We live in an age of sequels, prequels, reboots and spinoffs, far too many of which are superfluous works created solely because established intellectual properties are easier to sell to audiences than original ideas. Even when these continuations are made with considerable skill and effort, they all too often fall short of justifying their fundamental existence. They’re handsome facsimiles, going through their motions with precision and care but incapable of leaving a lasting mark—much less living up to the esteemed legacy of their predecessors.
Such is unfortunately the case with Das Boot, a new eight-part Hulu series (an international acquisition produced by Bavaria Fiction, Sky Deutschland and Sonar Entertainment that was first broadcast overseas late last year) that premieres on June 17, and picks up where Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 submarine classic Das Boot left off.
Petersen’s epic—available in versions that range from 2.5 to 5 hours, with a 3.5-hour director’s cut largely considered its definitive iteration—concerned Nazi Germany submarine U-96, which in 1941 departs occupied La Rochelle, France, and heads into oceanic danger. Set almost entirely inside that vessel, it’s an extended exercise in confined, claustrophobic suspense, leaving larger political questions for its periphery as it maintains rigorous focus on its milieu and the men (led by Jürgen Prochnow’s Captain) forced to endure a harrowing ordeal.
Petersen’s film derives its power from its cramped, limited purview, and the pressurized atmosphere that mounts inside the sub. Tony Saint and Johannes W. Betz’s series (based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s original novel Das Boot as well as its sequel Die Festung) opts for a far more expansive perspective, splitting its 1942 action between events inside brand-new sub U-612 and those in La Rochelle. It’s a have-it-both-ways strategy designed to provide the familiar underwater thrills of its ancestor as well as more traditional wartime espionage on terra firma. Unfortunately, those two strands wind up cancelling out each other’s effectiveness: by spending so much time topside, the submarine sequences never build requisite tension, and yet when diving below the surface, Das Boot throws into sharp relief the conventional nature of its landlocked drama.
Directed by Andreas Prochaska with a formality that gets the job done but rarely inspires much excitement, the story begins in La Rochelle, where Klaus Hoffman (Rick Okon) is made captain of U-612 after testifying against an underling for cowardice—and, also, because great things are expected of him due to his father’s renowned WWI service. Hoffman is a thoughtful, sensitive leader, and his appointment sits uneasily with First Watch Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a Nazi hardliner who views Hoffman as too wimpy for his post, not to mention a pale shadow of his illustrious dad. Once aboard the cutting-edge craft, discord grows between the two men, and is amplified by Tennstedt spreading rumors about Hoffman and behaving in borderline-insubordinate fashion. This further unnerves Hoffman, who’s wet behind the ears and seemingly too evenhanded and levelheaded for a Nazi regime that prizes cruel decisiveness.
While Hoffman and Tennstedt spar for power, and their subordinates engage in a number of mini-quarrels meant to make them more than mere background extras, Das Boot also takes up with Simone Strasser (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps), a translator transferred to La Rochelle on the very day that her radio-operator brother Frank (Leonard Schleicher) winds up shipping out on U-612. Before departing, Frank gives Simone a package to deliver, which quickly entangles her with an underground resistance cell run by Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan). Making matter stickier, Simone’s office is visited by Gestapo officer Hagen Forster (Game of Thrones’ Tom Wlaschiha), who’s hunting the very people with whom Simone has unwittingly become involved, and who develops fond feelings for Simone that she doesn’t reciprocate.
There are more complications to Das Boot’s narrative, including the fact that Frank, who’s also in league with these rebel fighters, has fathered a child with a Jewish barmaid. There’s also plenty of skulking around at night, and secret meetings, to these proceedings, but everything about them feels old hat, this despite Krieps, Caplan and Wlaschiha embodying their roles with conviction. The issue of loyalty—to country, family, comrades and self—is fundamental to both Simone and Hoffman’s plights, and sporadic references to Germany’s waning war prospects (due to the Americans’ involvement) further informs characters’ noble and/or dastardly motivations. If only the show had something inventive to do with its thematic interests; at most turns, Das Boot plays it straight, resorting to stock conflicts that negate most of the thornier implications residing on its plot edges.
Director Prochaska coats his drama in a bruised blue-green hue, and his camera moves dexterously through his submarine environs (the set is a sub first used in the film U-571). At least in the initial four episodes provided to press, the series—which also repurposes the musical theme from Petersen’s film—is most assured when addressing the horrors of war. Brutal torture, ugly accidents that lead to amputation, fights between stir-crazy sailors (some of whom are gung-ho fascists), treacherous backstabbing, monstrous rape and the inevitable atrocities and suffering of battle help root the material in grimy reality. That ugliness is all the better for being in tune with the underlying portrait of war as an inescapable nightmare for everyone, which comes to the fore most pointedly via the figure of Samuel Greenwood (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser).
An American businessman (and suspected Jew) whom Hoffman is ordered to transport to a rendezvous location, where he’ll be exchanged for a German prisoner, Greenwood loudly proclaims during his time on U-612 that he’s an amoral profiteer who fancies himself “outside” the war. However, faced with the cost, in human lives, of his role in this mission, Greenwood is compelled to confront the nonsensical illusions under which he’s been operating. That Simone similarly has to own up to her responsibility in her predicament, no matter how unpleasant that might be, proves Das Boot’s strongest element.
Unfortunately, that’s not nearly enough to overshadow the series’ relative thinness. From its window-dressing address of Nazis’ “final solution” attitudes toward Jews, to its dutiful recreation of Petersen’s submarine set pieces—in which alarms sound for each incoming attack, the crew goes quiet as it’s stalked by enemy destroyers, and rapidly escalating sonar beeps presage imminent danger—Das Boot is a handsome endeavor that’s never urgent or unique. Or, consequently, necessary.