Review: Rebooting ‘Das Boot,’ on Land and Sea

Fans of the emblematic submarine adventure “Das Boot,” an international hit in 1981 and a favorite of those who like their war movies claustrophobic and single-minded, may be alarmed by descriptions of the new “Das Boot” television series. This German-British production, washing up on Hulu on Monday, is a surf and turf proposition: Half the action takes place aboard another cramped U-boat, while half takes place ashore, among the Nazi occupiers and French collaborators and resisters of La Rochelle, France, where the boats are based.

Granted, you’d have to be pretty fearless to set eight hours of TV aboard a submarine, in the manner of Wolfgang Petersen’s film, which took place almost entirely within the confines of the ill-fated U-96. (To say nothing of future seasons; the new “Das Boot” has already been renewed.) On the evidence of this handsomely produced, surprisingly grisly and solemnly wacko show, though, the main benefit of opening up the story is gaining access to a whole new set of World War II clichés.

The eight-episode first season, drawn again from Lothar Günther-Buchheim’s 1973 novel “Das Boot” and also from a later book of his, “Die Festung,” was originally announced as a remake of the film but then repositioned as a sequel. The result is an odd hybrid: The maritime section of the story follows a different boat, U-612, that somehow keeps having misadventures — a strafing, a fall to the sea floor — that closely mirror those of U-96. Once again there’s a noble, strong-jawed captain (Rick Okon in the Jürgen Prochnow role) stuck with a zealous Nazi (August Wittgenstein) as first officer.

While U-612 zigs and zags around the Atlantic on a secret and highly improbable mission involving an American industrialist (Vincent Kartheiser) who has helped finance the German war machine, the real star of the series scurries around La Rochelle. Vicky Krieps, the Luxembourg actress who was the muse of Daniel Day Lewis’s dressmaker in “Phantom Thread,” here plays Simone Strasser, an Alsatian translator whose brother is aboard U-612. At first determined to prove her loyalty to the Germans, she falls in with a French resistance cell, not because of Nazi atrocities (whose existence she doubts) but for love and, in a nod to 21st-century sensibilities, female solidarity. (Nazi sailors on shore leave are a violent crowd.)

One noticeable effect of the four-decade gap since the film is the improvement in special effects, even on a TV budget — the scenes on the water, especially during battle, look immeasurably more lifelike. They’re also not as beholden to standard submarine-story jargon and images — less dashing up and down the passages, fewer references to “silent running” — though those repetitions were kind of the point of the film, and aficionados can be excused for wondering why a new “Das Boot” was necessary. (Fans of Petersen’s opus will also miss his eye for composition and lighting — the way he made tableaus of sailors watching dials and listening for ships look like supplicants in an old-master painting.)

The real, and perfectly natural, change is that the story has been expanded into a conventional modern TV production, with its international cast and its multiple intertwined plots to fill the many hours. (Episodes run 55 to 60 minutes, commercial-free.) There’s more to see, but it’s more diffuse, and the continual cutting between the land story and the sea story gins up the suspense while making individual scenes more perfunctory.

For three-plus episodes, those stories build in a reasonably interesting and plausible fashion, proficiently staged by Andreas Prochaska, director of the entire season. Hoffmann, the captain, deals with rising tensions on U-612 — he’s unfairly seen as a dilettante and a coward — while Strasser is gradually radicalized through her contact with a resistance leader who happens to be American (Lizzy Caplan). That character, with her wounds from the Spanish Civil War, is pretty familiar, as are the shrugging French cop (Thierry Fremont) and the courteous Gestapo agent (Tom Wlaschiha). But they inhabit a well-made and entertaining, if prosaic, period war story.

Then, about halfway through the season, both the land and sea tales take radical, sensationalistic twists. The one involving Strasser is romantic and not in any way implausible, but it pushes things in a melodramatic direction. The one involving Hoffmann is dire and seems highly — let’s say profoundly — unlikely for a German crew at the height of the war, two years before D-Day. (It’s also a strange dramatic choice in that it removes a central character from a long stretch of the season.) But the OMG factor is high, if that’s what you like.

The improbable Saturday-matinee challenges the show throws at its heroines and heroes work thematically — this “Das Boot,” like the original, is concerned with honor and courage; with who breaks down and who rises up. It’s an endurance contest for the viewer, too, but at least we’re not in a metal tube with 40 men and one toilet.