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