“…you can learn maybe more about the whole vast phenomenon of war if you have just 45 people stuck in a submarine and see how they deal with war and with attacks and with being attacked and everything and at the same time being stuck and not able to run. You cannot just run away. So, it’s more intense than in other war stories because you’re stuck in a claustrophobic situation, no windows, no nothing. You cannot just desert and run.” – Wolfgang Petersen (from a 2009 Counter Culture interview)
Das Boot begins with a staggering statistic about the German U-boat fleet in World War II: of the 40,000 submariners who served, 30,000 never returned. This sets the fatalistic tone for the rest of the film, which systematically deconstructs any romantic notions of serving aboard a submarine. We’re a fly on the bulkheads of U-96 as the crew members face the specter of death on a constant basis. Writer/director Wolfgang Petersen’s remarkable film, based on a novel by Lothar G. Buchheim, is a nail-biter from beginning to end.
When Das Boot was released in 1981, few films about the German side of World War II reached American audiences in any appreciable numbers, or made as significant an impact. For this impressionable viewer, accustomed to years of depictions of the Germans as a soulless, faceless enemy, Petersen’s very human perspective seemed downright revolutionary. The U-96 crew, thrust into a situation beyond their control, became the faces for all who fought in war, regardless of nationality. We sympathize with them as fellow human beings. Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) and crew, with the exception of zealous 1st Lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch), had no love for Hitler or his regime, but were there for their country and loved ones back home. They were chess pieces moved by invisible hands, trapped on a board they didn’t create.
Petersen demolishes the wartime hero myth from the film’s beginning. The desperation and tension, as experienced through the eyes of the characters, is palpable throughout. In an early scene, we’re introduced to rival U-boat captain, Thomsen (Otto Sander), a burned out, alcoholic, broken shell of a man. Almost immediately after he’s lauded for his heroics, we find Thomsen lying on a restroom floor, soaked in his own vomit. Lt. Werner (based on novelist Buchheim), played by Herbert Grönemeyer, progresses from a wide-eyed war correspondent, brimming over with propaganda-fueled enthusiasm, to a grizzled, disillusioned cynic. In the space of several weeks, he appears to have aged a decade. 96 is under attack, Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) suffers a nervous breakdown. His haunted eyes convey his plight as no dialogue could, expressing the utter helplessness of being surrounded by water, with no hope of escape.
As captain of the U-96, Lehmann-Willenbrock carries the heaviest burden of all, carrying out orders that seem progressively more suicidal, while balancing his concern for the safety of his men. After he torpedoes an enemy ship, he’s forced to ignore the survivors’ screams for help. In a decision based solely on an objective assessment of available resources, he concludes there’s no room in the cramped submarine for anyone beyond his existing crew. When a distraught Lt. Werner questions why he left the floundering survivors in the water, the captain responds, “Ask the fanatics who started this filthy war.” He’s seen enough during his tenure to last a lifetime, with no room for heroics or jingoism. After his ship finds temporary safe harbor in Vigo, Spain, he rebukes a boisterous freighter captain’s entreaty to regale him with romantic tales of undersea combat.
The filmmakers spared no details to create an immersive experience for the audience. By the time we have reached the conclusion, we have a sense of what it must have been like to be stuck in the bowels of a submarine for weeks on end, with virtually no contact with the outside world. As bolts pop and depth charges explode, the crew members’ collective sanity falls apart at the seams (Petersen commented that the cast was prevented from spending time in the sun during filming, to develop a suitably pale complexion.). By working within the severe limitations dictated by the realistic submarine interiors, cinematographer Jost Vacano conveys the claustrophobic confines of U-96. The audience’s sense of isolation is further reinforced by Klaus Doldinger’s atmospheric music score.
Das Boot was not without its share of controversy, with some detractors accusing the film of being too sympathetic to the German war effort. Such superficial critiques, however, turn a blind eye to the primary thrust of the story. When I first watched the film, I recall feeling a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, but this quickly gave way to insight about Petersen’s underlying intentions. Feeling for the characters and their predicament in no way diminishes the atrocities that were perpetrated back on German soil, or condones the immoral leadership that initiated the war. Petersen illustrates how the U-96 crew members were cogs in a military and propaganda machine, which demanded victory at any cost. Their teamwork under physical and emotional pressure, working under intolerable conditions, says more about the indomitable human spirit than any ideology. As an audience, we don’t care if they achieve their strategic objectives; we only care if they make it out alive. Their struggle to avoid annihilation, culminating in one of the most ironic endings committed to celluloid, underscores the futility of war.
Three versions of Das Boot are available: a two-and-a-half hour theatrical version (on Blu-ray), a somewhat longer director’s cut, and a five-hour movie, which aired as a miniseries on German television in the mid-‘80s. Which one is better? The original version works more effectively as a pure action film, albeit more in-depth (pardon the pun) than the typical wartime drama. The longer versions, especially the five-hour cut, do a fine job of ratcheting up the tension and providing more details about the individual crew members. The long spaces of daily tedium are interspersed with frenzied scenes of mortal peril. Whichever version you choose is well worth the investment in time and nerves. Das Boot succeeds as few other war films have, by maintaining an unrelenting level of suspense while recognizing the awful toll of modern warfare on the human psyche.
Barry P. runs the eclectic movie blog Cinematic Catharsis, focusing on the little films that slipped through the cracks, with an emphasis on genre titles. Some regular features include: classic spotlights, capsule reviews and overlooked gems.