I have vague memories of seeing the Oscar-nominated 1981 film Das Boot twenty-odd years ago. I remembered just enough to be baffled by Hulu’s lavish new series Das Boot, which in the early stages struck me as an utterly unrecognizable remake. As it turns out, that’s because it’s not a remake, but a sequel to the original Das Boot, which also fuses itself to an adaptation of Die Festung, another novel by Das Boot’s author, Lothar-Günther Buchheim. In retrospect, I wish I had known all this going in; incorrect expectations weirdly colored my perceptions as I watched this one. I still managed to enjoy it, though; it’s a gritty, suspenseful war series tinged with international intrigue.
The story begins in La Rochelle, France, where French-speaking German nationalist Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps) arrives to serve the Fatherland as an interpreter in a German military office. Simone is a true believer in her country, but her loyalties are about to face the ultimate challenge. Her brother, radio operator Frank Strasser (Leonard Schleicher), is conscripted onto a U-boat crew at the last minute. Frank has important, unfinished business in La Rochelle, and entreats Simone to help him carry it out. She agrees, but her subsequent actions entangle her in Frank’s mysterious personal life, and ultimately with the French Resistance. Simone’s strategic placement in the employ of an outwardly decent SS inspector, Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschicha), makes her a useful target for fiery, idealistic Resistance leader Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan). Simone is a reluctant spy, but she cooperates with Carla’s cell in order to protect her brother — and later, out of shifting ideals, as she starts to see the brutality and inherent evil of the German war machine.
Frank, meanwhile, has his own problems on U-612. The crew has a new commander, Klaus Hoffman (Rick Okon), the promising young son of respected World War I hero. Hoffman’s arrival causes friction amongst his more experienced subordinates, especially his second-in-command, Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein). When political manipulations back in La Rochelle steer the U-Boat away from combat and onto a secret mission, these tensions increase, threatening to tear the divided crew apart.
Hulu’s Das Boot is a peculiar beast, using Buchheim’s oeuvre to generate two parallel, loosely connected stories. In some ways it feels a little like a shotgun marriage, its primary tracks merged awkwardly at gunpoint. Both are well produced, finely acted, and provide a nuanced look at Germany’s conflicted psyche during the height of World War II, but they don’t always seem integral to each other. But they do kind of work together, aesthetically; the La Rochelle scenes liberate the viewer from the claustrophobic confines of the sub on a regular basis. Indeed, I preferred the La Rochelle story, which is steeped in the classic ethical dilemmas and wartime tradecraft of spy fiction. Krieps brings exceptional subtlety to her performance of gradual transformation, and she is a terrific rallying figure for the series. Wlaschicha makes for a superb “good German” villain. At sea, the drama on display is less relatable, as the U-boat crew is shattered by internal divides, duty-bound discipline versus bloodthirsty fanaticism. There’s definitely a similar focus on ethics, but the scenario is more black and white. In some ways, it feels like a different show, although ultimately I think the two tracks have a complementary effect — especially in the final episode.
Unfortunately, Das Boot is marred by poor decisions. In an effort to amplify the anti-war messaging of the source material, the series revels in the war-is-hell brutality of the scenario, particularly in its treatment of women. There are multiple scenes of graphic sexual assault, and while the story is sympathetic to its female characters — who are, by and large, the series’ more heroic figures — the production is insensitive in its depiction of their abuse. The structural randomness is another minor blemish. From a casting perspective, the English-speaking guest stars — Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, even Caplan — feel, through no real fault of their own, like “stunt casting.” (Although I should note that Kartheiser is particularly good here, well cast as a cynical American business man in the U-boat track.)
Overall, Das Boot is an effective war drama. It probably should have a different title, and there are definitely things it could and should have handled better, but it’s also an impressive piece of historical world-building. Evidently, there are plans for another season in development, and I’m curious to see where they go.