War on the waves
Thought working with children and animals was hard? Try a U-Boat. DQ lifts the hatch on forthcoming war drama Das Boot to find out how the series was built, more than 30 years after the iconic film that inspired it.
When HBO miniseries Band of Brothers first aired in 2001, it revolutionised the way war stories were realised on television. From executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it encapsulated the nerve-shredding tension and dynamic sound and visuals seen in their earlier big-screen collaboration, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.
More than a decade later, another series is set to change the way we watch war on television all over again. Enter Das Boot, inspired by the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated film by Wolfgang Petersen, which was based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s bestselling novel of the same name.
“This is a very big statement but I think Das Boot could potentially do the same for us now,” Bavaria Fiction’s executive producer Moritz Polter says. “Again and again, you need to reach audiences and show them what war is really like and also show them different aspects of war that one was not able to portray 10 years ago.
“One of the great things about the original movie is it showed Germans as human beings rather than just villains, and that’s something that hasn’t really been done on an international level in the television world ever since.”
Das Boot the series opens in occupied France in autumn 1942. Submarine U-612 is now ready for its maiden voyage, preparing to head into the increasingly brutal conflict with its young crewmen, including new commander Klaus Hoffmann. As the 40 young men take on their first mission, they struggle with the cramped and claustrophobic conditions of life below the surface, and their personalities are pushed to the limit as tensions rise and loyalties begin to shatter.
Meanwhile, at the port of La Rochelle, navy translator Simone Strasser’s world spirals out of control as she is engulfed in a dangerous liaison and forbidden love, torn between the Resistance and her loyalty to Germany.
The origins of the Das Boot series can be traced back to Bavaria Fiction’s decision to mine some of parent company Bavaria Film’s IP. The classic 1981 movie immediately stood out, but then it was a question of how it could possibly be brought to the small screen. With ambitions to tell a serialised story set six months after the film, a pay TV partner was the natural choice and Marcus Ammon, Sky Deutschland’s senior VP of film and entertainment, was “overjoyed” at the prospect of a Das Boot drama.
“We know our history and we are aware of what happened. We are very conscious of our heritage and knew we needed to be very careful with the story we are telling, and we were from day one,” Ammon says. “But Das Boot was a perfect fit for Sky’s European drama strategy, which seeks out properties that are bold enough to play across Germany, Italy and the UK.”
Backing was then sought from an international partner that could also provide a non-German editorial voice, with Sonar Entertainment quick to sign up and put both its production and distribution capabilities into the mix.
Sonar’s David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions, counts the Das Boot film among the top 10 Second World War movies of all time. He admits part of the challenge in making the series was to create something new while respecting the heritage of the original feature. “Going into this project of eight hours and two parallel storylines, one 100% German-language and the other story split between French and English, it had to feel really authentic,” he says. “That’s the only way it could be done.”
So at the start of development, the biggest question concerned the relationship between the film and the US$32.8m series. “We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to do a remake, a sequel or something in the vein of Fargo, where basically the series is set in the same world as the film,” Polter says. “We were conscious of the fact it’s a beloved property and, especially for a German audience, it’s iconic and is part of our cultural heritage. So we didn’t want to do a remake; we wanted to create something in the world that would create a buzz for the people who know the film. They will find themselves in the world but they will not compare it to the exact characters of the movie.”
That task was handed to co-head writers Tony Saint (The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (Die Cleveren), who agreed they would have been “on a hiding to nothing” had they tried to emulate Petersen’s film.
“We had several thoughts [about the story],” says Betz. “We wanted to start the show in the time when the war changes, 1941/42, before the Battle of Stalingrad, the golden time of U-boat warfare. Then things changed and we wanted to set it in that crisis. And because Das Boot is a man’s movie somewhat, we were also thinking about female characters, as there are no female characters on the boat. So we tried to create a connection between the boat and the town of La Rochelle.”
The action within the story takes place over just a few weeks. But the eight-hour runtime afforded the writers the chance to point the series in new directions that couldn’t be explored in a feature film.
“The thing we grappled with a lot and then embraced was the reality of the U-boat situation,” reveals Saint, who describes his joy at writing ‘Ext – U-boat’ for the first time. “There is absolutely no contact between a U-boat and the people it leaves behind, so when you’re first struck with that reality, trying to construct a drama, you think, ‘What do we do here?’ Then that becomes the USP. These people cannot contact each other. So the fact they have no understanding of the other side of the story means it becomes about hope and fear and all those exciting, dramatic things we like to exploit.”
The connection between the two storylines is the relationship between Simone, played by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and her brother, who is aboard U-612. They grew up together in Alsace, a region that has historically changed hands between France and Germany over many years, leading the series to raise questions over nationality that will likely strike a chord with modern-day audiences.
The Resistance storyline also confronts the dilemma of who to trust in a world of fake news and propaganda – another contemporary theme. And as with any war drama, Das Boot also serves as a warning to the audience that global conflicts should never be repeated.
“Every good and serious war movie is a big warning to everyone that this should never happen again, particularly for a younger audience represented by our crew on board,” Ammon notes. “They were young and full of enthusiasm, they had their whole lives in front of them and went to a war that couldn’t be won. This is the big warning for young audiences and young people.”
Alongside Krieps, the international cast from Germany, France, UK and the US includes Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones), Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) and James D’Arcy (Marvel’s Agent Carter). Rick Okon (Tatort) plays Captain Hoffmann.
Arguably the biggest star, however, is the sub itself. Across a 105-day shoot, filming took place in Prague and Munich, with scenes featuring the U-boat shot in the harbour at La Rochelle and in Malta.
The internal U-Boat set, which was based in Prague and brought to life with hydraulics, took 15 weeks to build. The 45 metre-long set comprised a control room, radio room, torpedo room, petty officer’s bunks, diesel and electric engine rooms, galley, hydrophone room, conning tower and captain’s quarters. The U-boat itself, weighing 240 tonnes, took two months to refurbish before it could take to the water, with scenes off the Mediterranean coast of Malta doubling for the Atlantic Ocean.
Unsurprisingly, these scenes were the most challenging part of the production. At sea, a supply boat with a crane and a drone shadowed the submarine, which itself was wrapped with a frame to support the camera crew on board. “There were different structures on the sub so that we could move around with the handheld camera,” director Andreas Prochaska explains. “But it had to be precisely planned because we couldn’t change it once we were out at sea. We also had a mock-up [of the submarine] in a water tank at the studio in Malta. It was 40 metres long, with the stern, tower and gun for scenes where the submarine was being refuelled and given supplies from a support ship.”
If filming inside a U-boat was challenging, the production team found the right director in Prochaska, who has experience filming in confined spaces. His International Emmy-winning TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) spent its 90-minute running time inside an operating theatre.
To prepare for that film, Prochaska reveals, he researched a lot of submarine movies. But the director says going on to film in an actual sub was “a completely different cup of tea,” due to having 25 actors, a camera and lots of fog in a very confined space.
“I can be honest and say it brought me to my limits in every way,” he says. “It was challenging and rewarding; exhausting and adventurous. When I agreed to do it, I knew it would be long and rough and adventurous but I was willing to do it. Taking this challenge was simply one I had to do.”
Directing all eight episodes, Prochaska created a visual language for the two different storylines, with the scenes in La Rochelle drawing on Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho) and Paul Greengrass (the Jason Bourne movies) inspiring the action aboard the U-boat. “It was very physical, almost like a documentary,” he says of scenes on the submarine. “We tried to keep it as authentic as possible. In La Rochelle, there was much more psychological tension.”
The course Das Boot has set means it could return for a second season, either as a continuation of the story from season one or as a new story set in the same ‘universe.’ The series will premiere at the end of this year in Sky territories Germany, Austria, Italy, the UK and Ireland, with Sonar selling to the rest of the world.
Ammon concludes: “There is a story that is told to the end so there won’t be any question marks or a prompt desire to keep going. But, of course, as in every Second World War story, there are different options on the table. We are discussing that but no decision has been made yet.”