What to say about the now-classic film Das Boot (1981)? This is director and screenplay writer Wolfgang Petersen’s most iconic work, and is based largely (but not precisely) on Lothar G. Buchheim’s novel. It was a risky effort for a German film maker to present wartime German men as merely humans and cast them in a positive light. It was uncomfortable for the German people who had still not quite come to terms with their nation’s past. But the film has a place of high honor among those who value military history and technical accuracy in cinema. It also stirs opinions in people like me who don’t wax eloquently over the film as if it was the pinnacle of wartime story-telling, but still recognize its unique place in cinema.
A word of historical and technical interest up front – this German film and the novel it was inspired by were both based on the career of storied U-boat commander Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock and his famous Type VIIC U-boat, designated U-96. Both Buchheim, as a war correspondent and writer who experienced one of U-96’s ‘tours’, and Lehmann-Willenbrock, who himself who survived the war, were technical advisors. This dual brain-trust formed a vast wealth of first-hand knowledge and is one of the chief reasons the film is hailed as a realistic portrayal of submarine warfare. As one who has studied U-boat warfare for much of the last twenty years, I was excited to see this film long ago. I had launched into a minor research effort in 1998 to solve the (now-solved) mystery of where U-166 rested in the Gulf of Mexico in order to debunk some wild coastal rumors around Galveston, Texas. So my U-boat reading and research had primed me to be ready to laugh at this film. I did not laugh.
The film follows the crew on a typical Atlantic cruise during the Battle of the Atlantic, a very costly and long-term effort to destroy allied shipping. Hunting in wolf-packs, Kriegsmarine submarines (or Unterseebooten in German, hence the term ‘U-boat’) were deadly predators, sinking a great number of allied ships, materials, supplies and personnel. But the hunters were also hunted. As the allies adjusted tactics, ships travelled in large convoys with armed anti-submarine escorts, and aircraft technologies improved to give greater air range for overhead cover. This spelled doom for many U-boats.
The battle of the Atlantic became a very deadly affair for the Germans; being assigned to crew a U-boat was almost a death sentence – three fourths of the men perished, many still resting in watery graves thousands of feet deep. Yet some men survived, and U-96 was one of the very rare boats that actually was retired instead of sunk. The film is hailed by submariners from all eras as the only submarine film that is not visually and technically absurd. Because of the way it was produced and the production of very careful sets, the film is said to truly capture the intense claustrophobia, stress, and cramped spaces of combat in a sub. The film is lauded for its hard realism inside the hull, both mechanically and from the human perspective. If I was to show this film in a theater, the only thing that could improve the experience would be the sense of smell – diesel fumes, exhaust, acrid smoke, the salty sea air, booze-breath, moldy bread, and so on. I don’t think it would be a gimmick if executed in a very subtle manner. But that is a rabbit trail for some other time…
The story begins with a bawdy drunken party as the crew prepares for its cruise. The officers are greeted with a rabble of inebriated crewmen along the road who crudely urinate on the vehicle as it drives by. This and the bawdy behavior at the ball, and un-popular political opinions belched out by drunk sailors, set the tone of the film as gritty, rather sleazy, and often times very offensive. It is a very coarse display of real human coping. These men are crude, and they are off-putting. Their behavior is repulsive behavior. Unfortunately, the base nature of unregenerate man resorts to such things when faced with the great probability of impending death and a mission known to have a 75% chance of drowning in an iron coffin or being smushed like a bug under massive sea pressure.
Soon enough, the men clean up into humans with whom we can relate a bit more comfortably. They fall into their role as sailors, demonstrate loose military discipline, and set out under their skipper, a flawed but skilled and respected man. It is fairly evident through extensive reading, discussion with military men, and repeated depiction in film, that military life is a dichotomy. There is the life of training, formality and drill in peacetime and while away from deployment. But come time for lives to be on the line, formality and the veneer of military code is diminished greatly, and brotherly friendships or self-serving survival instincts rule the day, and men fight for the group, not the brass.
This becomes very evident during the cruise. The story has its long moments of boredom, and very tense moments of high drama and grueling suspense.
We do actually gain a gritty, steamy, diesel-tinged sense of life on a U-boat. We also see the raw side of people who live cramped together, unvarnished by societal politeness, and rubbed the wrong way by stress and strain. We witness the polished uniforms being shed as time goes by, and beards growing on gaunt faces as eyes sink inward under the strain of the cruise. The film succeeds in giving an overall impression.
The story, however, is not really a drama nor does it have any real dramatic depth. It is a report, though fictionalized, and the drama and tension and great suspense are all simply outflows of the circumstances in which the men find themselves. It is all about the historic, situational, and realistic reporting of events, and these events have portions of high stress. This is what many desire in a war movie. While I often prefer to see some elements of a more developed personal story – human angst, love, ethics and romance – in the context of a war film, these things are not really developed in Das Boot. Such elements are either given a curt nod, or are hinted at, and what human drama is present is shallow and not well-developed. But it seems as if that is how it ought to be in this film. It is more about experience than tale, technical manual than poetic verse, grit than heart. While the most successful tales of war throughout the history of man usually have both sides of the coin, Das Boot succeeds where most grit-films merely descend to a Rambo-esque charade. One of the few real plot twists comes at the ending where a turn of fate caps the story with an unforeseen punctuation. Historically speaking, the ending is completely made up.
I have seen this film, in its full, uncut version, several times. I never do get really excited about the prospect of watching it, but I always end up pulled in and connected to the plight of a bunch of smelly, unshaven men trapped in a cramped iron tube trying to keep themselves alive. Its worth seeing. Skip the drunk part up front if you have children watching, and be cautious about the scenes for the minor instances of crassness and nudity.
From the production side of things, there are many interesting notes that contribute to the reality of the film. The construction of seaworthy scale models, the making of a complete replica by the original U-boat builder, and the creative filming in cramped spaces made the film one of the more accurate depictions of technology and life in the period. Production trivia on IMDB is full of wonderful anecdotes about the making of the film. It was truly a production of grand scale, especially for 1981.
Of all the war films on a list of essential WWII films to see, this one would need to be in the top 10, though not because of story or human endeavor or heroism. It should be on the list for the experiential moments of high tension, the hours of long boredom, so that this aspect of the trials of men at sea are better known and understood.
Here are some more scenes to give an idea of the flavor of the film: