A German U-boat stalks the frigid waters of the North Atlantic as its young crew experience the sheer terror and claustrophobic life of a submariner in World War II.
“Das Boot” is a German war film released in 1981, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. The film is based on the novel “Das Boot” by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, which is a fictionalized account of the experiences of a German U-boat crew during World War II.
The movie follows the crew of U-96, a German U-boat, as they embark on a dangerous mission in the Atlantic Ocean. The crew faces numerous challenges, including mechanical problems, enemy attacks, and the psychological strain of being trapped in a small, cramped submarine for extended periods of time.
The film was praised for its realism and attention to detail, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Screenplay. It also won a number of other awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
“Das Boot” has since become a classic of German cinema and is considered one of the greatest war films ever made. It has been widely praised for its portrayal of the human side of war and its depiction of the complexities and moral ambiguities of the conflict.
My late father served in the Royal Navy in WWII and was torpedoed by a U Boat, so when I sat with him to watch this in 1986, I fully expected him to be filled with hatred for them. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He told me that seamen, even those on opposite sides, share something unique. He told me that his ship picked up some U Boat survivors from a ramming. They were just ordinary men doing the bidding of their masters, just like he was. They were put down at Scapa Flow as POW’s after being at sea for 5 weeks. Many of them had formed friendships with the Royal Navy men, including my father. He formed a friendship with a submariner called Gotz Stiffel and they remained friends until Gotz passed away. My father attended his funeral in Duisburg and he was welcomed as an old friend by the survivors of that U Boat sinking. My father said that film bought tears to his eyes. They were just ordinary men caught up in extraordinary times and this film captured everything from fear to boredom and relief. He said, and I utterly agreed with him this was just about the finest anti-war film ever made.
In October 1941, the German Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) of the U-96 U-Boat receives the war correspondent Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) to cover the work in the submarine during their mission in the Atlantic Ocean. They sail out of the shipyard La Rochelle and along the next weeks, Werner learns the lives, loves, fear and behavior of the young crew, the veteran Captain and his officers. The skilled captain hunts British vessels to sink and dives to depths below the limit of the boat to escape from the destroyers. Near Christmas, they plan to return to La Rochelle; but out of the blue, Captain Henrich receives an order to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to go to Italy. But the captain knows how protected the area is and plans a means to lure the British Navy. Will the U-96 succeed in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar?
“Das Boot” is a German masterpiece by Wolfgang Petersen with 2h 29 min. The “Superbit” director’s cut on DVD with one additional hour is a supreme masterpiece of a war (or anti-war) film. It is impressive how a 3h 29 min film is never boring, keeping the viewer on the edge of his or her seat until the very ending. The claustrophobic and tense story increases the drama and the character development in this version, becoming one of the best movies in the cinema history. The German captain, officers and crew are not shown as one-dimension character or sad killing machine like in many war films, but as human beings with families and friends, very efficient in their works but with fear and other feelings.
Believable, above all, and a WWII submarine movie, all the rest is just intensity
Das Boot (1981)
Widely considered the most impressive submarine movie ever made, I’ll go so far as to say it’s easily the most accurate that I’ve seen. The action scenes, the sense of doom, the eerie quiet and then explosive depth charges, the grime and the crowded conditions, all of this is palpable.
But more impressive, I think, is how the movie works as a German movie about Germans in a war where the Germans were painted as evil. American movies to this day still glorify and make heroic their roles in WWII (unlike the willingness, at times, to show the problems of Americans involved in Viet Nam, say), especially in the European side. But in movie after movie, the German film industry has confronted the real problem of being aggressors, and of being under the Nazi sway. “Das Boot” is typical, and key. The captain goes so far as to openly make fun of the German propaganda coming in on their radio. It isn’t just that war is bad, but that the Nazis are bad.
Nevertheless, there they are, and they have a job to do, and they’re going to do it well. So a small group of men in a small underwater tin can try to survive the boredom as much as the British, who come very close to getting them several times. It’s a great movie, one of the best at capturing the feeling of being there.
What is less impressive, at times, is the more ordinary character development that seems inevitable in a movie this long–2 ½ to 4 hours depending on the version you have, I saw the long one, the director’s cut. I think the acting is superb, and so it’s easy to go along with the conversations and interactions, but they aren’t always compelling in themselves, more just creating some space before the next conflict arises. Maybe, in some honest sense, this is exactly how it would have been. Life for most people is pretty ordinary.
But this movie is not. Or it makes what is ordinary in war–the nostalgic to the profound and deadly–believable, and not simply big and dramatic, which it also is.
For full German effect, I suggest seeing it with the original German language track on and subtitles if you need them, though I tested the dubbed version in English and it’s really well done. I also suggest, if you have doubts about such an involved war movie, trying to find the older, shorter release. The visuals are not enhanced, but some of the character development sections are left out and I don’t think you’ll miss them. Then, of course, if you want the whole kit and caboodle, try to find the 5 hour version released in sections for British and German television.
"Now it all turns psychological, gentlemen."
The more films I view, the harder it is to dole out a rating of ’10’, and I’ve never been liberal about it anyway. With “Das Boot”, I have no such reservations. Here’s a film that takes all your preconceived notions about Nazi villains and stands them on their head, by portraying a World War II submarine crew as human beings, facing life and death daily in the cramped confines of an underwater prison. Not only does one come to understand their plight, but sympathize with them as well, to the point of hoping that they make it through their Atlantic ordeal. The only problem being that once they do, a cruel fate intervenes to usurp the lives of innocents in a way that their harrowing underwater ordeal could not.
Perhaps part of the reason that one identifies with the German cast has to do with the treatment of Adolph Hitler in the story. Not once was he identified as a Nazi hero or figure of respect. Early in the film, the Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) himself establishes his posture as less than a fan of the Fuhrer. The much later scene of the celebration in Vigo painted an even more resolute snub of Hitler by the officer crew of U-96, along with their elite German hosts. It is possibly the only time I’ve witnessed anything less than outright undying loyalty to the Nazi leader by members of the Party.
Told from the German point of view by director Wolfgang Peterson, the story opens with the staggering statistic that only twenty five percent of Germany’s forty thousand submarine sailors ever made it home alive. By Autumn 1941, the battle for the control of the Atlantic Ocean was turning against them, ominously conveyed by the Captain himself – “Those Brits don’t make mistakes anymore”. It’s stated not in anger or defiance, but as a statement of fact, one which further emphasizes the plight of this enemy sub. Men crack under the pressure of battle, as personified by Johann ‘the ghost’ (Erwin Leder), who has a nervous breakdown before he can be of use to his Captain one last time. So fascinating is Peterson’s direction, that the entire time the sub lies doomed on the ocean floor, this viewer finds himself saying a prayer along with the crew for that one unbelievable miracle that might pull them through.
Through it all, I maintained such an alert focus that I managed to catch a continuity error. When Lt. Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) returns the packet of letters to Ullman (Martin May) that he volunteered to forward to Ullman’s pregnant girlfriend, it was only half the size of the original bundle.
Prior to seeing this movie, it would have been hard to imagine a war film to be as compelling that hadn’t been produced by Hollywood. However by any account, “Das Boot” ranks up there with not only the best war stories ever told, but one of the best movies ever committed to film. It deserves a strong recommendation.
Probably the greatest WWII naval movie
This is an amazing achievement, and it’s obvious because it is one of the only German language films to receive widespread distribution in American theaters since the silent era. It was just that good! When it came to America, the movie was cut down a little from it’s original HUGE length and it was released in both dubbed and subtitled versions.
The film is about a single WWII German U-boat and it follows it through a very hazardous mission until it eventually makes it back to port. While this may not sound very interesting, it certainly is, as the movie is less a traditional movie but an experience meant to instill in the audience the daily life and horror of serving on one of these submarines. For example, when the sub is being pursued, you find yourself tense, on edge and feeling the claustrophobia of the crewmen. Viscerally, it is an amazing film and remains a true and faithful film–the crew is extraordinary but they are hardly romanticized–they are just men doing their best to stay alive! To top all this off, when the movie concludes, there is the most fitting and inspired ending I have seen in a war film. Like anything you’ve seen from Hollywood? No way–this is like real life in all its starkness and terror.
Review Of The Director's Cut
I’ve decided not to review the 1981 dubbed cinematic release of DAS BOOT . Instead I’ve decided to review Wolfgang Petersen’s director’s cut which is far closer to the miniseries version which most readers will be familiar with
When someone makes an anti war statement it’s important that they differentiate between being ” anti war ” and ” anti military ” . The Brits don’t seem to know the difference and seem keen to make anti- military / anti – soldier self loathing war movies with Paul Greengrass’s RESURRECTED a good example . Having suffered the tragedy of Vietnam the Americans finally made anti- war movies that were a million miles removed from the old John Wayne and Errol Flynn star vehicles where a man wipes out 30 enemy soldiers single handed without suffering a scratch . But when it comes to making anti – war movies that shows the horrors of war and the courage of men in battle the Germans are top of the league , heads and shoulders above everyone else . This is because present day Germans realize that the enemy isn’t the other side – it’s war itself that’s the enemy and DAS BOOT is a great example of this thinking
The story starts slowly by introducing us to the crew via the war correspondent who are celebrating a last night ashore before they sail on their mission to sink British convoys sailing from America to Britain carrying vital supplies for the war effort against Nazi Germany . This is where DAS BOOT is superb , I really felt empathy for these crew man . Okay I didn’t want them sinking British ships but I didn’t want them to die either an opinion that shouldn’t be taken lightly since my paternal grandfather was a merchant seaman during the war while my maternal grandfather was a crewman on a destroyer . The fact the crew of U-96 are presented as being utterly human and for this Brit hoping they make it home in one piece is a great achievement
DAS BOOT was nominated for several Oscars and it’s not difficult to see why. Watch it on widescreen television with stereo surround and you’ll be amazed with the very clear sound effects and sound editing . Perhaps the best technical aspect is the cinematography where during moments of crisis the camera shoots along the length of the U- boat as it follows crewmen rushing about . When a foreign language movie is nominated for several Oscars you just know it’s good
!!!!! SLIGHT SPOILERS !!!!
This is a superb movie but it’s not perfect . Being a German movie Nazis feature at one point but none of them are crew members , the only Nazis featured are the crew of a supply ship who have who have never seen a days fighting in their lives . It’s understandable for German film makers to play down the courage of Nazi party members of the Second World War but it should also be remembered that the Waffan SS were exclusively composed of party members and they were the most feared fighting force of the conflict . CROSS OF IRON ( My favourite movie featuring WW 2 ) does make the valid point that because someone isn’t a fan of the Nazis it doesn’t necessarily make them a good person either . The screenplay also drags due to the fact that there’s two subplots of U-96 being damaged and stuck on the Atlantic seabed when one subplot of sinking and then resurrecting the vessel would have sufficed
But the pros far outweigh the cons and I recommend this movie to people who have never seen a foreign language film in their life . It’s placing in the IMDb top 250 is well earned . You may be shocked to know that director Wolgang Petersen later went onto to make Hollywood crap like OUTBREAK and A PERFECT STORM