The submarine pen in La Rochelle, France was built in in 1941. Like the ones at Saint-Nazaire and Lorient, its colossal berths, titanic dimensions and worn concrete today give the structure the appearance of a relic of prehistoric times. Its extreme dimensions and sturdiness—the roof alone is more than 20 feet thick—made it impossible to destroy after the war. The structure sits around today relatively unchanged—an enduring monument of World War II, and a convenient backdrop for telling stories about it.
Lothar-Günther Buchheim based his 1973 novel Das Boot on his experiences as a war reporter on several U-boats, and while the novel is fiction, the submarine base in the novel is recognizably the one at Saint-Nazaire. Every few decades, it seems, the German film industry sends a few hundred people in Nazi uniforms to play around in one of these structures. When Wolfgang Petersen made his film version of the book in 1981, he used the pen in La Rochelle as his stage, including for the film’s final scene when the U-boat crew arrives in home harbor only to be mostly killed in a surprise Allied bombing raid. The creators of the new version on Hulu returned to the submarine pen, for a send-off of yet another U-boat.
The Hulu version mines the novel and its 1995 sequel Die Festung, but its story beats feel very 2010s (the series is written by Tony Saint and Johannes Betz, the director is Andreas Prochaska). The year this time around is 1942 (the original novel and the movie took place in 1941). And that means: the Battle of the Atlantic seems to be turning against the Germans, the U-boats are on the defensive, rumors of the Holocaust begin to circulate. Young Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon), son (of course) of a legendary U-boat captain, takes over as “Kaleun” (“Kapitänsleutnant”) of U-612. His crew resents him, his first officer (“1WO,” played by August Wittgenstein) actively seeks to undermine him. The ship’s cramped, dingy, 6-by-60 meters overflow with rumor, a macho posturing, and a toxic ideology of heroism.
Making Das Boot is always about Germany and its relationship to its history, but it is also about the global market for the kinds of stories Germans tell about their history. German filmmakers have made many deeply thoughtful films about the Nazi years, but Petersen’s Das Boot may have been the first film explicitly seeking to wring entertainment from the topic. To be sure, the film was harrowing, claustrophobic, unvarnished. But it was nevertheless a technical triumph. It became famous for its incredible camera work, its oppressive sets, its bravura sound design and Klaus Doldinger’s iconic score. Even back then, Buchheim complained that Petersen had failed to find the antiwar message in his novel, that he had presented the war as adventure rather than “moloch.”
When Buchheim’s Das Boot was published in 1973, the novel packed an enormous punch. Like the movie version, it told a confined, claustrophobic tale that thrived on close observation. In a way, this tight focus was what made Buchheim’s novel so explosive: By spending time with the sailors, listening to their lingo and examining their world, Buchheim shattered a separation that had long existed in German public discourse between the bad Nazis (SS, Gestapo, etc., etc.) and the supposedly apolitical armed forces.
The German Kriegsmarine had long been allowed to claim for itself a relatively clean record, and the U-boat fleet in particular was subject to mythification and lionization that had carried over with shocking continuity from Nazi propaganda. Buchheim’s novel caused a massive stir in the 1970s because it thematized the crimes, the guilt, and the pervasive sense of futility among those who had volunteered for service in the U-boat war. In particular, the controversy concerned the head of the German Navy, Admiral Dönitz, who was for eight days after Hitler’s death the new head of Nazi Germany, and who had whitewashed his own record after the war partly through the mythification of the U-boat fleet.
The new version follows its source material’s lead by acknowledging the obvious: that the Nazi state and the navy were tightly interwoven, that the work done by the U-boat captains could not be separated from the atrocities being committed on land. That’s partly because the new show divides its time between the high seas and the town of La Rochelle. While U-612 puts out to sea, gets ensnared in international espionage, hits a nasty Atlantic storm and drifts inevitably towards mutiny, back home in La Rochelle the young translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps) gets ensnared in a plot involving the Gestapo, the Résistance and their mysterious leader (Lizzy Caplan).
Tom Wlaschiha (Jaqen H’gar from Game of Thrones) plays Hagen Forster, the head of the local Gestapo, who starts out the series as a fascinatingly multifaceted screen-Nazi. He is a true believer, but far from a cackling villain: an intelligent, even thoughtful, man who has put his gifts into the service of a barbaric system out of profound conviction. Unfortunately, Forster becomes so sympathetic by the end of the four episodes Hulu made available that by the established conventions of prestige TV, a heel turn becomes entirely inevitable. In moments like this, the messiness and close observation of Buchheim’s novel run headlong into the by now fairly rote rhythms of international prestige TV. War means chaos, but being appointment television on a streaming service means following rules.
The narrative of Das Boot hews so slavishly to convention that one can basically game out the season by the end of episode three or four. And at that point, one has to ask: Why tell this story at all? If the idea is that life in occupied France was more complicated than a simple good-and-evil schema, then these people and their actions should be able to genuinely surprise you. And if not, if the only characters left standing have fully given into the awful dictates of their time, then why expect us to invest eight hours of our time with them? This is a concern Buchheim raised about his own story, albeit referring to Petersen’s adaptation: “Can re-playing it give a sense of the horrors of reality?” he wondered in 1981. “And if it could: would a movie audience really want to experience the whole truth?”
The show can at times feel similarly unsure of this question when it comes to its gender politics. This version of the Das Boot introduces more female characters into its ensemble, but ultimately only to subject those characters to violence, torture, and rape. Where Buchheim and Petersen took an agnostic, documentary approach to the all-male crews aboard their boats, this new Das Boot frames the U-boat war as a form of toxic masculinity. Not only do the sailors compare their sneak attacks to rape, but they and their superiors also understand brutalizing women while on shore as a natural coefficient of their murderous work at sea. What keeps these men in line, and in their terrifying, dehumanizing little steel bubble, is not slavish adherence to Nazi ideology, but a slavish adherence to a certain idea of masculinity, and the show is keenly attuned to it. To be seen as a hero by other men is more important than one’s own sense of right and wrong. An early scene has a young man who showed cowardice in battle lament the fact that his ship didn’t go down and take him with it—“then I would have died a hero.”
This is a tricky tightrope to walk, insofar as it risks dissolving the specifics of Nazi ideology into a more generalized antiwar message. The show does not close its eyes to just how criminal and barbaric Germany’s wars were. And yet, to some extent, the setting in Western France and the focus on the U-boat war of course sanitize the story to a certain degree. It is impossible to imagine a similar show following a company at the Eastern Front, for instance. Unfortunately, the subtitles at times continue that sanitization. Note to Hulu: when one of the sailors complains about the shoddy work by “Fremdarbeiter,” it isn’t Trumpian talk about “cheap foreign labor”—he is referring to slaves brought to Germany to be worked to death.
If anything, the show is a little dispiriting in the completeness with which it has absorbed the narrative lingua franca of international prestige TV. Where last year’s Netflix-phenom Babylon Berlin invited international viewers into a complex web of loyalties and alliances, Das Boot uses its focus on toxic masculinity as a way to render its world more transparent than it probably should be. Petersen’s version of Das Boot was punishing in its pacing, Hulu’s version is fleet almost to a fault. Where Petersen’s three-hour epic was itself a U-boat, silent and heavy and claustrophobic for much of its run time, this new version is a torpedo, efficient and relentless. And the show greases that torpedo with the occasional bouts of extreme gore, nudity, and rape.
Also par for the course is the all-enveloping moral ambiguity. Some gray areas are very welcome. But the show seems a little too indiscriminate in daubing everything in shades of gray—that might fly for a tale of meth cooking in Albuquerque, it’s a little strange when most of your protagonists’ job are to sink ships for Hitler. This is where the location-zipping comes back to haunt the show to some extent: After a brief prelude on dry land, Petersen barely left the boat, and he could engage with these men’s incomprehensible task on its own terms. By cutting back and forth between them and the port at La Rochelle, this new version of Das Boot asks us to put their mission into context. And that context makes clear: While it’s probably fine to send German actors in Nazi uniforms into the old submarine pens to yell about Hitler and Germany for the camera, you better have a damn good reason for doing it. I’m not sure this version of Das Boot does.