Sunday, June 16, 2019

Das Boot: The Series

It was a case of what went around, came around. German U-boats were notoriously feared by the Allies during World War II, but the mortality rate for U-boat crews was also perilously high. Anyone who saw Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot (still the record-holder for German language films when it comes to Oscar nominations and American box office) has a visceral understanding of the watery deaths resulting from submarine warfare. That might seem like an impossible film to sequelize, but German TV went back to Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s original source novel and his follow-up, Die Festung as the basis for the eight-part sequel series treatment, directed by Andreas Prochaska. It is a new crew, but war is still an ugly, dehumanizing business in Das Boot, which starts streaming tomorrow on Hulu.

This is U-162. U-96 went to its submerged grave in the movie and U-113 joins it in Davy Jones locker during the prologue, just in case we forgot the dangers U-boat crews risked. Just as in the film, the crew of U-162 are far removed from the genocidal crimes of the National Socialist war machine, but they are definitely not heroes. In fact, their cruise will be marred by incidents of hazing, dereliction of duty, accidental maiming, accusations of cowardice, and outright insurrection.

The problem starts at the top of U-162’s command. Despite his inexperience, Klaus Hoffman will be captaining the U-boot, presumably because he is the son of a legendary naval officer. His veteran 1st Watch Officer Karl Tennstedt was already resentful to be passed over for promotion again, but Hoffman’s alleged timidity pushes him to undercut the captain among the crew. Their differing approaches will come to a head when the U-boat is assigned a secret mission, of questionable strategic value.

Meanwhile, Simone Strasser, an Alsace-German working as a civilian interpreter in the German navy’s La Rochelle base finds herself up to her neck in intrigue. Initially, she considers herself a loyal German, but her faith will be shaken after her brother Frank is summoned to serve aboard U-162 at the last minute. She subsequently learns he had agreed to trade sensitive U-boat schematics to the resistance, in exchange for forged papers for himself and the secret Jewish wife his sister never knew he had. However, things really get awkward when SS Kriminalrat Hagen Forster takes a personal and professional interest in her, while she develops a romantic attraction to British resistance firebrand, Carla Monroe.

Unlike the film, Das Boot the series spends a lot of time above water, but the submarine storyline remains dramatically superior. The rivalry between Hoffman and Tennstedt resonates on a primal level, with Rick Okon and August Wittgenstein generating considerable sparks as the antagonistic officers. Plus, things really get tense when a surprise guest, played with cool, clammy menace by Stefan Konarske, makes a surprise guest appearance on U-162 (it’s complicated).

In contrast, the energy level noticeably flags when the series cuts back to the lust and espionage in La Rochelle. Vicky Krieps’ deer-in-the-headlights portrayal of Strasser simply is not sufficiently engaging to carry her story arc. Lizzy Caplan is more interesting as the reckless and cynical Monroe, but they are never credible as a couple. However, James D’Arcy nearly saves the land-based storyline as the dashing British operative Philip Sinclair, but he arrives way too late in the series.

Das Boot the series has its merits and weaknesses, but it ends with a massively intriguing cliff-hanger that will have viewers coming back for the already announced second season, even if they have mixed feelings about the first eight episodes (as they could very well). It is not perfect, but the unnervingly claustrophobic battle scenes and the work of Konarske, Okon, and D’Arcy are definitely worth seeing. Recommended (when its underwater), for fans of military dramas, Das Boot the series premieres tomorrow (6/17) on Hulu.