The makers of this impeccable series are keen to move it on from Wolfgang Petersen’s classic anti-war film – and it does stand impressively on its own two feet
The makers of Das Boot (Sky Atlantic) let viewers know early on that it would not be a do-over of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic anti-war film, nor the series that followed it. “New submarine. New crew. New story,” tweeted its production company – Bavaria Films, the same one that made Petersen’s original – in October. This allows the thrilling show to stand on its own two feet – and it does so with impeccable taste and self-possession. (For those who haven’t seen the original, or whose German extends to counting to three or asking for directions to the swimming pool, it is “The Boat”).
We join the action in 1942, by which point the Enigma code has been cracked by the allies, but the Germans are not yet aware of the enemy’s advantage. The opening scene is breathtaking, awful and a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare, all panic, yelling and flashing red lights. A U-boat finds itself under attack, under water, and the crew’s terrified realisation that the game is up dissolves into near-unbearable tension. The Americans responsible for its annihilation reflect on the scene: “Fuck ’em.” But this is no gung-ho good-versus-evil story; it is far too clever for such easy trappings.
The opening episodes, set largely in La Rochelle in western France, establish a strange bunch of heroes who seem motivated less by moral fortitude than by chance, circumstance and survival instincts. Vicky Krieps, who was so good in Phantom Thread that she out-acted Daniel Day-Lewis, is Simone Strasser, a Nazi translator of French origins whose identity sits uncomfortably between the two. When her brother Frank, a radio operator, is sent on a mysterious mission at sea, he insists she take his place at a clandestine night-time exchange in the darkened cloisters of a church. Naturally, it does not play out as planned – there are eight episodes to sustain, after all – but Strasser, whose loyalties are not yet clear, is dragged into the murky world of the French resistance under the noses of her Nazi bosses.