Monday, July 14, 2014

#3 - Das Boot (Director’s Cut) (1997)

BACK-STORY:  “Das Boot” (“The Boat”) is a German submarine movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Originally the movie was going to be made by John Sturges starring Robert Redford and then by Don Siegel starring Paul Newman.  Thankfully, both projects fell through.  It is based on the novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim.  Although fictional, Buchheim used his experience as a correspondent on U-96 on a tour in 1941.  The Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) character is based on Buchheim.  Buchheim began as a technical adviser, but had a falling out with Petersen because of what Buchheim considered unrealistically enhanced dramatic license.  The movie took three years to produce (1979-81) and was the most expensive German film up to then.    It was released in 1981 at 150 minutes and then shown as a miniseries at 300 minutes.  The version I am reviewing is the definitive Director’s Cut which clocks in at 209 minutes.  The original version was a big hit in Germany and the U.S.  It was an even bigger critical success.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay (Petersen), Film Editing, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing.  Stunningly, it was not nominated for Foreign Film.

OPENING:  The movie opens at La Rochelle, France in the autumn of 1941.  We are informed that the u-boat fleet is beginning to suffer heavy losses.  By the end of the war only 10,000 of 40,000 submariners will have survived tne war.  The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow), the Chief (Klaus Wennemann), and Werner arrive at the base and Werner gets his first taste of the submarine service when some of the drunken crewmen piss on their car as it passes by.  (I don’t mean taste literally.)  The enlisted are not the only ones “preparing” for their next tour, the officers are partying at a French cabaret.  The scene is reminiscent of a cinematic fighter squadron on a regular night except that these guys are going to be away from debauchery for a couple of months.  They party like there’s no tomorrow partly because they know that is reality.

SUMMARY:  The next day the U-96 sets sail.  Werner is given a tour of the boat.  It is very crowded and narrow.  Spaces are filled with supplies, even one of the two latrines.  Sausages hang from the ceiling.  We are introduced to the key members of the crew.  There are 48 men on board a boat that would have had 24 in peacetime.  The First Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch) is the only Nazi fanatic.  The rest of the officers are cynical and war-weary.  The Captain, in particular, makes biting remarks about the “braggarts” that run the government and to needle the “Hitler Youth leader” (the FWO) insists on singing “Tipperrary”. 

                The next twenty days are ones filled with boredom. A sailor flicks a booger at another.  This boredom switches to terror instantly when the boat is surprised by a British destroyer.  The sub dives below its maximum depth of 160 meters and withstands a depth charging.  There is no warning of the explosions for the crew or the audience.  For some reason, the destroyer gives up and they move on to a convoy.  They manage to torpedo three freighters, but then its payback time for the escorts.  The depth charging is much worse this time.  Leaks, flying bolts, a fire, and numerous close explosions cause extreme tension.  The Captain remains stoical throughout, but the Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) cracks up and the Captain threatens to shoot him.  After several hours of pounding, the British apparently run out of depth charges and they can breathe easier and fresher air.

                When the sub resurfaces, it encounters a burning tanker.  The Captain decides to use a torpedo as the coup de grace thinking there is nobody on board.  Oops!  They are constrained from picking up any survivors.  War is hell.  Johann comes to apologize to the Captain, thus establishing a redemption arc.  The boat stops in neutral Spain at the port of Vigo.  The Germans have a ship set up for resupplying u-boats.  The officers are wined and dined by ass-kissers who are clueless about the Battle of the Atlantic.  The contrast between the spic and span noncombatants and the grungy submariners is telling.  While on board the lap of luxury, the Captain receives suicidal orders to run the Strait of Gibraltar to sink ships in the Mediterranean. 

                The Captain makes the head-scratching decision to run the gauntlet at night on the surface.  They try to sneak past numerous patrol vessels and ironically it’s a plane that catches them.  They suffer bomb damage and are forced to dive.  It’s an unstoppable dive to the bottom of the sea.  The depth meter needle stops at 280 meters.  Well below the maximum depth determined by the manufacturer.  The list of problems is a mile long.  Any one of which will prevent the boat ever seeing the surface again.  The Chief proves to be an expert fixer and Johann gets to redeem himself.

"Take that, people who determine hull crush depth!"

CLOSING:   Surprise, the sub rises from the depths. 
Because God has a conscience, the trip back to La Rochelle is uneventful.  They come sailing into the base with smug looks that are quickly wiped off by a sudden and extremely ironic air attack that wreaks havoc and sinks the sub.  The sailor who had showed off the picture of his girlfriend is dead meat, but you did not have to take a walk on the cliché side to die.  This is one of the great final scenes in war movie history. 

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  If they like sweaty, sallow Germans.  The language and violence are not too graphic.  There is only one female character, the cabaret singer.  She’s more for the guys in the audience than their girlfriends.  Not exactly a role model.  The movie has a horror movie feel to parts of it, so there’s that aspect.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Analyzing this movie for historical accuracy is problematic.  The film is based on a novel so it is hard to determine what in the novel is true.  The movie does follow the book closely which means the questions about accuracy focus on the book.  There was a U-96 and it was commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock for its first eight patrols.  He was the 6th highest u-boat ace based on tonnage.  He won the Iron Cross.  The submarine was credited with sinking 27 ships in 11 patrols.  Buchheim (Werner in the movie) was a Navy correspondent who was embedded for propaganda purposes.  It appears that the patrol he based the book on was the 7th one.  My research on that patrol shows that Buchheim enhanced the story quite a bit.  In fact, even if Buchheim used incidents from other patrols, it is still hard to find the incidents that appear in the book and in the movie.  The seventh patrol saw the sinking of only one freighter and one significant depth charging.  There was no Gibraltar incident on any of the patrols.  The u-boat sailed from St. Nazaire (the movie understandably used La Rochelle because the sub pens are intact there and were essential to the verisimilitude of the film).  It also returned to St. Nazaire, but not to the reception shown in the film.  U-96 was sunk under similar circumstances when the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven were bombed in 1945. 

So, what could have happened?  It seems likely the submariners partied hard considering the u-boat service had the highest mortality rate of any service in WWII for any country.  Adm. Donitz did make a habit of seeing off the individual boats.  The depressed vibe may be a bit laid on, but autumn 1941 was the first nonhappy time for the u-boats.  In 1941, convoys became more effective and more escorts came into play.  Also, anti-submarine technology improved with the use of ASDIC (sonar).  The movie implies that the u-boat war was on a path downward from then on, but in reality there was to be a second “happy time” with the entry of the U.S.  The vibe in the movie is more appropriate for 1943 when the Battle of Atlantic was clearly lost.  It seems unlikely that the depth of depression and cynicism would have sunk that low by autumn 1941.

  The movie accurately reflects the fear the pinging of sonar caused for the crew.  By this stage of the war, Ultra was being used to reroute convoys away from wolf packs.  Of course the U-96 would not have been aware of this and the movie makes no allusion to the code-breaking.  The movie does make a point of depicting the use of the Enigma machine to decode messages from submarine command.  The u-boat crews were noted for being outspoken in their cynicism and the Captain evidences that.    As far as the Nazi on board, this stock character has been criticized, but it seems likely there would have been someone like him on board.  Actually, I would have thought there would have been more than one fanatic.    While the incidents in the movie can be questioned, the u-boat is as real as it can get.  The movie interior was an exact copy of a Type VII-C on display in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

CRITIQUE:  The effort that went into this movie is amazing.  It reminds me of “Master and Commander”.  I already mentioned the interior, but there were also several models that were used for exterior scenes.  One was an eleven foot long model used for the ocean storms.  It was hollow and driven by a man laying inside on his stomach.  The same model was borrowed by Spielberg for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  There were dolls on the tower that were moved by remote control.  For the depth charge scenes, the interior mockup was on a hydraulic apparatus called a gimbal that allowed for realistic (even dangerous) hurling of bodies and objects.  The filming in this tight environment is incredible.  A special version of the steadicam was developed by cinematographer Jost Vacano who wore padding so he could move and not be hurt by encounters with the walls and hatchways.  One of the great war movie shots is when the crew rushes to the bow of the boat to speed the crash dive.   It is done in one continuous shot with no cuts.  The cinematography overall is great.  In the opening scene in the Bar Royal, Vacano has a long shot where the camera moves around the room to catch the revelry. 

                   The acting matches the technical virtuousity.  The cast was relatively unknown even if Germany.  Most went on to good careers.  Prochnow is perfect as the Captain and Wennemann matches him as the Chief.  Gronemeyer is appropriately awed, wide-eyed, and terrorized by his experiences as the neophyte Werner.  Erwin Leder makes a good impression as Johann.  It was his first acting role and you won’t be able to forget his face.    The entire cast was serious about making the picture special.  They all agreed to avoid sunlight during the production to get the sallow look.  The movie was shot in sequence so the men’s beards reflected time at sea.  The actors went through a type of boot camp so they could maneuver through the cramped interior smoothly.

                There have been many submarine movies.  It is a subgenre that has had great staying power and “Das Boot” (even though it is considered the last word on submarine movies) is not even the last example.  Hollywood still finds the cramped confines conducive to drama.  “Phantom” is just the latest proof that the subgenre will never die.  What makes “Das Boot” special is the way it gets the life of the submariners right.  The sailors behave as you would expect a German u-boat crew to behave.  Some veterans took umbrage with the crude language, but that seems revisionist and the book (by an ex-submariner) is even cruder.  No movie has depicted life on a WWII submarine better.  Any submarine.  At screenings in America, when the statistic of 30,000 German submariners dying appeared on the screen, the audience applauded.  By the end of the film, few rejoiced in the tragic exemplification of that stat.  You care about these men.  They are not the enemy.  Speaking of which, the movie does not cut to the anti-submariners.  U-96’s foes are faceless.

                The plot is linear and somewhat episodic.  It builds nicely to its overt anti-war message.  It is not perfect, however.  The depth chargings are a bit repetitive with each topping the last.  By the end of the movie, the boat has had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it.  The movie cannot escape some of the clichés submarine movies are noted for.  It is the opposite in all ways from “U-571”, but it is not flawless.  Judging from my earlier analysis of submarine cliches, it features two very common ones.  The sub has to go below “hull crush depth” and yet the hull is not crushed.  The sub withstands not one, but three depth chargings with the depth charges exploding alongside the sub.  Unrealistically close, by the way.  It does avoid several other tropes.  There is no command conflict.  The captain is no Ahab hunting his white whale.  Noone is left on deck during a crash dive and no debris and oil are released to fool the hunters.  Most importantly, the sub is on a routine patrol.  No special mission.

                The biggest problem with the movie is it is implausible in parts.  Some of the set-ups are trite.  The boat encounters the burning freighter to set up the emotional scene where they back away from the drowning victims.  The Captain threatens to shoot Johann so later he can redeem himself.  Redemption is a common theme in war movies, but it’s the captain’s threat that makes no sense.  I think he would have empathized with a fellow submariner who had been on numerous patrols.  My biggest problem with actions taken in the movie is with the captain’s decision to try to run through the strait on the surface.  That was an act of insanity by a leader who the movie has portrayed very positively before then.  This reminds me of how Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan” is a role model, but actually a moron tactically-speaking.  For a u-boat ace, the Captain sure likes to stay on the surface when there are hunters nearby.

CONCLUSION:  “Das Boot” is a very good movie, but it is not great.  I have to admit that in my opinion it is slightly overrated.  In the worthy attempt to be firmly anti-war, it has a narrative arc that is consistently downward.  Each episode is more depressing than the last until the twist of the ending.  In my opinion, the plot would have been more effective as a roller coaster ride than a downward spiral.  This does conform to the novel, but movies have the right to improve on their sources.  “Das Boot” would have been better if it had included some of the thrills of u-boat combat.  There is too much prey and not enough predator.  The torpedoing of the three enemy ships is given short shrift. The three depth chargings are not.  Is it the third greatest war movie of all time?  It is certainly in the top twenty, but not in the top five.


Acting  -  A
Action  -  7/10
Accuracy  -  B
Plot  -  B
Realism  -  B
Cliches  -  B-



                The movie tracks the novel closely.  It opens with the cabaret scene, but there is more talk of losses and miraculous escapes.  This better sets the tone of the dangers of being on a u-boat.  The party is much wilder than it is reenacted by the film.  The depth charge scenes are basically the same as in the book only shorter and the book is told from the perspective of one crew member – Werner.  This gives you an excellent feel for what he went through as the stand-in for the readers.  The movie is able to show multi-perspectives and the various efforts to make repairs.  Because of the visual nature of movies, you get to see what it must have been like to be on board a u-boat and you can imagine what is going on in their heads.  The movie leaves out some scenes, but nothing major.  Other scenes are condensed.  For example, the storm that the sub endures is much more lengthy in the book (65 pages covering a two week storm!).  Score one for the movie on this one.  The movie completely skips the return home after the Gibraltar disaster.  This is another good edit considering the highlights of that part of the voyage are not believable.  Speaking of editing, the book’s dialogue has a lot more sailors discussing sex.  I would have to say that in this case my theory that a war movie should be superior to the book it is based upon applies to “Das Boot”.  Buchheim has a tendency to drag passages on.  The storm scene in particular is redundant and gets to be boring.  The tweeks Petersen adds are improvements.  In the book, the Captain does not finish off the burning freighter and there is no dilemma about picking up survivors.  He adds the navigator being wounded in the air attack off Gibraltar.  In the book, no one is wounded on the patrol.  Other than those small or understandable changes, the movie is one of the best adaptations of a novel that you can hope to see.  It is hard to understand what Buchheim was upset about. 

the trailer



  1. Well, it's in my top ten but i think you knew that.
    I don't know many better movies. I didn't mind that they were more prey. Most submarine movies are too action driven, this one manages to really make you experience how claustrophobic it must have been.
    I have difficulties knowing which version is which. Was this the TV version? One is much longer.
    Grönemeyer is one of Germany's most famous singers, btw. He didn't act much after that, he stuck with music.
    I have to re-watch it and review it as well.

    1. This is not the TV version. That was 300 minutes.

      I don't have so much of a probelm with them being the prey most of the time as I have a problem with the depth chargings being a bit repetitive.

      The movie would have been a fantastic sequel to a movie about the U-96 during the first "happy time".

      Have you read the novel?

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  3. The director's meticulous attention to detail resulted in a historically accurate depiction. In the film, there is only one ardent Nazi in the crew of 40, namely the First Watch Officer (referred to comically in one scene as Unser Hitlerjugendführer or "Our Hitler Youth Leader"). The rest of the officers are either indifferent or openly anti-Nazi (the Captain). The enlisted sailors and NCO are portrayed as apolitical. In his book Iron Coffins, former U-boat commander Herbert A. Werner states that the selection of naval personnel based on their loyalty to the party only occurred later in the war (from 1943 onward) when the U-boats were suffering high casualties and when morale was declining. Such a degree of skepticism may or may not have occurred. In support of Das Boot on this subject, U-Boat historian Michael Gannon maintains that the U-boat navy was one of the least pro-Nazi branches of the German armed forces.

  4. BREAKING NEWS FOR DAS BOOT FANS! OK, not really...this news piece is now a year old, but...someone is planning an eight-hour TV series "reboot" for Das Boot. Not sure how I feel about that. I tend to think they shouldn't mess with this epic classic and there's no way they could possibly replicate all of the astounding components of the film.

    1. I just want to say, you will be disappointed. It is full of political correctness.

    2. Thanks for the heads up, but if I will watch "Night Swallows", I'll watch anything.

  5. About you pointing out the scene where the Captain threatens to shoot Johann; the Captain was threatening to shoot Johann if he proved to be dangerous. And the film clearly shows Johann trying to climb the ladder to the upper hatch. If he had made it to that hatch he could possibly flood the boat and kill them all. Also the Captain might have been trying show the other crew-members what may happen to them if they decided to leave their posts and have an episode of their own.

    1. Johann could under no circumstances have opened the hatch - it opened up- and outwards. It was kept in place by the water pressure (maybe - by turning the handle - he could have created a leak, and thereby a dangerous situation)

  6. Fun fact: in the U-boat simulator game "Silent Hunter 3", there is a mission where you have to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar. In a nod to Das Boot, the player commands the U-96 in the Gibraltar mission.

  7. I am surprised many people fail to notice the character development of the 1st Watch Officer throughout the film. Throughout most of the film, he's a ardent supporter of the Nazi regime, listening with glee when the radio reports on the recent victories of the Wehrmacht. He remains immaculately dressed and clean shaven for most of the film while the rest of the crew all become steadily filthier and more bedraggled with every scene. It is only in the latter stages of the film when even he cannot keep on top of it all and slowly becomes disheveled and unshaven too by the end of the film. When the boat is trapped underwater near Gibraltar, he becomes pessimistic and begins to let go of his adherence to Nazi ideas as he finally stops shaving every day and wearing his proper uniform all the time. That is really good character development.

  8. Lt's Werner opening line, "The Aces! There's not much left!" has become more poignant now that Reinhard Hardegen, the last surviving ace of the deep, has passed.

  9. About you pointing out the scene where the Captain threatens to shoot Johann; the Captain was threatening to shoot Johann if he proved to be dangerous. And the film clearly shows Johann trying to climb the ladder to the upper hatch. If he had made it to that hatch he could possibly flood the boat and kill them all. Also the Captain might have been trying show the other crew-members what may happen to them if they decided to leave their posts and have an episode of their own.

  10. Can a hatch be opened when the sub is submerged? I would think that would take massive strength.

  11. Jürgen Prochnow was interviewed for a German Magazine and revealed he was actually offered a role for the third season of the new series. He turned it down, saying that it isn't Das Boot, as it isn't related to the film, and said it shouldn't have been called "Das Boot". Honestly, it's hard to disagree with him; it is a very different piece of media with a very different approach to the story and the themes and sadly, it’s just… A lot worse than the movie.

  12. I recently visited the USS Drum, an American Gato WWII sub on display in Mobile Bay in AL.It is simply unbelievable at how tiny & cramped the interior of a WWII sub is! No film can really convey how cramped it is. If your not cloisterphobic before you go on this sub, you will be about 45 seconds after you step on board. Contrary to the "Walton's dinner table" size wardroom seen in sub movies from the 40s/50s, the actual size of the Drums wardroom is about the size of a "standard" restaurant booth. The central core walkway, about the size of an American hallway/foyer, the galley about like a phone booth (for those of us old enough to remember those!). Both fore & aft torpedoe rooms are tiny, hard to imagine how these guys loaded & worked in them. I'm 6'3" 255 & could barley walk from one end to the other. And the thing is, American subs were considered "Luxury Liners" compared to German & British & other powers subs! It's just impossible for me to see how these guys could go to sea, across the Pacific in these things, ditto the Germans in the Type VIIC in the Atlantic! The amazing thing is that the German sub service always maintained a high voluntary rate right up till the end of the war! I'd love to see the German sub in Chicago, that is if I could fit inside! Even the Battleship Alabama which is displayed next to the Drum, although infinitely larger & roomier is cloisterphobic on the interior.


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