War Movie Mondays: ‘Das Boot’

This week’s pick is Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 masterpiece Das Boot (The Boat) which tells the story of a German U-boat crew and their amazing two month ordeal while on patrol in the North Atlantic in the fall of 1941. The film was based on the real life account of author Lothar-Gunther Buchheim who served with the U-boat service in World War II. The film stars Jurgen Prochnow (Capt. “Der Alte”), Herbert Gronemeyer (Lt. Werner), Klaus Wennemann (The Chief of the boat), Hubertus Bengsch (1st Watch Officer), and Erwin Leder (Johann, Chief Mechanic of the U-96).

Das Boot is one of the greatest and most successful war films ever produced. Petersen wastes no time and gives the audience a fantastic first hand look at what life was like aboard a U-boat during the early days of World War II. The film begins with its narrator Lt. Werner (Gronemeyer) being driven along the French coast by the U-96’s Captain (Prochnow). Werner is assigned to the U-96 as a war correspondent in order to show the German people the heroes of the U-boat fleet.

Werner and the Captain are on their way to a French nightclub in celebration of another officer’s new promotion. Petersen also shows key members of the crew who are vital to the execution of the story. The officer who is the guest of honor, Thomsen (Otto Sander) gives a drunken speech and openly mocks both Winston Churchill and the U-boat tactics of Adolf Hitler. The rest of the evening allows the men to blow of some steam before their long patrol in a sector of the North Atlantic.

After a night of drunken debauchery, The Captain, Werner, and The Chief (Wenneman) arrive at the U-boat pens at La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast the next morning. The crew stand at attention and receive orders to get underway to sea. As the boat leaves the pens, they are cheered by French spectators and German personnel wishing them good hunting. At this time Werner is given a tour of the boat by one of the Captain’s junior officers. Werner begins to examine many of the ideological differences of the crew, especially of those who are hardened veterans, and those who are new to the U-boat service. Out of all the crew of forty or so men, no other member is more bitter and cynical than the Captain.

At first the crew engage in drill after drill, and the relentless hours of nothing than can kill you faster than a depth charge. There are some lull points with in first  ninety minutes of the film, but the time Petersen spends on the character development is critical in the execution of the story. Many of the men on board are tired of the war and fear their British enemies who’s naval escorts and tactics have proved most effective against the German Wolf Pacts throughout the North Atlantic.

After the first few days at sea, the crew of the U-96 rendezvous with another boat who tells them of a British convoy some several hours from their present position. They engage a British destroyer and are depth charged. The terrifying sound of the hydro-phone listening for the British sonar has become very standard in Submarine films such as Das Boot. The crew are instructed to remain silent and move with extreme caution. The sets that were created in the film are reportedly accurate in every detail, even down to the last bolt. The effects of the crew being depth charged is absolutely incredible and the special point-of-view harnesses that were created by the film’s camera operators as they run down the narrow corridors of the boat, gives the viewer a definite feel of the hopelessness and total uncertainty of surviving such an attack. Lucky for the crew, their Captain is a masterful tactician who allows them to slip away from the British ship with only minor battle damage.

One of the most terrifying parts of the film occurs after the boat engages and sinks two British ships by slamming four torpedoes into them. They are quickly spotted by a British escort destroyer and are forced to dive to a depth that can crush the hull of their boat. As they sink to escape the enemy depth charges, you hear the pressure constricting the ship and the terrified faces of the crew members who expect to implode any second.

The ship’s phantom Johann (Leder), the Chief Mechanic has a mental breakdown and is almost executed by the Captain for failing to return to his post in the engine room after the depth charging. When it appears to be all clear, the Captain surfaces the boat to discover that there are still British sailors on board the torpedoed ship. The sailors cry out for help and swim towards the U-boat. The Captain reminds the crew’s officers that they are forbidden by Hitler’s own request to take prisoners on the high seas. The Captain orders the ship to back away. One of the junior officers begins to cry that they are leaving fellow sailors to die a cruel death.

As the film builds towards its five hour climax, the one final and greatest part occurs when the crew are ordered to the Italian port of La Spezia where the crew hopes to spend Christmas. Some of the crew rejoice, but many realize that the boat must pass through the heavily fortified Straits of Gibraltar which is defended by the British Royal Navy. After being re-supplied and re-fueled in Vigo, Spain, the boat makes its way to Gibraltar in hopes of slipping through the British patrols. As they prepare to dive, the boat is strafed by a British fighter.

The Chief Helmsman (Bernd Tauber) is severely wounded by machine gun fire from the British fighter. The Captain orders the sub to make for the African coast where she dives and is unable to level out and sinks all the way to the bottom. The crew work for nearly sixteen hours in order to pump out the water and repair the severely damaged boat. They hope to achieve this and resurface the boat before they run out of battery power and what little oxygen they have left. When the crew re-surfaces, the Captain marvels over surviving the ordeal and decides to return to La Rochelle, France.

Das Boot was the second most successful German film ever produced next to Fritz Lang’s silent science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. The film was made between 1979-1981. It was one of the most expensive West German films to date costing nearly eighteen million U.S. dollars, and grossing nearly two hundred million by 2009. The majority of principle photography was completed within one year in order for the actors pale skin, beards, and emotional strain to be as realistic as possible.

Several mock-up versions of the sub were created for the production of Das Boot. One such model was rented to a young American filmmaker by the name of Steven Spielberg who used the sub for a scene in the classic film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Das Boot went on to become an international sensation which secured both Wolfgang Petersen and Jurgen Prochnow as bankable stars in the American film market. The film was also nominated for six Academy Awards for Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Sound, Sound Editing, and Writing. The film will be released in July 2011 for the first time ever on Blu-Ray disc as the original five hour Director’s Cut that Petersen produced in 1997.

Das Boot is currently available on DVD disc through Columbia/Sony Pictures and can be rented through Netflix.

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