“Das Boot”, or by its less awesome English name “The Boat”, is the quintessential submarine movie. I would even go so far as claiming it to be the best submarine movie ever, but I might take heat from that statement. When I watched it as a miniseries back in the eighties, I was completely sold by it. I swallowed each episode and could not wait until next week for the next episode. Then I read the book and was surprised to find how close an adaption Wolfgang Petersen made of it. This spring I even went to the Buchheim museum in Germany to see their exhibition of the story.
Buchheim, the author of the book, was a war correspondent during the Second World War and went himself on a tour with a submarine. While the novel (and hence the movie) is not specifically about this tour, it heavily inspired him and in the story, we follow his alter ego, Leutnant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent assigned a tour on the submarine U-96.
The movie starts on land. There is a big party for officers where everybody gets ridiculously drunk. Almost desperately drunk actually, as if this was the last party. On the way back to the submarine we see the rest of the crew, no less drunk. And then we are on board the U-96 for 99% of the rest of the movie. “Das Boot” is distinct from most other submarine movies by not having a particular narrative structure, expect perhaps that of an odyssey. We live on the submarine with the crew. Listen to the Captain, only called Kaleun (short for Kapitänleutnant) (Jürgen Prochnow), the banter of the crew and share their experience. Sometimes they are immensely bored, trapped in this tiny tube with nothing to do. They experience storms, throwing the boat and everything in it hither and there. Then we have action when U-96 encounters a convoy, quickly scores a couple of hits, but then become the hunted as British destroyers chases them with deepwater charges. Seriously, there is nothing more claustrophobic than being trapped 150 below sea level with loud sonar pings hitting the hull.
U-96 miraculously escapes but is heavily battered. However, instead of being instructed to go back to base for repairs, it is ordered to reload in Spain and then go to La Spezia, Italy. Through the Gibraltar, the most heavily guarded passage on Earth. A total suicide mission and almost a disaster for U-96, lying grounded at 280 m at the bottom of the strait with multiple and critical failures.
It is not so much what is happening as the experience of it happening that is the strength of the movie. This is not a gung-ho crew out to sink some ships, but a group of men trying to stay alive and sane doing what they are ordered to do. With one notable exception, they are not Nazis but German sailors. They are good at what they do, but they are not out there doing it for the Führer. We sense that very strongly. But more than that we feel the claustrophobic fear. The dirt and sweat. The very tight space. The pressure, on the hull, but also on the mind, threatening to throw people into madness. “Das Boot” is so good at this that it sucks you in and you hold your breath and whisper when a destroyer is passing overhead and you jump with adrenalin at the scream of “ALAAAARM!!!” when the submarine has to dive in the manner of seconds to avoid being shot to pieces. It is a very submersive experience, literally.
For a war movie, there is surprisingly little shooting. There is also surprisingly little visually of the war. Inside the submarine you do not see anything, you feel it. Only when the submarine surfaces and watches the burning victim of their torpedo do we get the visual impact and then it hits in the gut as burning sailors are trying to jump ship. This is a lot more about the mental experience of being on a submarine during the war than the war itself and you could probably make the same movie with a crew from any other country, except that the submarine war and the staggering losses is unique to Germany.
To achieve all that, Buchheim wrote a great book, but it is Wolfgang Petersen who created the experience in the movie, and it is that experience that sells it.
“Das Boot” was nominated for six Academy Awards, but did not win any. Must have been a hell of a year.
Strongly recommended. Go for the directors cut at 209 minutes.