The use of U-boats in the North Atlantic was an infamous campaign of early World War II by Hitler and Goering. Their mission was to attack convoys of British ships in an attempt to starve out Britain. The glory of these soldiers was often widely publicized by the Nazis, who believed that this type of warfare would be a deciding factor in their planned victory. The plan was far from foolproof, however, as an opening title card of Das Boot tells us: "40,000 men served on German U-boats during WWII. 30,000 never returned." As the Brits developed more intricate tracking systems and more powerful weapons, the Nazi U-boat campaign suffered tremendous losses of both equipment and, more importantly, sailors. What Das Boot does quite successfully is capture the atmosphere of this terrible chapter of WWII – what it was actually like to serve on a German submarine.
Das Boot was the first success of German director Wolfgang Petersen. Though since achieving moderate success in the U.S. with such films as In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, he has never quite earned the same praise accorded to Das Boot. The reasons are obvious to anyone who has seen all three films (and others in Petersen’s filmography); Das Boot is more of a docudrama involving meticulous attention to realism, whereas Line of Fire and AF1 are both meant to be entertaining action films. Das Boot is by far his best film, but appeals to a more limited audience than the American action-film mass market.
The story begins at a party. The men of various U-boat crews are whooping it up at a pre-mission celebration. We are introduced to the Captain of U-96 (Jurgen Prochnow), nameless and young, looking considerably more haggard than his age of 30 years. The Captain is joined by a naval journalist, Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Gronenmeyer), charged with reporting the "glory" of the U-boat crews as they engage their missions. Werner soon finds out that there is overwhelming dissension amongst the predominantly young crews. The men and officers know far more than their commanders back in Berlin. Serving on a submarine crew is boring, claustrophobic and extremely dangerous. The next morning the crew sets out on its mission, to the fanfare of a nearby marching band. The mood quickly changes though when Klaus Doldinger’s haunting score begins.
The U-boat is incredibly small, the average dimensions are around 10 feet wide by 100 feet long. It makes for an interesting filming challenge, manipulating a camera in such a minimal space. Petersen’s director of photography, Jost Vacano, developed a new technique, simply holding the camera in front of him as he races down the metal corridors of the set. Amazing to watch, it really gives the viewer the feeling that they are in fact hurtling down the walkways with the sailors. The actors also do a convincing job of conveying the claustrophobic feeling that dominates the film. It’s been noted that Petersen filmed inside a full-sized replica of a Type VII-C submarine and left the hull intact to elicit this feeling from his actors. Also incredible is the attention to detail; when diving, the crew must also bolt en masse to the front of the boat to shift the weight, making the dive quicker. The compartments are crammed with caches of food. In a humorous scene, one of the officers explains to Werner that the second compact toilet is filled with food, leaving only one for 50 men.
In the pre-battle scenes we see just how bored the crew and officers are. They talk incessantly of their superior’s lack of intelligence. In one of the film’s most memorable (and unexpected) scenes, they sing along, in English, to It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, much to the irritation of their 1st Lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch). Mostly they just sit back and wait for orders to attack convoys headed to and from England. We see them writing letters, engaging in mundane conversations, and bullying Werner, whom they view as a petty and naive intruder. Werner gets several trial-by-fire revelations later on; jolts felt as much by us as by him.
The battle sequences hit like a hammer. As the crew sits in terrified silence beneath the ocean surface, British battle cruisers criss-cross above them, pinging sonar signals and dropping depth charges. The boat shakes violently but somehow the crew remain standing. The Captain remains confident as he demands proper damage reports. Silent runs are equally unnerving, all the men can do is sit and wait until their enemy above reveals its position.
There was one scene that caught the attention of audiences when the film first premiered in 1981. As the Captain and crew watch the conflagration rising from a tanker they just torpedoed, they hear the screams of men still on board. As the Captain wonders aloud why they haven’t been rescued, they jump into the sea, several of them still on fire. Their pitiful cries of "Help me!" are heard clearly by the U-boat crew. The Captain is forced to make an almost evil decision; he leaves them behind knowing that prisoners are not possible on a U-boat. His ship is crowded enough. It’s a scene that ranks with the most dramatically memorable scenes of all war films.
In 1997 Das Boot was re-released in a new "Director’s Cut." The new version is a restored print of the original film with a digitally enhanced soundtrack. The film is now compatible with the new technologies of surround sound existing in theatres today and the experience is wondrous. When the rivets begin popping and shooting in all directions due to the increasing water pressure on the U-boat’s hull, it is like hearing bullets whiz by overhead. Petersen also reinserted 60 minutes of lost footage most of which shows scenes taking place when U-96 sinks after an airplane attack near Gibraltar. The original film was meant to be a six-hour miniseries for German television, a staggeringly impossible release for theatres.
– Tom Trinchera