Germany Release Date: 09-17-1981
Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
- Jurgen Prochnow, as
- Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann
- Herbert Gronemeyer, as
- Lt. Werner
- Klaus Wennemann, as
- Chief Engineer Fritz Grade
- Hubertus Bengsch, as
- 1st Lieutenant
- Martin Semmelrogge, as
- 2nd Lieutenant
- Bernd Tauber, as
- Erwin Leder, as
- Martin May, as
- Heinz Hoenig, as
- Uwe Ochsenknecht, as
- Chief Bosun
- Claude-Oliver Rudolph, as
- Jan Fedder, as
- Ralf Richter, as
- Joachim Bernhard, as
- Oliver Stritzel, as
- Konrad Becker as
Jurgen Prochnow in Das Boot
Das Boot was nominated for a then record six Academy Awards for a foreign language film. At the time, it was the most expensive German movie ever made. It was a critical and commercial success. In 1985, it was put on German television as a mini-series with nearly twice the running time. This led to Wolfgang Peterson’s directors cut which runs at three and a half hours. That may sound like a long movie, and it is, but it is well worth the watch.
Das Boot (The Boat) tells the story of a mostly new submarine crew on a German U-Boat during World War II. We follow them from the pre-shipping out party, through their tedium and extremely tense encounters with enemy destroyers. We get to know some of them as they spend every hour in confined spaces. Although they are Germans in a World War II film, you do not develop any real animosity toward them but nor do you ever find yourself rooting for them to sink any allied ships.
In fact, one scene is quite emotional when they watch a freighter burn that they recently torpedoed. Men aboard the ship, some on fire, jump over board in desperation to survive. Although the men in the water are the enemy, the German crew recognizes that their roles could easily be switched. Here is the true triumph of this film. Over the course of the movie, we become a member of the crew. We are the silent sailor who simply observes all that is happening around us.
We may not cheer for these men to kill their enemy but we by no means want to see them die. Although the “Just following orders.” excuse did not work at the Nuremberg trials, we do see these men as doing just that. On their down time, they talk of wives, girlfriends, getting laid and soccer. They complain when orders are changed as if they were personal attacks on them. These guys are not political; they are just doing what is expected of them.
At the heart of the film is Captain Henrich Lehmann, played by Jurgen Prochnow . He is a veteran officer and must keep a level head no matter how stressful the situation. He sometimes has to make command decisions that decide life or death. He sometimes questions his orders from HQ and does not fully agree with his government’s ideology but he remains a loyal German. The final shot of Prochnow is an ironic punch to the stomach.
A replicated, sea worthy, submarine was built based on two of the surviving U-Boats; one is at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, while the other is now a memorial in Laboe, Germany. Both can be toured. The replica was built by the original builder of the U-Boats. It was mostly hollow, used only for scenes at sea, while a second interior U-Boat was built for filming inside the submarine. Nearly all of the scenes were shot forward looking aft or vice versa. It truly gives you the feel of being on the submarine.
Das Boot is so very true to life. There is no glamorizing of any battle or any individual heroics. World War II German submariners only had a 25% survival rate.It was filmed mostly in sequence so the men’s beards grew naturally as the movie progressed. There have been many World War II movies, but few feel as sincere and horribly real as this one.
Jurgen Prochnow in Das Boot.
While I enjoyed this well made movie, I'll admit that it took me two nights to watch it all. At three and a half hours, the director's cut, which Peterson used to create more character development, is quite long. That's the advantage of watching a movie at home versus in the theater where you have to watch it in one go, without even being able to use the restroom without missing a portion of the film. It's always easier to forgive a longer running time from the comfort of your own sofa.
As Eric wrote, it's rather odd at first to be seeing a World War II film from the German point of view. Peterson gets away with this by being very careful of what he shows. Swastikas are rarely seen. Quite often the crew are out of uniform so we don't see any military paraphernalia on them. Likewise, none of the crew say "Heil Hitler" or use the Nazi salute. You'll notice when the sub enters the port, the captain salutes in the more traditional manner with hand to forehead rather than raised straight out. Anyone who mentions Hitler in a respectful way is treated derisively and the Captain actively questions his superiors. The implication is that the Captain and a few others are old campaigners who have been around since before the rise of Nazism and are somehow above it. We are also never shown clearly any of the "enemy". The ships that U-96 sinks are either never shown at all, or only shown in the dark. And the Captain and crew are shown to be regretful of the lives they've taken. It's obvious that all of these things were done to keep the audience from realizing that they were cheering on a crew of Nazis. And it succeeds. This is such a tense film and these guys go through such hell that you can't help but root for their survival.
The sets are amazingly well done and realistically claustrophobic. It really does feel as though you are crammed into a submarine with these sailors. You can almost smell the sweat and the stench of so many men living in such cramped quarters. Reportedly, cameraman Jost Vacano spent much of his time running back and forth-and most likely ducking his head a lot-to capture all of the action and keep things moving despite the limited number of locations.
While the movie captures the moments of tedium that made up the majority of the day-to-day life aboard this submarine, it is the action scenes that make it so great. There are several well filmed battle scenes scattered throughout the film where the submarine plays the mouse in a game of cat-and-mouse with ships on the surface. Sailing nearly blindly, without the benefit of modern day sonar, the sub is at the mercy of depth charges. It is the final act, which involves a dash through the straits of Gibraltar and the subsequent damage caused by this run that is the film's greatest sequence. It is crammed with tension and the hell that it is makes the final scene that much harder to watch.
Despite the addition of the new scenes provided by the director's cut, we only really learn a limited amount about these characters. We learn almost nothing about their background, but we do learn about what kind of men they are, or least a limited number of them. Of the cast, Jurgen Prochnow is indeed the standout. As the Captain, he has to remain calm at all times, even when making decisions that will affect every member of his crew. Prochnow plays it well, maintaining a stoic expression, while revealing uncertainty and fear in his eyes.
If tension is something you can measure, then this film must have more of it than almost any movie ever made. It's a gripping war film that will hold your attention throughout. The director's cut is worth watching, but be warned, it is quite an investment in time.
Jurgen Prochnow in Das Boot.
My brothers have left me little to add, especially since my opinion so closely mirrors theirs. Das Boot is a gripping, incredibly tense, claustrophobic, submarine picture with decent special effects and solid acting from the cast. To be sure it's a long watch but it never wavers in its ability to draw the viewer in. As Eric wrote, you feel almost as if you are a silent member of the crew enduring all the dangers and deprivations of warfare at sea. Every time they somehow survive a crisis, another one comes along that is even worse. The ending is an emotional gut punch that stays completely true to the realities of war.
As this is a movie told from the German point of view during WWII, I suppose it's understandable that some people would have a hard time getting past the basic premise. But, as both Eric and Scott pointed out, the script goes out of its way to make these men sympathetic. It's a very fine line and the movie succeeds at it. It really only works because the enemy (meaning us) is never seen close up. They are just faceless men on a burning ship or else shown in the form of airplanes flying overhead. Not a single Allied soldier is given even one line of dialogue.
To nitpick there are moments when the men are topside where you can tell they are not really at sea and you can spot the fact that when shown from the outside the sub is a miniature. The one plot point that bothered me was when the sub loses power and sinks to the ocean floor. It comes to rest 270 meters below the surface. A point at which the water pressure should have crushed the sub. In an earlier scene the sub begins to creak and shoot its bolts from the pressure and that happens when the sub is not nearly as deep. I get that the movie would have ended right then and there if the sub had collapsed completely but the fact that it does not did momentarily take me out of the reality of the story and remind me that I was watching a movie.
Jurgen Prochnow is indeed the standout performer in a cast filled with talented actors. Novelist Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who wrote the 1973 book on which this movie was based, criticized the acting; calling it hysterical and unrealistic, while at the same time acknowledging the talent of the cast. I can understand him feeling as if the characters in the movie behaved differently than how he envisioned them in his head while writing the book, but I think he was being overly critical. These men are facing life and death situations and it only seems natural that emotions would come into play. They may be hardened men at war but they are only human after all.
Das Boot is a gripping war picture and the most celebrated submarine movie ever made, and for good reason.
Photos © Copyright Bavaria Film (1981)