Who knew that any of us wanted, let alone needed, a sequel to Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 submarine epic, Das Boot, in the form of an eight-part TV series (9pm, 6 February)? Not me. But times are strange, and in fact it turns out that this is exactly what I both want, and need. Oh, but it’s exciting! Each episode is like a shot of something very illegal to my arm. Played in more than one language, by an international cast, the miracle is, moreover, that it also allows you to feel vaguely hopeful about the future for whole minutes at a time. Yes, we’re a total crap-show. Elsewhere, though, sanity prevails. Europeans (in this case, Germans) are making fantastic television about precisely the thing that should by rights keep their nations in one union – the last war.
The TV Das Boot is set in the autumn of 1942; the Allies have cracked the Enigma code, and the dominance of the German U-boats is coming to an end. The action takes place both on land and at sea. Out in the cold water, a young submarine crew are manning their boat, U-612, for the first time, led by a whey-faced commander, Käpitanleutnant Klaus Hoffman (Rick Okon), who is barely able to hide his inexperience. Meanwhile, in La Rochelle, where U-612 was built and launched, a high-ranking Gestapo officer, Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha), is busy hunting down the local French Resistance. The two narratives are linked by Frank Strasser (Leonard Scheicher), U-612’s radio operator, and his sister Simone (Vicky Krieps), who works in La Rochelle as an interpreter. Before he set sail, Strasser was involved in the Resistance; now Simone has become entangled with them in his stead.
The show has a wonderful cast: not only Krieps, who was so good in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but also Vincent Kartheiser (aka Pete from Mad Men) as an American profiteer, and Rainer Bock (Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon) as a dog-loving Nazi officer. As befits a drama that has infinitely more to do with fear than bravery, everything is played very delicately. But it’s the scenes that take place on the submarine, claustrophobic to the point where I found myself pulling at the neck of my sweater, that linger in the mind, clammy as fog. The noise, the dark, the periods of clanking panic followed by sudden silence; you will know all these things from Petersen’s film, and yet such familiarity has no effect at all on their ability to fell you. My God, the terror. These men are travelling in huge iron coffins: their pall bearers are dolphins; their gravestones, torpedoes. In the sepulchral gloom, all they have to hold on to is a conviction that their commanders know nothing, and that the enemy is sub-human filth.
In other European TV news, the makers of Borgen, the most seductively boring television drama ever made, bring us Ride Upon the Storm, a saga about… Danish priests (available on All 4). Crikey, but it’s odd. The best thing about it are the clothes – and no, I’m not talking about Acne Studios, or whatever labels the female characters are decked out in. I mean the priestly garb of Johannes (Lars Mikkelsen) and his son, August (Morten Hee Andersen). Oh, boy. Their black cassocks and starched white ruffs turn on not only the Protestant in me, but the Balenciaga worshipper, too.
But I digress. What’s the worst thing about it? It’s hard to say, it being so soapy and clichéd. And yet… I am intrigued. Its principal subject is ambition – or, if you prefer, a certain kind of covetousness: Johannes wanted to be made Bishop of Copenhagen so badly, he climbed a ladder in his church to kiss the face on the sole crucifix that hangs on its wall. August, meanwhile, has been offered a ministerial gig in the swanky Marble Church, but being a more humble soul would rather serve as an army chaplain. The dialogue, then, involves lots of long, tortured conversations about faith, dwindling congregations, the existence of heaven, and so on. I expect that most viewers will come, as per usual with Danish TV, for the mid-century interiors and the pleasantly lit sex. But as I’ve pointed out on more than one occasion, I am a weirdo. I’ll be sticking around for the Lutheranism, not the saunas.
Das Boot (Sky Atlantic)
Ride Upon The Storm (All 4)
This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe