A German U-boat is tasked to destroy British naval and supply ships during WWII.
I decided to revisit Wolfgang Petersen’s epic “Das Boot” for the Germany leg of our World Tour Series. Watching an epic film like Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” for the first time is quite a mind-blowing experience; watching it for a second time helped me to further understand the sheer scope of this production.
Simply stated: “Das Boot” is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of submarine war movies. Other films like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide” barely hold a candle to the nail-biting, claustrophobic world of Petersen’s “Das Boot”. Where other submarine war movies try to excite you with action and excitement, this film tries to instill in you the fear of war that these men would’ve faced, tries to give you a glimpse of the boredom they would’ve felt before their missions, and it helps you to understand the way of life on a submarine during wartime. There are scenes that make the viewer feel like we’re right there in the darkened passages of that German U-boat with the men, waiting on baited breath to see if the submarine will ever surface again. It’s intense, invigorating, and exhausting, but it’s also and unforgettable journey, one that I will be happy to revisit again and again.
“Take pictures of the crew returning, not putting out to sea.” “Why?” “They’ll have grown beards by then.”
Our story follows Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jurgen Prochnow, “Dune (1984)”) as he puts out to sea with a submarine full of fresh recruits in 1942. Their objective: to harass and destroy British supply and war ships in the North Atlantic.
From the very beginning, even as we start to establish characters and themes, we can tell that the Captain is going to be a different kind of officer; he’s a man that first and foremost loves his men, even if they are at times drunken immature idiots. When we first meet the men under the captain’s control they are all hold up in a small seaside village, all of them drunk out of their minds, singing happily, the worries of tomorrow far from mind. The captain lets them have their fun, knowing that, come tomorrow, the men will have far grimmer things on their minds. I love this introduction scene to the men as well as the captain. Petersen does a great job of establishing many of the characters even while most of them are blackout drunk. For an example, we get an idea of the captain’s personality by an interaction with another officer whom is upset that some of the drunken soldiers urinated on him, The other officer seems livid, but the captain only laughs and says, “They pissed on me too.” The captain knows to worry about the major things and not sweat the small stuff. The captain sort of hangs back and lets the men do their thing at the beginning of the film; we get a sense that the captain is just sort of getting a feel for his crew as the voyage gets under weigh. In my opinion, this shows the maturity of the captain’s character; again, he’s not worried about the small stuff- he lets his subordinate officers take care of the daily duties on board, while he watches the progress calmly.
It’s later, in the heat of battle, that the captain shows his steel.
Once Petersen gets the crew out to sea, the real magic of this movie begins. It feels as if we’ve entered a floating empire commanded by the Captain, and Petersen’s first item on his agenda is to give a tour of this empire to see how cramped the quarters are- we even get hints of how filthy the living arrangements must be after many months (one toilet for everyone on board). In giving us a tour of the sub, Petersen gives us little vignettes of character interactions between the higher officers and the lower ranking soldiers. There are some really interesting minor interactions that take on more meaning as the film goes on, like, for example, the captain’s conversation with a soldier who traveled from Brazil to join up with the German army because he thought it was his duty, and he believed in what Germany was doing. From the captain’s reaction we get a sense that he thinks this soldier a little naïve about war, but we also get an idea of the captain’s own thought’s about Germany’s propaganda. The captain is a soldier; he’s a fighter; he’s not a politician. He follows his orders, but he doesn’t seem to swallow the lies being propagated by the government.
Through the tour of the ship and the introductions to all these side characters, we get an idea of what these people do for fun during their downtime as well as how the daily tasks are completed. For those familiar with story structure, Petersen does a great job of creating the ‘ordinary world’ of the sub before the men are thrust into battle, and when that call to action finally comes, it feels exhilarating.
“Hail and victory and sink ‘em all!”
After our captain and his crew get their orders, they find a British destroyer and soon engage in battle. I love the way that battles are shot in this film; most of the time, we are shown the perspective of the men inside the ship, so we have no idea what’s happening on the outside. Just like the men, we have to wait almost entire minutes to see if their torpedoes strike their targets; just like the men, we have to endure the flickering lights and cacophonous and claustrophobic chambers when depth charges are dropped upon them. It’s nerve-wracking, and soon our soldiers are no longer smiling and singing and enjoying themselves; they’re covered in grime and sweat, panting, exhausted.
The shift in atmosphere is wonderful. Petersen is able to make the U-boat feel like it’s the safest place in the world one moment, and then an instant later it feels like a death trap. The battle sequences themselves seem to stretch on for lengthy amounts of time, because again, it’s shown from the perspective of the men aboard the submarine. A lot of times, when there is a victory, the men only hear it; they do not actually see the flaming wreckage, though there is one scene where we see a sinking ship. The scene where the captain and his men look on as a ship sinks is pretty great. As the captain watches the allies’ ship go down, men jump from the deck into the water, and the captain is disheartened by the drowning men. “Why haven’t they been rescued?” he asks no one in particular. This scene gives us even greater insight into the captain’s persona. We realize that though he is a captain that commands soldiers, he takes no joy in killing men; he does his duty because he is ordered to do so, but he understands the value of life.
This film, much like “Downfall”, shows us that not all those who fought with Nazi Germany were part of the mindless anti-Semitic horde; most of them were just people following orders, not hung up on ideals, just trying to put food on the table for their families. By the end of this movie, the captain becomes one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve seen in a war film. “Das Boot” is an incredible film not only because it shows submarine warfare and life in a believable and captivating way, but also because it’s able to craft a world that feels as if it has depth and a dynamic personality of its own while providing insight into a group of soldiers that fought on the wrong side of history.
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