Vin­cent Kartheiser stars in a TV re­boot of one of the world’s great­est war films, writes Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Das Boot, Graeme Blun­dell’s

If films about sub­marines have taught us any­thing, it is that there is noth­ing less aus­pi­cious for sur­vival than an ex­plo­sion un­der wa­ter. So the im­agery used by Amer­i­can ac­tor Vin­cent Kartheiser to de­scribe his first scene on the tele­vi­sion re­boot of the sem­i­nal 1981 Ger­man film Das Boot (The Boat) is alarm­ing.

“I showed up and for the first two days I watched the Ger­man ac­tors work: their stoic, hard faces wrought with ten­sion but with an ocean of emo­tion go­ing on be­neath their eyes,” says the for­mer Mad Men star, speak­ing to Re­view from Chicago.

“I needed to go in there like a grenade, like a fire­cracker, and bring en­ergy and fire to that space. A sub­ma­rine is so small, and all the peo­ple have al­ready claimed ‘this is my bunk or these are my men’. But both as my char­ac­ter and as an ac­tor, I went in there and I took it all from them.”

Kartheiser, 39, has a rep­u­ta­tion for un­ortho­dox be­hav­iour on set. On the cel­e­brated se­ries Mad Men, which won 16 Em­mys and five Golden Globes over its seven-sea­son run, get­ting into char­ac­ter as Pete Camp­bell re­port­edly in­volved vo­cal ex­er­cises that es­ca­lated into scream­ing. (Lead ac­tor Jon Hamm said at the time: “We’ve all made our peace with Vin­nie’s antics. It’s crossed over from be­ing an­noy­ing and landed into adorable.”)

The new TV se­ries picks up in 1942, al­most a year after the events de­picted in the film, and fol­lows the ac­tion at sea on U-612, cap­tained by Klaus Hoff­mann (Rick Okon), as well as among the nascent French Re­sis­tance in La Rochelle led by Carla Mon­roe ( Mas­ters of Sex’s Lizzy Ca­plan). The se­ries, shot across lo­ca­tions in La Rochelle (south­west­ern France), Prague, Mu­nich and Malta with 79 ac­tors and nearly 1000 ex­tras, de­buts on SBS on Wed­nes­day.

Kartheiser’s char­ac­ter, the Amer­i­can Sa­muel Green­wood, ap­pears for the first time at the end of the sec­ond of eight episodes; but when he is asked to de­scribe him, sev­eral pub­li­cists on the phone line break into the con­ver­sa­tion and cu­ri­ously of­fer on his be­half an an­o­dyne an­swer: “An Amer­i­can on a spe­cial mis­sion.”

“Ah, that is much too vague,” Kartheiser says, “and I be­lieve in the adage that it’s bet­ter to ask for for­give­ness than to get per­mis­sion. So — Sa­muel Green­wood is taken on to a U-boat as a pris­oner of the Nazis, who are tak­ing him to an Amer­i­can ves­sel in the mid­dle of the ocean, sup­pos­edly to drop him off in ex­change for some goods.”

The U-boat replica was built in a Mal­tese ship­yard, and most of the film­ing took place in La Rochelle, in the ac­tual pens built by the Nazis. Kartheiser says his char­ac­ter dis­plays a com­pletely dif­fer­ent view­point to the pa­tri­otic Ger­man mil­i­tary men on the ship, and im­me­di­ately be­gins to sow seeds of doubt among them.

“He is the kind of guy al­ways look­ing for an an­gle, an op­por­tunist, kind of like a mafioso,” he says.

“Mob­sters are al­ways try­ing to get you to owe them some­thing, be­cause they like hav­ing some­thing to hold over you. That’s kind of who this guy is. He is look­ing to profit, and to get some­thing more than the next guy — it’s a very Amer­i­can at­ti­tude, by the way.”

Kartheiser first watched the Ger­man film in his early 20s (“I just re­mem­ber it be­ing so, so stress­ful, so much ten­sion … I was claus­tro­pho­bic watch­ing it, you know”) but chose not to read the 1973 novel by Lothar-Gun­ther Buch­heim on which it was based.

“The script is its own thing, and I didn’t want to get tied up in the world of the book,” he says. “But I did get a book of The New York Times’ ar­ti­cles from World War II, which was a re­ally au­then­tic way to learn about the war, the way peo­ple then would have learned about it: in the present tense, not through the eyes of his­to­ri­ans who came later.”

Kartheiser was ap­pre­hen­sive about leav­ing his young fam­ily (he is mar­ried to The Hand­maid’s Tale ac­tress and Gil­more Girls alumna Alexis Bledel) to work in Europe, but says his Euro­pean co-stars (the subtitled se­ries is shot in Ger­man, French and English) and Aus­trian di­rec­tor were friendly and sup­port­ive, if some­times very di­rect.

“An­dreas (Prochaska) is an amaz­ing di­rec­tor; we sat down to talk about the role on my first day and he was very clear what he wanted, and kinda pulled me back where he needed to and wasn’t afraid to give it to me straight,” Kartheiser says.

“I re­ally, re­ally like that; some­times di­rec­tors are a lit­tle afraid of mak­ing ac­tors feel bad, but he was very to the point and re­spect­ful, and he un­der­stood he could tell me the truth and I could take it.”

He adds that Prochaska’s ca­reer in film edit­ing be­fore di­rect­ing en­sured that time wasn’t wasted shoot­ing the same scenes re­peat­edly from ev­ery con­ceiv­able an­gle; rather, ex­tra time was avail­able for the scenes that needed it.

While Kartheiser es­chews the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plain any cul­tural con­text of re­viv­ing Das Boot in 2018 (“I think of­ten­times TV shows all feel the need to re­spond to these sorts of ques­tions with a topi­cal an­swer: why it’s im­por­tant, why it will change your mind or be rel­e­vant for to­day; I don’t have those an­swers for you be­cause I don’t be­lieve in them”), Prochaska ex­plains that he wanted to ex­plore the peren­nial theme of what war does to peo­ple.

“I was al­ways ask­ing my­self what would I have done,” says Prochaska, who first watched Das Boot in his late teens. “I now have four sons and three of them are old enough to be a crew mem­ber of the sub­ma­rine. Peo­ple had to vol­un­teer … so what was the fas­ci­na­tion of drag­ging peo­ple in these iron coffins?”

Prochaska also says that while the orig­i­nal film’s re­lent­less fo­cus on a sub­ma­rine crew worked across 2½ hours, that con­ceit wouldn’t have held up over an eight-part TV se­ries.

“You have to de­liver some­thing dif­fer­ent and the orig­i­nal film was a lot about be­ing there, be­ing part of the crew; it was not so much about char­ac­ter and story. And what we are do­ing here in this se­ries is more about char­ac­ter and plot.”

De­spite the high stakes in re­boot­ing what many de­scribe as the best war film ever made, Kartheiser says he is proud of the re­sults. “It’s re­ally well done,” he says. “I was blown away. I think it’s great.”

It prompts the ques­tion whether he would be open to a re­boot of the TV show on which he first made his name, be­fore Mad Men: Joss Whe­don’s An­gel, a spin-off from the soon-tobe-re­booted Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer? “I would never say never.”

But it is clear that Kartheiser’s choices will be guided by his firmly rooted phi­los­o­phy of “en­ter­tain­ment for en­ter­tain­ment’s sake”.

“What we al­ways want to do as sto­ry­tellers is tell a story about flawed, beau­ti­ful, heroic, coura­geous, evil, dan­ger­ous, scared, lov­ing hu­man be­ings that are at that precipice of life and death where their true na­ture is shown.” Read Wed­nes­day, 9.35pm, SBS. ver­dict on p27.

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