Hulu subscribers don’t necessarily have to have already seen Wolfgang Petersen’s 1982 film to enjoy the first eight-episode season of the international series to enjoy Das Boot, which is an impressive feat in and of itself. The new series is described as “inspired by” both Petersen’s film and the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, making it an entertaining blend of the old and the new, or a dramatic expansion of that claustrophobic story aboard a German submarine at the height of World War II. But while Hulu’s new series (it’s already aired internationally) also focuses much of its story within the cramped confines of a single vessel that the series states was the weapon most feared by Winston Churchill, it also delivers an intriguing story of rebellion told primarily on land, essentially doubling the suspense with parallel narratives that crisscross at pivotal junctions throughout the remarkably fast-paced eight-hour runtime.
That the series splits its time between land and sea is a concept born as much of necessity as it is anything else. As fascinating as it can be to spend time in what is essentially a steel coffin with a bunch of rowdy German sailors (eager to draw first blood against any enemy combatant they might encounter), the setting is inherently stifling. The claustrophobic environment enhances the already compelling storytelling, especially with regard to the not-so secret insubordination of the boat’s first mate, Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein, The Crown), as he begins to openly defy the orders of his captain, Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon), the son of a German naval war hero, whose promotion above the more experienced Tennstedt and strict adherence to orders creates no small amount of tension aboard the recently christened war vessel.
At the same time, Das Boot tells the story of Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread), a French translator for the German military who, because of where she grew up, is too French to be German, and too German to be French. That kind of outsiderness puts her in a unique position to be pulled in two directions by a security officer Hagen Forster, played by Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones), and with the members of a small French resistance cell, headed up by Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan). Simone is drawn into the shadowy world of espionage by her younger brother Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a submarine communications officer who, by an unfortunate twist of fate, finds himself onboard Hoffmann’s boat, unable to fulfill his duties to Carla’s cell and thereby involving his unwitting sister.
Das Boot works primarily by ratcheting up the tension in both its storylines by moving at a remarkably swift pace. Soon after Simone comes face-to-face with a member of Carla’s resistance she finds her worldview turned upside down, as the truth about her brother’s secret life (he has a child with a jewish woman concealing her identity by working as a bartender in a German brothel) forces her to engage in the larger conflict in ways that will make use of and potentially compromise her standing as a military translator. Along the way, Simone’s plot gradually becomes more fraught the closer she gets to Hagen and to Carla, making for a tense back-and-forth that’s not too far removed from the sort of intrigue seen in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows.
Meanwhile, the maiden voyage of Hoffmann and his new U-612 becomes increasingly tense when he’s directed away from combat to chauffeur Samuel Greenwood (Vincent Kartheiser), a mysterious American businessman interested in circumventing as many laws as possible with regard to turning a profit during wartime, to a secret location. Greenwood’s presence on the submarine fuels the growing resentment of Hoffmann’s men toward their captain, leading to a conflict within a conflict that underlines what the series does so well: delivering human stories set against the backdrop of World War II.
With that the scale of the story feels both immense and manageable, as Das Boot works to deliver smaller, more personal narratives that nevertheless have the potential to make a grand impact on the larger framework of the war itself. In addition, the series offers a number of superb performances from Krieps, Wlaschiha, Caplan, Schiecher, and Kartheiser — who is doing some memorable accent work in his role. Those performances accentuate the intrigue and the tension that’s necessary for a story like this to work, balancing the needs of the plot with a more intimate exploration of the immense weight that’s been thrust upon so many of the series’ key characters.
At eight episodes, Das Boot is a relatively quick binge-watch, but likely not something most viewers will want to take in in a single viewing. The series does have its fair share of wartime atrocities being committed, resulting in some scenes that are not easy to watch. Nevertheless, as summer gets into full swing, Das Boot works as a highly entertaining historical thriller.
Das Boot season 1 is currently available to stream on Hulu.