Plunderers of TV past will always run into opposition. Never go back, some say, and you can see the argument. Rifling through television’s ever-growing canon will always leave you open to accusations of grave-robbing, sacrilege or being too lazy to come up with your own ideas. Not that this has ever stopped the industry from remixing the classics. The aim is to engage a new audience with a known winner while keeping fans of the original onboard. The launch of Das Boot this week comes with equal parts fear and excitement; it will float or sink on its ability to resurrect the spirit of the original while showing us something we haven’t seen before. This is no easy task.
Fortunately, they nail it. Andreas Prochaska’s eight-part series is a classy revisiting of the Das Boot universe that retains the claustrophobic doom of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic film while weaving in enough new threads to give it its own identity. Most British viewers first encountered Das Boot when the TV miniseries aired in 1985. Its impact was profound. We’d seen second world war stories from the German point of view before, but rarely at such close quarters, with so much tension and such devastating results. We learn the stakes early on. The opening slate tells us: “The battle for control of the Atlantic is turning against the Germans … 40,000 German sailors served on U-boats during the second world war … 30,000 never returned.” Right from the off, we know the U-boat is a tomb.
Expect more of that bleak foreboding in the modern Das Boot, which is technically a sequel, taking place nine months after the original, on a new U-boat with a fresh crew. The underwater scenes retain the hypnotic rhythm of the movie’s sound design – alien but compelling. The action, when it comes, is fraught and desperate, but much worse is the waiting. Knowing the enemy is out there as you sit submerged and trapped, outmanned and outgunned with nothing but your terrified comrades and sense of mortality for company is a circumstance to chill the heartiest of souls. The Germans don’t know it yet, but the Enigma code has been cracked, making them fish in a barrel for the allied fleet. The hunger, squalor and enforced intimacy of submarine life add another dead weight of pressure to the already fragile psyche.
But the sequel spends a lot of time on dry land, too. Translator Simone Strasser (the brilliant Vicky Krieps), sister of the U-boat’s radio operator, Frank, gets tangled up with a French Resistance cell led by an American woman Carla Monroe (deftly played by Lizzy Caplan). As Frank faces underwater death daily, Simone is barely more comfortable knowing that her new acquaintances are her passport to incarceration, torture and death. An underground trade in morphine only complicates matters. Simone would like to do the right thing, but this is not a world that rewards virtue. No one said war was a laugh riot.
Simone and Carla are the extra dimension Das Boot needs. While forgetting what made the original great is always a danger with reboots, equally fatal is the failure to offer anything new. As grim and fatalistic as it is, Das Boot never seemed a story that begged to be remade, but the doomed submarine with its walking dead crew is a powerful premise that can still tell us something about humanity in extremis in general, and the futility of war in particular. That every life-and-death incident on the sub ripples out to affect the lives of those on land means there’s plenty of human interest, too. It has already impressed enough to secure itself a second season. Maybe there are even more stories to emerge from the murky depths. A Das Boot franchise? There have been far worse crimes.