This post was earlier published by me at PassionForCinema
Growing up in the port city of Vishakapatnam, or Vizag, one of my favorite past times as a kid, was to watch the submarines, going out from the harbor. My fascination with submarines, was also fuelled by the movie Ice Station Zebra, which I saw on the big screen. My first visit inside a submarine was as a kid, when our school, took us on a trip, to see the interiors. Vizag, being the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command, has many submarines and battleships at dock. Around that time too, heard a lot of stories about a famous battle fought during the 1971 war, when a Pakistani sub Ghazi, came close to the Vizag coast, and sunk an Indian battleship, INS Khukri, and which in turn was sunk by the Indian Navy. To date a fin of that submarine is exhibited on the Vizag beach. As I grew up, I started to read a lot about World war II, and grew more interested in it.
While I did hear of the U Boats, and the famous Wolf Packs, that traveled the Atlantic, my first exposure to them, was Alistair Maclean’s novel HMS Ulysses( his first and to date his best one too). The book deals with the story of a British naval convoy and how it has to fight its way through the U Boats. And that’s when I could manage to get some more material on U Boats. U Boat is the short form of Unterseeboot, meaning “Under Sea Boat” in German. Though used for military operations, their main aim was to cause economic blockades of the allied nations, by sinking merchant ships. U-Boats gained fame with the sinking of the commercial liner Lusitania in 1920, and they would be a part of military folklore during the Battle of Atlantic in the Second World War.
Das Boot, a 1981 movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen, is the story of men abroad one such U Boat. The title itself means the Boat in German, all over Germany, U Boat was the common word for any submarine. The movie was based on a novel by Lothar-G’¼nther Buchheim, who wrote it based on his personal experiences in U-96. The movie is narrated by Lt. Werner( Herbert Gronemeyer), who is assigned as a war correspondent on German submarine U-96 in 1941. And that’s where we see the main characters on the submarine
The captain played by Jurgen Prochnow, nicknamed as Kaleu, and called as Der Alte( the Old Man) by his crew. A battle hardened veteran, he does not believe in the Nazi ideology, and is looked up to by his younger crew members as a kind of a surrogate father.
The chief engineer played by Klaus Wenemman. Quiet and well respected. Worried about his family back home in Cologne, especially after he listens to news about an Allied air raid.
1st Lieutenant/ Watch Officer played by Hubertus Bengsch, one of the few crew members who is a die hard Nazi, and believes in Wehrmacht supremacy. Hates the Allies, after losing his fianc’©e in a British bombing raid.
2nd Lieutenant/ Watch Officer played by Martin Semmelroge. Crude, vulgar in speech, yet behind all his macho posturing lies a sensitive side. He also decodes messages using the Enigma code machine.
The U Boat leaves to cheers from the harbor and a band playing “Muss Ich Den”, Werner however finds that life on the U Boat is not the kind of glamour job, which was the general impression at that time. During the war, being a U Boat soldier, was a kind of prestige tag, you were considered as a hero, dashing and dynamic. In reality it was just long hours of boredom, and spending life in a totally cramped space with other men. He gets to make friends with other crew members notably Cadet Ullman, who is concerned about his French fianc’©e, who is now carrying his child, as the Partisans would not take it kindly, if they did find out. The rest of the movie deals with the men, their struggle and finally their journey back home.
After years of watching Hollywood World War II movies, depicting Germans as either bumbling idiots or bloodthirsty tyrants, it is refreshing to watch a movie, that shows the view from the other side, and depicts Germans as they are, not saints, not sinners, but just normal people doing their job and victim of circumstances. The characters are totally fleshed out in detail, right down to their accents. Considering that Hollywood believes every German speaks only in one single accent, here director Petersen, actually takes care to show the different dialects here. The Chief Mechanic Johann, who loves the boat like his own child, speaks with an Austrian accent, while you have another Petty Officer Maat, speaking in a Hamburg accent. Petersen states this in the DVD interview, that crew persons for the U Boat were recruited from all over Germany and Austria, and he wanted to reflect this diversity.
Das Boot is not the standard Hollywood “Lets get together, and have a ball of a time, shooting down the Nazis” kinda flick. What Pietersen does is put the camera right inside the submarine, and shoot the characters as is. At no stage does the focus shift, no flashbacks of happy times in Berlin or Vienna, we know the backgrounds only through the characters dialogues. And it strips away all the glamour associated with submarine warfare. Pietersen deliberately avoids any panoramic shots of the submarine or sea, and totally focuses on the claustrophobic interiors. As an audience, you actually feel the claustrophobia, and most of the shots are by a hand held camera. As the crew scurries around, the camera just tracks them, following them, pulling you into that state, where you begin to feel the same way. Also the bonding between the crew members is shot brilliantly, without getting too mawkish or melodramatic. The captain being seen as surrogate father, was quite normal, considering most of the crew were callow youngsters, just picked up, and away from their families for months and years, he was a kind of father figure to them.
Also the reality on the submarine is shown as is. Most of the time it is just boredom, listening to Morse code on radio, sighting the occasional plane, practicing dives. The crew spend time, gossiping, joking and fooling around. One of the best scenes is when the submarine is hit by depth charges, but can’t surface, because of the enemy ships. The crew has to be silent to avoid detection, and Johann, has a mental breakdown. Brilliantly shot. Another great scene is a British destroyer that has been shot by the submarine, and the crew of the ship, swimming in the waters, leaping overboard, and the Captain is forced to abandon the prisoners. Das Boot works as an anti war movie, as it shows the brutal and gritty reality of war. Right from the crew members unshaven , sunken faces to the claustrophobic shots of the submarine’s interior, Petersen crafts a movie, that does not compromise any stage with what it wants to depict.
Sadly after Wolfgang Petersen crossed over to Hollywood, his movies have not been the same. Barring In the Line of Fire, his other movies like Air Force One, The Perfect Storm, Troy, Poseidon have been plain mediocre. I guess this is the Hollywood effect, John Woo made some of his best movies in Hong Kong, and we all know what happened after he came to Hollywood.
Jurgen Prochnow who plays the captain, later went on to act in movies like Dune, Beverly Hills Cop II, Body of Evidence, Air Force One. But again most of the movies he was either the baddie or some side character. I just wonder why most of the talented actors from non English speaking countries, end up playing either baddies or sidey characters in Hollywood.
Herbert Gronemeyer who played the narrator, later ended up as a popular singer. One of the best performances though comes from Erwin Leder, as the mechanic Johann, who suffers a near mental breakdown.
Das Boot is truly a modern day classic, not just for its detailing and research, but also for the depth of its characterization, the relationships it depicts, and its stark realistic portrayal of the Atlantic battle during World War II. A movie not to be missed at any cost. Try checking out the Das Boot: The Director’s Cut, which is around 3 hrs long, and has a great sound and visual quality.