In Germany: Aired on Sky Deutschland in 2018
In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic
Das Boot isn’t the sequel you’ve been expecting. Okay, you probably weren’t expecting a sequel to the 1981 German cinema classic Das Boot at all, let alone one to original author Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s sequel Die Festung as well.
But picking up the action a mere nine months after the end of the original movie, Das Boot is oddly enough also a sequel (of sorts) to Babylon Berlin.
It doesn’t look like it at first. Indeed, watching the new Das Boot, you can’t help but notice how similar it looks at times to the original movie, with shots and scenes clearly designed not just to homage but also mirror its progenitor. There are the same shots in dock, there are similar attack scenes as in the movie and there are similar drills and instruments – at least at first.
True, it’s all in high gloss Ultra 4K, but if Wolfgang Petersen had access to high gloss Ultra 4K, this is the look that Das Boot (1981) would have had.
But that gloss is very familiar if you’ve seen Babylon Berlin and the similarities don’t end there. Because if Babylon Berlin is the story of how a country collectively went mad, Das Boot is the story of how it began to regain its senses.
Set in 1942 in occupied France, Das Boot has two real narrative strands. As you might expect, the first takes place on board a German U-Boat, a new, more advanced class of submarine than that shown in the movie. But while the film’s U-Boat was populated by old and experienced hands, this submarine is suffering from the same problem as the rest of Germany – too many of the old hands have been killed in action. Now, only the young and inexperienced are available.
Captaining this boat is Rick Okon, the son of a famous pre-war submarine commander who’s only just out of naval college yet already in charge of his own vessel. This causes his first officer, August Wittgenstein, no end of annoyance – Wittgenstein is one of the few old hands left, a season warrior of the ‘wolf pack’, but without the connections that his new boss has.
Things start to become difficult almost immediately, once Okon starts obeying his orders – even if that means leaving battle and abandoning the other members of the wolf pack. Soon, life on board is getting pretty mutinous, thanks to a campaign of whispers.
The other narrative strand takes place on dry land in La Rochelle, France. Vicky Krieps (the real-life granddaughter of wartime Luxembourg Resistance member Robert Krieps) is a trilingual German from Alsace and member of the German navy – just like her brother, who’s on board our U-boat. Being German, she never fit in in Alsace, after the Treaty of Versailles handed the area over to France, but is now glad that it’s part of the Greater Germany again.
However, it’s still not an easy life being German. There’s the pesky French resistance, going around blowing things up, and who seem to want to recruit her. Krieps’ brother turns out to have been passing black market morphine to a member of the resistance. There’s a gestapo police officer who seems a little bit too interested in her. There’s a bit too much brutality, rape and covering up going on for her starry-eyed ideals about Germany to survive, either. Will she join the fighting free French or will she stay a loyal German citizen?
As you might expect, the U-boat scenes of the new Das Boot are as anti-war as Das Boot (1981) was. So, too, are the scenes on dry land. But everything is incredibly nuanced. There are no goodies or baddies on any side – and there are a lot of sides.
Perhaps most interesting here is what an international production this is. It’s clearly aimed at a German market, but there’s still one eye obviously looking to overseas sales, with large chunks of the dialogue in French and surprisingly English as well.
The leader of the local French resistance cell is actually an American – a communist at that, who fought in the Spanish Civil War. And it’s Lizzy Caplan. Yes, The Class, Masters of Sex, Now You See It 2, Party Down Lizzy Caplan. And while she’s clearly fighting on the right side of history, she’s following the Trotskyite playbook and thinks people are sheep and collaborators – she’s perfectly happy to blow up innocents to win the war and defeat the fascists. Showing up somewhat later we have Agent Carter‘s James D’Arcy showing up as a Brit espionage expert and one of Caplan’s former Civil War buddies, who’s come to help the locals out.
Our U-Boat gets given a secret mission, which is a prisoner-exchange at sea. Who’s the prisoner? Why, it’s Vincent Kartheiser – aka Pete from Mad Men. He’s the son of someone big and important in the US (Kevin McNally!), who’s basically been financing the German war effort through Switzerland. That U-boat you’re in? Who do you think bought the Rhinebonds that paid for it? Yep, Americans are not always the good guys here.
Meanwhile, the only recognisably famous German face among the cast is Crossing Lines/Game of Thrones‘ Tom Wlaschiha (“A girl cannot tell a man when exactly he must do a thing. A man cannot make a thing happen before it is time”). He’s the Gereon Rath of the piece, doing his best to investigate crimes, look after the innocent and preserve the peace… except he’s a loyal member of the Gestapo, prepared to torture criminals if needs be. He may have a psychology degree and read Freud but that’s because he figures: “Who cares if he’s a Jew? He has interesting ideas. In a hundred years, no one will remember what Jews were.”
Even on the U-boat, things are not clear-cut. Okon is actually a fine boat captain, while seasoned hand Wittgenstein is foolhardy. But Wittengenstein is also having to use amphetamines to keep going, so how much of his odd behaviour is simply down to a drug habit he needs to survive? Some of the sailors are big fans of jazz and even have ‘negress’ girlfriends, others complain of ‘the smell of Jews’. Supposed heroes are cowards and vice versa.
It’s just a big mass of people of varying degrees of black and white, struggling to do their best among the craziness of war, but with no one having the hindsight of history to know what’s right and wrong. The only thing for sure is that Germany is starting to lose the war and the cold hard face of reality is starting to force people on both sides to realise that ideals don’t really mix well with the muddiness of human life. Stab-in-the-back narratives don’t wash when you’re given the chance to take matters into your own hands and see things with your own eyes.
Everything looks great. The U-boat action benefits massively from being able to borrow the seagoing vessel made for U-571, but there’s some top CGI, too, meaning that the model shots of the original can now be happily forgotten about. Action scenes are tense and authentic-feeling, and there’s also clearly been a lot spent on period detail.
While the U-boat plot doesn’t yet have a clear message, five episodes in, it is always engaging and provides ample opportunities to discuss the morality of war, from different perspectives. There’s also a marvellous Inglourious Basterds twist midway through that fifth episode that seemingly changes the entire nature of the plotline.
On shore, everything’s a little clearer, although the relationship between (spoiler) Caplan and Krieps is tediously predictable and Wlaschiha could do with being a bit sharper in the investigation stakes. But his Nazi ‘political mind’ is fascinating and highlights the tightrope that the Germans have to tread: sure, they’re the master-race and they’ve occupied by France, but if you don’t punish Germans for committing crimes against the French, the French will go on strike and the war effort will collapse. So best to prosecute German criminals like any other criminals, hey?
We also get a rare chance to see the war from women’s perspectives. Krieps is as much the hero of the story as Okon, and we get to see through her eyes how both French and German are treated, as well as what they could offer the war effort. Krieps’ story is as much about the camaraderie of women in adversity as it is about what might turn a zealot into a ‘traitor’.
There’s also another slight touch of the Inglourious Basterds, but in the linguistics. There’s probably too great a degree of fluency in English among the characters for the age. As soon as we shift into English, everyone speaks it like they’ve been holidaying in London and watching US TV for the past 30 years. Modern Germans and Frenchmen, sure. These guys? Not very likely.
There’s also a degree of subtlety in the French/German interactions that the subtitles can’t quite capture. Period touches disappear without trace – old-school German phonetic alphabet in the dialogue comes out as NATO in the subtitles, for example. Meanwhole, Wlaschiha’s oddly implausibly bad attempts to speak French are not obvious from the sous-titres – it’s a bit hard to muse in English-language subtitles on the difficulties for a German of correctly pronouncing ‘sympathique’, to be fair, but a man who can spot subjunctives and participles of venir seems to struggle with otherwise quite basic stuff.
Similarly, while Caplan and Kartheiser bandy around the occasional bit of French and German, they’re clearly not Bradley Cooper or Amber Heard. That means we get either English dialogue from everyone or that odd “one-way” foreign language dialogue, in which other characters will speak to them in one language, they reply fluently in English, and then the other character continues in their own language.
Pick one, guys.
I’ve really enjoyed Das Boot so far and I’m hoping to catch the remaining three episodes by Thursday and WHYBW. As well as being a prestige, German show and a top maritime show – both pluses in my eyes – it’s also a persuasive look at the German psyche of the time and how it was slowly coming to its senses.