(Director/writer: Wolfgang Petersen; screenwriter: based on a novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim; cinematographer: Jost Vacano; editor: Hannes Nikel; cast: Jurgen Prochnow (The Captain), Erwin Leder (Johann), Herbert Gronemeyer (Lt. Werner/Correspondent), Klaus Wennemann (Chief Engineer), Hubertus Bengsch (First Lt. /Number One), Otto Sander (Thomsen), Martin May (Ullman), Martin Semmelrogge (2nd Lieutenant); Runtime: 210; Columbia Pictures; 1981-W. Germany-in German with English subtitles)


“The film humanizes the Germans and shows the cramped conditions that they had to fight under.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This updated 210-minute version of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot WW11 U-boat thriller is adapted from the semi-autobiography of Lothar-Gunther Buchheim who served on a submarine during the war. The film humanizes the Germans and shows the cramped conditions that they had to fight under. This is the director’s cut, where he added 65 minutes to the most expensive German film ever made at the time ($40 million is the reputed price tag), which was originally a six-hour TV miniseries. It sets a high standard for submarine films, as Petersen created a lot of nail-biting tension and evoked a suspenseful atmosphere. This might very well be the best submarine film ever made. Wolfgang Petersen was nominated but did not win an Oscar for his directing. It also gave the director a chance to come to Hollywood to show off his ability to shoot action films, where he made “In the Line of Fire”/”Air Force One”/ “Perfect Storm.” Das Boot was one of the most popular foreign films in America at the time, and is still doing very well in its video rentals.

There were 40,000 Germans who served on U-boats during the war and 30,000 of them never returned. It was the U-boats mission to guard the North Atlantic and make sure no boats got through. The British supply-ships were trying to get through the German blockades, as the 12 German U-boats on patrol tried to stop them. The ships were escorted by destroyers and were sometimes protected by airplanes. Winston Churchill was mocked by the Nazi propaganda machine as a paralytic drunkard, but it’s clear from this film that those who fought the British knew better and respected their efficiency on the sea.

The film is about U-96’s mission in 1941 and its veteran, stoic captain (Jurgen Prochnow), who is a career military man and is none too pleased with Hitler’s battle plans or with the wet-behind-the-ears youngsters who make up his crew. He feels Hitler is sending him out on a “Children’s Crusade.” The tone of the film is more anti-establishment than antiwar, as the captain bitches with his other officers about the stupidity of the war effort by the German High Command. When an eager-beaver Lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch) with a rigid jaw spouts the Nazi beliefs, the captain ridicules his blind devotion to such ideals — saying he’s the type who would march to hell for the Fuehrer.

The film opens with the boat refueling at the French base of La Rochelle, which was used by the Nazis as their submarine station. The captain escorts Lt. Werner (Gronemeyer) to the same bar where the men on shore leave are at. He’s a young naval war correspondent just assigned to write public relations stories about the crew, making them into heroes for the Germans to read about back home. The sailors are letting off steam, getting drunk, taking up with whores, and hiding their fear with a false bravado and loud songs. The captain engages another veteran U-boat captain (Otto Sander), who has just been militarily honored, but is too drunk to make a coherent speech at the bar. There seems to be an understanding between these two about what the war means: that they do a good job and not get caught up in the politics. These two crusty seamen are not Nazis, but are German patriots and professional military men.

Aboard the cramped ship that is so claustrophobic that when the men have to pass an officer they must say “permission to pass,” as they squeeze by the narrow opening. The quarters are also very tight, as the men sleep crowded together; it seems as if they are trapped in a prison. The film exploits their discomfort and their boredom to show that war is a dreary life for the submarine crew and not filled with excitement. The crew seems anxious to get some action just to break up the boredom. They all have different ways of relieving their tension. One of the men (Martin May) writes letters to a French girl he met in Paris whom he got secretly engaged to and is worried that she is pregnant, and that the Partisans will kill the child. The Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann) keeps the submarine running as best as he can. The 2nd Lieutenant (Martin Semmelrogge) is the comic in the group, which comes mostly at the expense of the captain.

The war correspondent is told by the captain to take pictures of the men not now when they look baby faced, but when they return as men with beards. The journalist forms a bond with the captain, who explains to him what he is doing and at the same time clues us in to how the submarine operates.

The main action takes place when the U-boat attacks a British convoy of five and torpedoes three of its ships. The tension on the boat is intense as the dark ship becomes completely quiet. They are being hunted by a destroyer above them, which drops depth charges and the men anxiously wait below to see if they will survive. It is a matter of luck that their boat escapes.

The most eerie scene is when the U-boat surfaces and the beautiful sky looks darkly serene, but the tankers they hit are on fire and we could hear the screams of the sailors for help as they go diving into the water with their body’s covered in flames. But the captain orders another torpedo at them and ignores their pleas. His only reaction was one of surprise that they were still on board, that no one rescued them.

That was an amazing scene. I couldn’t imagine a Hollywood film showing Americans not rescuing drowning seamen, even if their submarine had no room for the prisoners.

What this excellently told story fails to do, is come to terms with the political situation or the moral implications of the war. It is best seen as a film that is technically superb, drawing out the reality of what it is like to be on the submarine and showing how terrible it is to go to war. The boat constructed by Rolf Zehetbauer and Götz Weidner duplicates the cramped boat down to its grimy details, and provides the film with the proper setting for its intense realism.

The film makes superb use of sound, as every sound in the quiet of the submarine is heard: the splashing against a destroyer’s propellers, the eerie ping sounds, the bellowing roar of a depth charge, and even the creaks of a hull.

Jurgen Prochnow’s sterling performance gave the film the quiet hero it needed to anchor its story. His will to fight, his intelligent leadership, and his quiet determination to fight a glorious war, were nobly shown; and, the men under him completely respected his leadership ability. The crew was made up of sympathetic figures and not cardboard Nazis as in most WW11 films that Hollywood makes.

In one scene the captain is disappointed that his man in the galley (Erwin Leder) who is a diesel engine operator, a veteran of nine battle campaigns, has an attack of nerves and cracks, refusing to report to his battle station. When he recovers the next day, he begs the captain not to court-martial him. The pain on the captain’s face is clear, as he tells the seaman to go get some rest. What the film seemed to be aiming at, was not a big statement against war but how the captain was a professional and treated his men accordingly expecting them to do their best no matter what. As for the German leaders he openly showed a disdain, not for their politics but because they didn’t know how to run a war.

The film ends as the damaged U-boat escapes by running silent after a deep dive in the Straits of Gibraltar, as the men must put on their oxygen masks to survive in their damaged boat. There is also an ironical ending, as the men come back to the supposed safety of their port and find the danger is not over yet. The film succeeds further in humanizing the men as it highlights the crew singing their favorite song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and that’s the most vocal this very quiet, very emotionally gripping, and very entertaining film will get about anything. The captain and his crew know that the odds weigh heavily against them returning from a mission alive, and such life and death missions have their psychological consequences on all of them.