Original release: September 17th, 1981,
Director’s Cut: December 11th, 1997
Running time: 149 minutes, 209 minutes
Country of origin: West Germany
Original language: German
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Writers: Wolfgang Petersen, Lothar Bucchiem (novel)
Cast: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a well-established classic of the war film genre and a technical masterpiece. My first experience of it was watching the television miniseries on BBC 2 in three hundred minute episodes.
At this time (1984), I was fascinated by the Second World War and this fascination expressed itself in the avid reading of Warlord comics as well as the novels of Sven Hassel, a writer who (like Das Boot) explored the war from the perspective of the ‘other’ side.
This viewpoint always disturbed me. It wasn’t like All Quiet on the Western Front where there was very little moral difference between the two sides. The Second World War had an obvious Manichean divide, and in the Holocaust, there was no possibility of pretending the two sides were morally equivalent. This was, after all, the Good War. And watching the film again, I found the disturbing elements still there and the film’s own manoeuvres an interesting element.
The film follows the exploits of a U-Boat crew with a gritty and immersive realism. A young journalist, Lt. Werner, played by German rock star Herbert Grönemeyer, is tasked as a war correspondent with reporting on the exploits of the underwater warriors and so is taken aboard U-96. A naive and eager youth, he soon learns the reality of submarine warfare to be a mixture of tedium, discomfort and outright terror, and yet with this knowledge comes a growing respect for the men who live with it.
The cramped conditions are only part of the problem. Petersen somehow manages to convey the stink as well as the claustrophobia: the farts, the sweat, the bodies locked together in a narrow metal tube.
Jürgen Prochnow, who was launched to international fame by the film, plays the Captain, a hardened veteran nicknamed ‘the old’ by the crew, despite the fact he’s only thirty. The rest of the crew however are boys, whose baby faces become increasingly hirsute as the film progresses.
The next in seniority and age to the Captain is the Chief, who is the most capable when it comes to the workings of the sub and after him, Johann, an engineer—nicknamed the Phantom—who seems to have an almost erotic attachment to the submarine’s engines. There’s comic relief with a crude red haired buffoon, played by Martin Semmelrogge, and the punctilious ideologue of a Nazi, played by Hubertus Bengsch, who the others tease.
Initially, boredom seems the worst enemy as they fail to find the shipping they have been sent to destroy, but soon there is more than enough action. Petersen keeps the focus in the submarine itself, eschewing establishing shots and using the sound of the sonar and the changing lights from white to red to great dramatic effect. The enemy when seen is seen from underwater as churning propellers and occasionally falling depth charges.
The tension is orchestrated like a song by The Pixies: quiet, quiet, loud, loud, quiet, quiet, quiet, very loud. The use of details and sound, the mournful straining of the U-Boat’s bulkhead, the explosion of a bolt, creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension. The enemy is twofold as well, in that the crew are fighting not only the Allied Navies but also the sea itself.
Upon its initial release the film received a lot of criticism for glamorising the German war effort, some of which came from the author of the book on which it was based. Admittedly, having had his own script rejected there might have been some personal animus, but the film deals with its own political status in a way which is as evasive and under the radar as U-96. In an opening scene, a drunken U-Boat Captain, Thomas, has been awarded for his bravery and he gives a speech which seems to ridicule Hitler.
When the U-Boat leaves the port, the Nazi flag is neatly folded so that the principles aren’t photographed with a looming Swastika behind them. The Captain is dismissive of the only overt Nazi on the crew. In fact, the Nazi seems to exist to counterpoint the rest of the crews’ indifference to politics. They are non-ideological. Although all this can to some extent be justified historically—the U-Boats were probably the least Nazified branch of the German armed forces (Robert Harris in his novel Fatherland makes his hero an ex-U-Boat commander) — the very activity of the U-Boats themselves can be called into question.
The scene which most brings this into focus is when U-96 attacks a convoy of merchantmen. Having themselves been attacked by a destroyer, U-96 waits until the danger is gone and then surfaces to survey the damage. In the hellish red light of the flaming wreckage, they witness the ships burning and the Captain orders another torpedo to finish the job. Too late they realise there are still men on the ship who burning and screaming leap into the water. ‘Why weren’t they rescued?’ the Captain yells, as if the responsibility for their deaths lies with the British Admiralty.
He orders the U-Boat to retreat from the survivors who are swimming towards them in the hope of being rescued. The anguish and guilt at what he has done is in stark contrast to his longing for a fight and his initial joy at doing so much damage. Despite his anti-Nazi credentials, the Captain is no pacifist, but sees himself as an honest warrior. His actions betray some kind of chivalric code. This view is supported by the score of the film by Klaus Doldinger which has a rousing but melancholy Wagnerian lilt to it.
During the US premier of the Director’s Cut, the opening subtitle recounting the enormous attrition suffered by the submariners of the German navy was greeted with applause. Of course, Petersen talks about the absurdity of war as being his subject, regardless of the protagonists, which in effect is trying for the Captain’s own position. This is not about politics, it’s about men doing a difficult and dangerous job together.
This depoliticizing of conflict happens in many war movies where the war is unpopular: in the Vietnam war films or Black Hawk Down (2001), political rationales are usually distrusted and what becomes important is the man fighting beside you, the camaraderie. The irony is this is exactly where fascism and Nazism originated.
The Italian fascists promoted the idea of a ‘trenchocracy’ based on the sacrifice, loyalty and bravery of the warriors in the frontline of the First World War, which was then to serve as a template for a future society, and which stood in contrast to the compromises and hypocrisy of liberal democracy. So in this sense, the captain’s wish to get on with his job, his distrust of rhetoric and his feelings for his men is in fact consistent with Nazism.
In a sense the conclusion of the film with its all out massacre anticipating the end of the war is the only one possible. By killing the Captain and many of the crew, their sins are paid for and they are redeemed as noble warriors who fell fighting for an unjust cause they never believed in. The real captain on whom the character was based, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, survived the war and actually worked on the film as a technical advisor.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.