As it’s the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, networks are tripping over themselves to get out content revolving around that conflict’s European Theater. Of course, taking well-known entities and recreating them is much easier than creating something out of nothing. Thus, it’s not difficult to see why Hulu would partner with, or themselves produce, long-form versions of “Das Boot” and “Catch 22”, respectively, especially given the marquis names associated with each. After all, both are based on beloved books that were developed in to terrific films (I love Mike Nicholls’ “Catch 22”, even if many think it has dated poorly). So…let’s examine who was more successful.
Also, since it is the perfect coda to “Catch 22” – acting almost like an extra on the home video release – I wanted to add a word or two about HBO’s war documentary focusing on the trials and tribulations of the B-17 bomber crews during the period “Catch-22” takes place.
“Das Boot” (Hulu)
Created by Johannes Betz & Tony Saint
Obviously, no TV show can match the tension and brilliance of Wolfgang Peterson’s 1981 claustrophobic masterpiece, “Das Boot” (which, while nominated for six Oscars, was not even submitted by Germany’s film commission for a best foreign-language Oscar!). Luckily, the series doesn’t make the mistake of even attempting to. Where Peterson’s film is only loosely based on the original novel by Lothar-Gunther Buccheim, the series is more closely aligned with his 1973 tome in terms of story, as well as a second book, 1995’s sequel, “Die Festung” (The Fortress), and with more than a nod to his time in France toward the end of the War. While this might seem like a good thing for a nine-episode series (which has already been picked up for a second season), it means that we spend half of the series in places other than the Boat. And that’s why the show is half great.
Everything that takes place on the sub, while certainly more melodramatic than its cinematic counterpart, is filled with urgency, unknown, and an intrigue borne of both human proximity and danger. And that’s thanks, in large part, to a brilliant sound design, often breathtaking visuals by cinematographer David Luther and production designer, Nick Palmer, and a terrific score from Matthias Weber. Weber’s music in the water-based half of the series is particularly effective in its driving, percussive qualities,
But of equal import is the fine cast of young German actors who make up the crew of U-612. On the officer side of things, Rick Okon takes on the task of the boat’s Captain Hoffman. A veteran of German television, he’s terrific as the rookie, learning on the fly how to lead men, squelch self-doubt, and battle insubordination. His first officer is played by the intense August Wittgenstein. He plays the creepy side of things a little too obviously, but within the framework of the script, he is a perfect choice. Stefan Konarske, is, to me, the lone disappointment. As a former captain who makes his presence known, he plays it a little too mysterious. It’s an obvious acting choice, which, given the importance of his character, is a shame. Standouts on the plebian side of the military caste system include Leonard Schleicher, who, as the most intelligent boy on the ship, comes across more than a little bit like a young Matthew Broderick. However, not to worry. He handles the rougher bits with ease. His rival on the boat is Pit Bukowski. It’s a seemingly insignificant role, but in the end, he’s amongst the most impactful. Joachim Foerster, as the veteran torpedo loader, plays a vital piece of the tension that brings the story to a boiling point. It’s a stock character but done very convincingly. But the standout of the bunch is Leon Lukas Blaschke…the youngest crew member, and with the least amount of life experience. Heartbreaking, terrified, and, ultimately a direct creation of the horrors of war, he is the most real of the bunch.
Alas, the OTHER half of the series is pretty, pretty meh. Coming across like every other French Resistance piece ever made, it feels superfluous. In fact, whenever we left the boat to get to the other side I was annoyed. I think I even took the time to get something from the kitchen during one of its repetitive scenes. It seems more “Man In the High Castle” in style than “Das Boot”, if right on point for its time and place. And some of its cast is terrific. None better than SS station chief, Tom Wlaschiha (who just won Germany’s version of the Emmy for his performance. He’s everything you want in the role: creepy, superior to the point of obliviousness, and filled to the gills with French occupational power. A terrific performance. Less, successful, though still excellent, is one of my favorite performers, Vicky Krieps. She gives it her all, but some of her character’s emotional movements seem totally out of left field. They just haven’t given her the space or time to make them feel organic. But I have NO idea what Lizzy Caplan is doing. It’s such a swing-and-hope-you-hit-something performance. Of the two American performers, she’s easily the least successful. Vincent Kartheiser is much better in the other story. Given less, he makes more happen. And where the hell has he been since “Mad Men”?
I should mention that this is a War series, thus the act of rape comes in to play three separate times. Whether or not the story needs it is up for debate, but one of them is actually incredibly central to the story and the bigger picture it’s trying to show us. The other two seem like they could have been alluded to. I don’t say this to spoil anything. I mention it as a warning to those who might be triggered by visual representations of such things.
I dunno…I’m split. Had it just been five or six episodes about the Boat, I would be giving it the highest of marks. But as it is…”Das Boot” is probably still worth watching compared to most everything else on TV. But maybe keep your fingers on the fast forward trigger?
“Catch 22” (Hulu)
Created by Luke Davies & David Michôd
Shorter, tighter and MUCH better is this adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel. Obviously more a lampoon of war than the deadly serious “Das Boot”, it, nonetheless, carries just as much, if not more, weight on the subject. Much of this comes down to our familiarity with the language, our proximity to its cultural tropes, and its recognizable style of comic horror. But its also due to a protagonist that is incredibly easy to relate to. As for its faithfulness to the book, it is a bit disjointed but fills in the gaps with some much-needed realism compared to Nicholls’ original.
The writing might be the highpoint of the series. It’s quick, there’s very little that’s superfluous, and it’s often heart-wrenchingly funny. As a result, the six episodes fly by. It helps that the flight footage is phenomenal and that the film’s post-apocalyptic Rome feels right. Most of this is down to cinematographer, Martin Ruhe, and production designer, David Gropman. They’ve chosen to make the colors pop (even the drab shades khaki), and the photography brightly lit, a decision that keeps the war elements real, and never allows to stray from the facial reactions of Heller’s brilliantly conceived characters. It’s a beautiful series that would look just as good on a cinema screen as it does on a big TV screen. And while it’s not the best score from either of the Gregson-Williams brothers, the music successfully pushes forth the film’s feeling without interference.
But just as important is its cast. Sure, it’s notable for its big names, Clooney, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie and Giancarlo Giannini(!), who are all excellent. But its the corps of Yossarian’s B-17 crew that make this thing go. Listen, Christopher Abbott is no Alan Arkin, but, in the context of this piece, he’s terrific. Equal measures outraged, terrified and bemused, he brings us a complete sense of the hell that is both war and the military establishment. It’s a really fine piece of work. Lewis Pullman is amazing as the baffled Major Major. And former SNL cast member, Jon Rudnitsky, shows he has chops well beyond sketch comedy, as the ill-fated pilot, McWatt. Finally, Daniel David Stewart, as mover and shaker Milo Minderbinder, will actually make you forget Jon Voight’s performance.
This is a show I can recommend with unequivocal fervor. It has lasted in my mind’s eye for some time since I viewed it and, if you are at all a fan of Heller, or like your World War viewing served with an appropriate amount of disdain, you couldn’t do better than Hulu’s “Catch-22” this season.
“The Cold Blue” (HBO)
Directed by Erik Nelson
I only bring up this fascinating short documentary on HBO because it is focused on the exact arena of “Catch-22”, B-17 missions and those that flew them. Using the footage taken by William Wyler and his crew prior to the creation of “Memphis Belle”, Nelson has pieced together a love-letter/memorial to these ridiculously brave men and boys. The footage is extraordinary, as are the reminiscences of the actual crewmen that inhabited the world who make up the whole of the film’s narration.
Truly, if you watch “Catch-22”, consider this the seventh episode. Or, if you prefer docs, or don’t have the time to commit to a series, then put this on your must watch list.
Das Boot Trailer:
(the English trailer is SOOO awful, you’re much better off watching the German trailer. No subtitles, but it doesn’t matter…and rest assured, Lizzy Caplan speaks English in the actual series, if not in this trailer):
The Cold Blue Trailer: