duty. “Not everybody back then was an evil Nazi. There were just regular people also, and they must have fallen for the propaganda.”
There are scenes in Das Boot that you feel are intended to shock – and do so. It would be irresponsible for the makers to present some sort of revisionist spectacle, and the atrocities, whether personal or collective, are devastating. It’s fair to say that no one comes out of this well.
Sky Deutschland’s Marcus Ammon says recommissioning Das Boot was an easy decision. “It happens once every ten years that you have the opportunity to build on a brand like that.” He adds, “The story is written in such a way that you can go on until the war is over.”
The series is clearly a classy endeavour, one that strives to get under the skin of its characters, and shows the impact of extraordinary events on ordinary people. Just like the 1981 Das Boot, whose German tagline Eine Reise ans Ende des Verstandes, literally means a journey to the end of the mind…
Das Boot is shown in double-episode instalments on Sky Atlantic from Wednesday 6th February at 9pm