As Das Boot returns for a third season, writers Tony Saint, Colin Teevan and Judith Angerbauer tell DQ how the U-boat war drama starts to explore new perspectives of the Second World War on the home front and at sea.
The writers behind the upcoming third season of German period drama Das Boot will always have Lisbon. The Portuguese capital, which became a neutral port during the Second World War, plays a key role in the new story and was also the location of one of the few meetings Tony Saint, Colin Teevan and Judith Angerbauer had in person before the Covid-19 pandemic moved their writers room online.
Head writers Saint (Strike Back) and Teevan (Rebellion) are not strangers to Das Boot – the former co-created the Sky Deutschland series, which is based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and the Wolfgang Petersen film of the same name, while Teevan came on board for season two. German writer Angerbauer (Bauhaus – A New Era) completes the writing team for an expanded third season – both in scope and episode length – that continues the story of the war at sea and on land.
Opening in 1943, season three follows the fortunes of a young U-boat crew as they engage in the Battle of the Atlantic, are hunted down by an obsessed Royal Navy commander and are sent on a dangerous mission to the southern hemisphere, forming strong personal alliances under the command of Robert Ehrenberg (Franz Dinda).
Ehrenberg’s thoughts remain in Kiel, where he has developed feelings for Greta (Elisa Schlott). Also in Kiel, Wilhelm Hoffmann’s daughter Hannie (Luise Wolfram) is trapped in a loveless marriage to Commander Albrecht Lessing (Florian Panzner) but starts to play with fire when she meets charming submarine commander Schulz (Pierre Kiwitt).
Meanwhile, in the exotic climes of Lisbon where the exiles, spies and criminals of Europe rub shoulders with each other and their enemies, Gestapo officer Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha) discovers a lethal plot to steal a fortune in plundered war time gold, leading him to question his own actions and moral path. He also meets a shadowy figure caught up in a conspiracy that might change the course of the War – Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon).
After season one, Saint took a break from Das Boot to work on other projects and was then asked to return and join Teevan for the third run. Both writers saw it as a chance to somewhat reset the show and broaden the story in terms of looking at the war from different perspectives.
“We’ve made some significant changes to the setup of season three with that in mind,” Saint tells DQ. “We had this idea to think about the show in a slightly different way in terms of genres. We had the idea of a new, very young crew and of taking one of our characters and putting him in a very different location from what we’ve seen before, namely Lisbon.”
Having grown up watching war films, particularly from the British and US perspectives, they also discussed things they hadn’t seen on screen before, such as the German home front.
“There’s historical reasons why it has been pushed under the carpet, so we approached season three with a series of questions, not least of which is what about the 40 million German women who were largely at home?” Teevan says. “It wasn’t quite the same story as the UK, where women all went out to work and had to do all the previously male jobs, but in many cases women were left to run factories and farms with imported slave labour. There are a lot of completely new stories we were interested in exploring.”
The writers also found themselves banging their heads against certain limitations of the show – such as what else they can do inside a U-boat that hasn’t been done before – and the course of history. Season three reaches a turning point when the role of U-boats in the conflict becomes less significant.
“The idea was then to tell the story through U-boat people rather than the U-boat war,” Teevan continues. “We’re telling a story of global war, and the thing about U-boats is they can go everywhere in the world – and they actually did. They went to the Indian Ocean, they went to Australia, they went to Patagonia. That’s part of the expansion of the series, to go into these areas we haven’t seen, but also to expand around the world and tell a really global story of war.”
Angerbauer was brought on to the series, which is produced by Bavaria Fiction for Sky Studios, by executive producer Moritz Polter (Spotless, Freud). Saint and Teevan had already begun plotting the course of S3, so when they met for the first time in Lisbon, “it was quite tough for me to jump into this whole plot,” she admits.
“There are so many storylines, so much complexity. I didn’t know anything before about the navy or U-boats. But then after a while, I realised it’s so much fun to work with the two of them. There is a perspective in Germany of how you have to perceive everything about the war, but they were free to think about everything and not think, ‘We can’t tell that [story].’ That was great for me also to go into all these different historical areas that were quite new for me.”
While viewers will be familiar with the action aboard the U-boats, scenes set in Lisbon will mark season three out from what has come before. As a neutral territory, Portugal during the Second World War was a microcosm of contemporary, globalised society as it became a staging post for people from countries around the world.
“There’s been a representation of the Second World War from all sides as a very national experience,” Teevan says. “But Lisbon was a really international city. One of the big changes in season three is we get a full story on both sides of the war. Hopefully that creates a sense of not only difference but shared experience of what the war was really about.”
As the end of the war edges closer, it’s notable too that season three – which will air this spring – also features more discussion of what will happen when fighting does stop.
“It’s interesting to dramatically foreshadow that. The characters don’t know it, but it’s a pleasing thing for a writer,” says Saint. “We have a US secret serviceman who can see the writing on the wall and is telling these German characters what the future might hold for them. That’s quite compelling. History unfolds two or three years before it appears to; the patterns of history are dictated much earlier than we think they are. We have the ability of hindsight but it’s nice to put history in that way and on those terms, not in a series of events but predilections of individuals, characters and circumstances.”
Researching events covered in season three, the writers examined the secret history of the war – things that were going on at the time but weren’t known about until much later. But as with season one and two, the focus is always on the ‘normal’ people living through these events.
“Not being Germans writing for Germans is not much of a problem,” British writer Saint says of his partnership with Irishman Teevan. “The bigger problem is trying to imagine what it’s like being a person in 1943 – that’s much more difficult. There is a huge tendency to think people behaved and thought the same way as they do now, which I don’t think is true. We have to be honest to that idea as much as anything else. We write in the 21st century and we write for that audience, but you can’t impose those mores and cultural ideas on characters from 80 years ago. It’s not right.”
Saint remembers his father talking about his experiences during the Second World War and believes there is a danger, particularly in Britain, of over-romanticising that period of history and forgetting what it was actually like. In season three, the story flips that idea by transposing it onto a German character.
“I used to hear a lot as a kid from people who fought in the war that it was the best time of their life, because these young men went abroad and, when it ended, they went back to terrible jobs,” he explains. “I thought, ‘I’ve never heard a German say that,’ and for a certain class of German on the U-boat in season three, I believe that’s true.
“Being in a community of like-minded people, having adventures, being better fed than you’ve ever been fed before, having a sense of camaraderie, it probably was the best time of your life, even if you ended up on the side where you’re not allowed to say that in the aftermath. In the moment, it feels authentic to me.”
“We’re very conscious of not being German,” Teevan says, “but it’s something we have to make a virtue of for Das Boot. We can try and put across things that are more uncomfortable for German writers, producers and directors to do. We have frank discussions on this show about trying to make sure it feels international and not just from one perspective. It’s a great tribute to the German industry and the people there that they are prepared to listen to that and be open to it. We understand it’s difficult, the baggage is still there.”
In writing the series, Angerbauer was responsible for shaping the German dialogue, as everything was initially written in English before being translated. Naturally, Portuguese also features heavily in season three. “The problem is the English language is always very sharp, very precise and very short, and the German language has very long sentences,” she says. “Tony and Colin were always like, ‘Make it as short as possible.’”
Distributed internationally by NBCUniversal Global Distribution, the season was filmed in Prague and Malta over 104 days. The story features a mixture of new and returning characters including Forster, Hoffmann and Ehrenberg, while the latter is proof of how the series has shifted seemingly secondary characters into and out of the spotlight across its three seasons. Das Boot also isn’t afraid of killing off characters in the style of Game of Thrones.
“It’s really interesting to pick up characters like waves. It’s not like a soap opera where continuous high drama keeps happening to them,” says Teevan. “With this form of television, each season isn’t just a continuation of the story; each season is a new story with new themes. The world of the U-boat is what keeps us together, but being able to look in different directions and the different aspects of it are also what keep Tony and me coming back to it. If you’re writing a soap opera and the same things keep happening to you, you’d run out of steam.”
Those themes in season three, particularly from a German point of view, include the question of what the characters will do when the war starts to turn against them. “A lot of our characters make different decisions in regard to that,” says Teevan, who also notes the number of leading female characters this season as the story explores events on the German and British home fronts and also in Lisbon.
“There’s also the idea of getting out of this war,” says Saint. “At a national level, people are thinking about how Germany gets out, but at an individual level, it’s also about how people get out of it. We do have a character who, as I’m sure was increasingly common, self-harms in an extreme way to avoid having to go back out to sea.”
The writers are already in the final stages of development for the fourth season of Das Boot, which is set to begin production in June. “One of the things the show does is it slightly pisses off both the German and the British points of view of the war,” Teevan says of the series.
“One is not allowed to challenge the guilt of the war in Germany whatsoever, and in Britain it’s the victory and that ‘we’re all in this together.’ I would hope the show challenges both of those. We all know war is written by the victors, but it’s a much messier thing when you get down to it.”
Season three “is where Das Boot comes of age as a show,” Saint says of the upcoming episodes. “This is the strongest season for its sense of identity, and the confidence in it is very pertinent as well. Hopefully people will enjoy it as much as we do.”