'Das Boot': TV Review

Surprising all around.
6/17/2019

Hulu's international series featuring Lizzy Caplan, Vicky Krieps and Vincent Kartheiser picks up where the acclaimed film left off.

It might seem odd to use the word "epic" to describe a show that takes place primarily inside a tightly cramped submarine, but Das Boot, the international series that premieres Monday on Hulu and picks up after the 1981 Wolfgang Petersen film of the same name, certainly feels that way.

It has German, French and American connections and references, splits two primary plotlines between land and sea, then builds a broad, multi-character story into its scope. Ultimately, Das Boot looks to be a wonderful find for fans of high-quality international television series with real ambition.

It's not critical to have seen the original movie (though fans of German cinema will undoubtedly tell you to go do it anyway), since this eight-part series picks up where that one ended, thus becoming more of a sequel while still relying on the two source books from author Lothar-Gunther Buchheim (Das Boot, Die Festung).

Lizzy Caplan (Castle Rock, Masters of Sex) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) are Americans in the cast, but this is primarily a German effort with some French actors (and there are subtitles abounding, but mostly the actors are speaking English).

What makes Das Boot particularly riveting, of course, is that so much of it takes place within the confines of a German U-boat (the vessel language before "submarine" was in use), with dangerous missions and pretty terrible conditions for the men; in many cases, the U-boats themselves were untested (a feature in the original film, as well).

The series begins in the Germany-occupied port town of La Rochelle, France, in 1942 (roughly nine months after the film's ending). The German navy is ramping up production of U-boats as a tactical advantage — in later episodes there's information that they are the most feared weapon by Winston Churchill — but at the same time Germany is losing a striking number of its fleet, whether to Allied depth charges or mechanical failure.

Das Boot centers on newly minted captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon), whose father was a legendary German U-boat captain who wrote the most authoritative book on what it's like to live underwater and win at sea. If that wasn't enough for the junior Hoffmann to undertake, he's immediately undercut by his First Watch Officer, or second in command, Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein, The Crown), who has far more experience and is more aggressively combat-oriented than the calmer, rule-following Hoffmann. 

After a little table setting, Das Boot becomes immediately thrilling and addictive, with co-creators and writers Tony Saint and Johannes W. Betz, along with director Andreas Prochaska, building tension on two fronts. On land, the story involves the arrival in La Rochelle of a French-speaking German woman, Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps of 2017's Phantom Thread, who is superb), a translator for the German military who has always felt out of place — growing up in the border town of Alsace, France, she's German but not German enough for those who come from Berlin, etc., and also not French, despite her fluent language skills and living in France.

In La Rochelle she meets up with her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Schleicher, also excellent here), and is almost immediately and confusedly confronted with a life she didn't know he was leading. The young radio operator is a last-second addition to Hoffmann's maiden U-boat voyage and, knowing he might not make it back, tells Simone that she needs to clandestinely give something to someone later that night, thus starting Simone's complicated life of looking at the war from both sides.

Credit Das Boot for ramping up quickly and keeping multiple storylines rife with suspense. At sea there's Hoffmann and Tennstedt at odds, the latter effectively turning much of the crew against Hoffmann, with sea battles and an intriguing twist at the end of the second episode further ratcheting up tensions. On land, Simone begins working for a Gestapo investigator, Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha, who played Jaqen H'ghar, one of the Faceless Men of Braavos who mentored Arya Stark in Game of Thrones). Not surprisingly, Wlaschiha is one of the standout performers on Das Boot, as his clear infatuation with Simone puts her in ever-increasing trouble, since her brother's last-minute errand request brought Simone into contact with the French resistance — in particular Carla Monroe (Caplan), an anti-fascist fighter with experience in the Spanish Civil War, who runs a small cell in La Rochelle.

Filled with excellent performances, Das Boot has already been greenlighted for a second season and has done well internationally. Though it has some difficult scenes to endure, the writing almost never flags and Prochaska has a number of small flourishes — like bringing out the seaside beauty of the town and contrasting war with the tranquility of nature and small pleasures — that underscore the stakes of World War II. (The series was shot in Munich, La Rochelle, Prague and Malta.)

Das Boot manages to be a war story, a thriller and a love story all at once, as it takes nuanced looks at complicated relationships throughout. International series are not for everybody, particularly those who don't want to bother with subtitles, but Das Boot not only mixes that up rather cleverly but is just a flat-out entertaining, well-told drama that's filled with surprises, and a great find for Hulu.

Cast: Rick Okon, Vicky Krieps, Leonard Schleicher, August Wittgenstein, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, Clara Ponsot
Written and created by: Johannes W. Betz, Tony Saint
Directed by: Andreas Prochaska
Premieres: Monday (Hulu)