I first saw the original 1981 Wolfgang Petersen version of Das Boot on TV sometime in the late 80s. But it wasn’t until a 1998 re-release of the extended director’s cut of the film, that I saw in a cinema on Lower Regent Street, that I can honestly say that I saw it properly. That version ran to 207 minutes of often great intensity – as though you were trapped inside the cramped confines of a U-boat alongside the forty or so men aboard the vessel. Petersen also produced a TV mini-series version of the film.
There’s a whole genre of submarine films that have come and gone over the years that include notable entries: John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October and Kathryn Bigelow’s K19: The Widow Maker and probably the two of the better titles. But Das Boot stands alone at the top. So what should be made of a new version of the story coming from Sky Deutschland?
The first thing to say is that this is more of a sequel than a remake. We follow the crew of a different boat, U-612, although it too is based in La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast. U-612 is fresh from the factory and Captain Hoffman is given his first command with the boat. It’s late 1942, and things aren’t going so well, with more U-boats being lost at sea. In fact, by this point in the war, crypt-analysts at Bletchley Park were fairly reliably breaking the Enigma code that was being used by the German navy.
To expand out the series a little, this new version of Das Boot has two simultaneous storylines. The U-boat itself is fairly quickly diverted into carrying out a secret mission – not something that everyone aboard appreciates doing. Meanwhile on land, there is a story based around a cell of communist resistance fighters trying to disrupt the German war effort.
The key link between the two stories is provided by Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps), who has just arrived in La Rochelle as a translator for at first the German navy and later the Gestapo, and her brother Frank (Leonard Schleicher) who has at the last minute been brought aboard U-612 as the radio operator.
Frank has become a father with a local barmaid who happens to be Jewish, and has started providing information to the resistance led by Carla (Lizzy Caplan), a former fighter from the Spanish Civil War.
This is a production that has had millions spent on it. It’s hard to tell where physical life-size U-boat replicas stop and CGI effects begin – I note that they shot in Malta which has the world’s largest water tanks for filming any productions of a nautical theme. The real La Rochelle U-boat base is used, as it was in the 1981 feature, and a variety of French towns and villages provide a great sense of wartime atmosphere.
There is a single director across the entire series – Andreas Prochaska – something that doesn’t always happen with TV series. But it means that you end up with a very consistent tone across the whole piece.
And the music is superb, with Klaus Doldinger’s original memorable theme being reused to great effect by Matthias Weber who has scored this TV series.
There are similarities with the 1981 film – both versions beginning with the U-boat crews spending a final night in the local brothel before they embark on what might become a months long voyage. And the cramped quarters and differences between the officers and men are the same as you always get. But then to do anything else would be unrealistic.
Sky Deutschland really is on a roll at the moment, with first Babylon Berlin and now this. The good news is that both series are returning, and I personally can’t wait!