Das Boot: Under Pressure

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  • Post last modified:May 19, 2020
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dasbootOn my last visit to New York City, I visited the Intrepid Museum and boarded USS Growler, the 1950s-era cruise missile submarine that is part of the permanent exhibition. Its remarkably narrow quarters made one wonder how it was possible to actually live and serve there. Das Boot, the heavily Oscar-nominated film that took the German director Wolfgang Petersen to Hollywood, remains perhaps the best onscreen illustration.

A correspondent is assigned to a submarine
The film begins with the sobering claim that out of 40,000 men who served on German u-boats during World War II, only 10,000 survived. In 1941, a war correspondent called Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is assigned to U-96, a submarine captained by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow). He meets the crew in a French nightclub where another captain who’s just become a decorated war hero gives a drunken speech where his contempt for the leadership in Berlin is obvious. The next day, U-96 sails out of La Rochelle. After many days where absolutely nothing happens, the only thing Werner has to observe is how jaded some of the officers’ attitude to the war has become.

Eventually, the submarine has an encounter with a British destroyer and narrowly escapes being hit with depth charges. However, a subsequent attack on a British convoy has very serious consequences for U-96…

Heavily criticized by the author
When Petersen’s film was released (initially in a 145 min. cut; this later version that I’m reviewing was released in 1997), it was heavily criticized by Lothar Günther Buchheim, the man who wrote the novel on which it was based. Buchheim, who was pretty much the real-life Werner, had taken great care to make sure his wartime chronicle was as correct as possible and did not appreciate the artistic license that Petersen had taken.

However, it’s not hard to dismiss Buchheim’s complaints; most of them concern details and aspects of filmmaking that in no way are fatal mistakes. Buchheim felt that his anti-war sentiments were lost in the translation, which is also hard to understand. There is plenty of criticism in the film against how the war was waged by the German leaders, many examples of disillusionment and cruelty. The fact that we do get close to the men who serve on U-96, share their pain and occasional moments of triumph, as well as the bitter irony of the submarine’s ultimate fate (spectacularly staged), does not make us sympathize with the German cause during the war, nor does it make us want to be part of the crew as they fight for their lives. In Buchheim’s view, the filmmakers went Hollywood… but the movie has nevertheless become a classic and its realism helped audiences understand yet another aspect of what it was like to fight in World War II, regardless of which side you were on.

Cinematographer Jost Vacano and the visual-effects crew ably convey the horrors of the situations that U-96 encounters… but director Petersen also understands (especially in the 1997 version) that the story needs time and patience in order to build our emotions for the captain and his men. It helps with a cast of pros; just like Petersen, Prochnow (who plays the kind of world-weary 30-year-old that only a war can produce) would also have a subsequent career in Hollywood.

Das Boot has an enduring quality. In the 1990s, a techno group called U96 even had a worldwide hit with their version of composer Klaus Doldinger’s emotional, sweeping theme for this film. The main reason though why the movie has survived is that the filmmakers had a very serious, more profound approach to their subject. Most submarine thrillers are pure entertainment. This one offers a lot more.

Das Boot 1981-Germany. 211 min. Color. Produced by Günter Rohrbach. Written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Novel: Lothar Günther Buchheim. Cinematography: Jost Vacano. Music: Klaus Doldinger. Cast: Jürgen Prochnow (Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock), Herbert Grönemeyer (Werner), Klaus Wennemann (Fritz Grade), Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge, Bernd Tauber.

Trivia: Also released as a 293-min. miniseries. Later a German TV series, Das Boot (2018- ). 

Last word: “We thought in the beginning we might kill ourselves after a few weeks because it’s just such a small place. Then you develop a kind of discipline there that you can do it forever and forever. You get very tired. We spent one year, because of the long version, one year in that set. It’s tiresome but more and more, the more we realized we can do it, we’ll make it, we’re getting amazing footage. Because we shot in sequence, the actors got more and more really into it, into their part. They could’ve done that forever. It’s beautiful.” (Petersen, Crave Online)

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