Claustrophia is a big issue for some. So is personal space. Even those most extroverted person could go nuts or get cranky. Imagine being in a vessel that’s only about 10 feet wide and about half the size of a football field give or take a yard and you’re several hundred feet underwater.
Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot tells the story of the crew of U-96 who set sail in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Fall of 1941. The U.S. hadn’t entered the war yet and Nazi Germany is bent on domination. Yet the crew aren’t really fans of the Nazi Party nor Adolf Hitler, except for a First Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch), who despite the long days remains the most clean-cut and stoic of the crew.
They are led by Captain Henrich Lehman-Willenbrock (Jurgen Prochnow) whose blue eyes looks pierce and intense but he still knows how to treat his men despite demanding an efficient crew. He’s called Der Alte or “The Old Man.” He’s turn bitter toward Hitler and the Nazi Party with some cynicism. It’s no doubt that many German military officials were no fans of the Third Reich and what they were doing, especially since some people got bureaucratic promotions just based on their loyalty.
With them on this mission is a young officer and correspendent Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) who has been sent to document the ship for the war effort of Germany. Werner acts more like the layman, the outsider who the crew are more willing to open up to rather than the First Watch Officer. But the crew are not too willing to open up to as during a scene in which he takes pictures, an oil-drench rag is thrown at his face and no one owns up to it when the higher offical demands to know who threw it.
The ship is small. The officers can’t even eat their meals without having someone walking through asking “Permission to pass.” The cramped quarters even led to some of the men getting pubic louse, from having to use the same toilet. They walk through the ship with a rhythm almost like they can read each other thoughts. When sailors are runing toward the bow, others know to get out of their way quick.
Released in September of 1981, Das Boot was in production during the Cold War when there were two Germanys (West and East). East Germany was part of the Soviet Union. You could look at the behavior of the captain as that of West Germany during the Cold War. The First Watch Officer could be seen as part of the East Germany mentality and the cold shoulder the rest of the crew give him is obvious. He may be an officer but they don’t like him much.
The crew must deal with horrors of war as depth charges rattle around the ship as bolts fly though the air like bullets due to water pressure and just about everyone gets soaking wet from the sea water. If this isn’t the way for some people, it’s best not to sign up for submarine duty. Although at the time, some didn’t have a choice. The sailors are young men with baby faces. Even Werner has a young innocent look to him as does the clean-cut First Watch Officer. Gronemeyer was only 24 when making the movie. Prochnow was only 39 but his signature rough facial features work best here as a long-time military man whose seen too much of war.
If there is a main objective of the boat it’s to survive their tour. During one scene, they nearly succumb to a destroyer dropping depth charges. Another time, the charges cause the ship’s engines to fail and they sink to the bottom of the ocean with mechanics working to fix things. During one scene they observe a ship, presumably of the British fleet, on fire, with crew members on fire jumping off and swimming to them. They leave them to the mercy of the Atlantic. In Saving Private Ryan, they shot unarmed soldiers on D-Day and even telling them to save their ammo and “Let them burn!” as a Nazi German bunker goes up in flames.
You could replace this with an American or British crew and would you think they were doing the right thing by letting German sailors die in the ocean? World War II had been over less than 40 years and there were still many veterans as well as audience members related to veterans who probably didn’t care about a German U-boat sinking to the bottom of the ocean and everyone on board almost dying. Petersen, who also wrote the screenplay, probably intended to make the crew more sympathetic and also critical of Hitler and the Nazi, so audiences could relate to the crew more. Das Boot is based on a book written by Lothar-Gunther Buccheim, who was a war correspondent for Nazi Germany, and like Werner had been assigned to U-96. Petersen made a lot of changes to the book when doing the movie.
Calling it an anti-war movie is redundant. Anything not starring John Wayne is probably an anti-war movie. And sometimes there are difficult decisions that must be made. At one point, the chief mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) goes mad and tries to limb up the ladder through the hatch while they’re hundreds of feet underwater. He’s subdued by the other crew as the captain rushes into the next room briefly but returns. One crew member tries to tell the captain they’ve got the situation under control and there’s a moment in which the captain wonders what to do next and goes and sits down. How Petersen films this is a hint that a captain sometimes has to do what they have to do. The scene ends with the captain setting a pistol in his hand on a counter. But we don’t see it until he sits down realizing the situation is under control. He’s later comments he’s surprised it was Johann acting that way. It’s obvious they’ve gone through so many missions and sometimes bad things happen.
The irony of the movie’s ending is that all crew members survive their mission but are either killed or wounded when an air raid on the harbor when they return to port. Even those not shot must watch in horror as their friends are bleeding out or screaming in pain. It reminds me of how Gen. George Patton was shown running toward a plane firing a handgun at it and not even get a scratch. Later, he would die from injuries sustained in a vehicular accident a few months after WWII ended. It’s crazy that way sometimes.
Das Boot cost $32 million Deutsche Marks and was the most expensive German movie at the time with production taking place over two years and even filming taking a long time so the actors could grow their beards. Mock-ups of the ship were filmed in Bavaria Studios in Munich. While some of the models look obviously like minatures in some special effects, it’s still impressive for 1981. Cinematographer Jost Vacano used a hand-held Arriflex camera to convey the claustrophia.
Das Boot went to make almost $85 million worldwide with Petersen getting an Oscar nomination both for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay. Vacano got a nomination for his work. It also received three additional nominations for Film Editing, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing. With six nominations it was the most for a foreign-language movie at the time.
Released theatrically at two and a half hours, Petersen added an additional hour for the 1997 Director’s Cut, which is the version I’ve seen and currently streaming for free on Tubi. On Aug. 12, Petersen passed away. Das Boot brought him success in Hollywood throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
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