Das Boot: Heroism in Tragedy

A brief synopsis and review of the film Das Boot directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Das Boot is a 1981 movie that tells the story of a fictional German U-boat (U-96) and her crew’s journey in the Atlantic theatre of war in 1941. There are two main ideas to keep in one’s head as they approach both the movie and this article: the protagonists in this movie are Nazis, and this movie does glorify war to an extent. However, these two superficial parts of this movie do almost nothing to detract from the quality of the cinematography and story.

The movie begins in the North of Occupied France in a town near some German U-boat pens. The story follows a young German war correspondent (Lt. Werner) placed on U-96 to produce some propaganda regarding the U-boats, the pride of the German Navy. Lt. Werner arrives at a saloon of sorts filled with debaucherous sailors. He meets the captain and head mechanic of U-96. Here is where we gain our first glimpse at what will happen in a few short scenes. These sailors are almost too drunk, they seem to drink to forget, not to have fun. What are they trying to forget? 

The following morning the captain and his officers prepare to depart the pen. This is where the first of the most impressionable shots of the film is made. In an almost seamless pan from the opening of the U-boat pens, the camera tracks the captain making the rounds. The life of the shot, as it follows these men, is extremely vibrant. We see the captain glance at a particularly beat up U-boat in for repairs while in the next pen lies U-96, the captain’s very own well kept ship. 

U-96 then sets out for patrol of the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission, and the mission of all German U-boats in World War II, was to interrupt trade. The United States made itself the “Arsenal of Democracy” and supplied arms to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union during the war. The United Kingdom had been completely cut off from mainland Europe in 1941 when the German blitzkrieg defeated France. They had a strong Mediterranean fleet, but the Atlantic was simply too vast for them to adequately maintain naval supremacy. With the Americans providing the majority of the raw materials and war equipment for the British, defense of these vital trade routes was on a convoy by convoy basis. Each convoy of food, weapons, steel, and whatever else the British needed was defended by a few destroyers. The German Navy was severely diminished after the Treaty of Versailles when they lost World War I. The army and airforce, having the most political control in Nazi Germany, were able to obtain the most support for rearmament. The Navy was left with the funds and resources for a specialized U-boat fleet (not including the battleship Bismarck). This is where the historical context for U-96 comes into play. The supply routes between America and the United Kingdom were vital for keeping the British from capitulating to the Germans; and therefore, the German Navy dispatched their U-boats on the mission to starve out Britain from their American ally and force their capitulation. 

U-96 leaves port to a band playing, people waving, and the crew clean-shaven on the deck eager to begin the hunt. Shortly after leaving port, another beautiful shot arises. The battle-hardened captain tells his second in command to perform a mock alarm drill. Here, the camera starts from the stern of the boat and in almost one continuous shot races toward the bow. This drill simulates the need to quickly submerge the ship in case of being spotted by a destroyer. All men must rush forward to lean the bow downwards. The sheer emotion contained in the bridge when only the officers are standing around (not knowing it was a drill) waiting for an order conveys a glimpse of the tension to come. The captain then advises the crew that this was a drill; the emotion then floods out of the bridge as quickly as it had entered.

To shroud the pacing and suspense of the film, this review will skip the hunt sections. However, for the next section, it is noted that at least an hour of the film has been within the confines of a dark and damp submarine. After the hunt, the captain is called to a neutral port in Spain for a covert meeting with German naval operatives. Just before, he learns that his ship, after restocking with supplies, will be repositioned to the Mediterranean. This was essentially a death sentence for the crew.

The British did not only have a lifeline between them and America. They also received supplies, soldiers, and arms from their colonies and allies in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. To keep this lane open, they had a more substantial naval presence that practiced area control. They also controlled all major entrances and exits to and from the Mediterranean. They had heavy fortifications at Gibraltar and the Suez. These included gun emplacements, overlapping destroyer patrols, and patrol aircraft, all aimed at preventing enemy transit between the Atlantic and Mediteranean. This is in addition to the already strange system of mountains and valleys that lie beneath the strait, that are especially difficult to transport a submarine through. U-96 had her work cut out.

Due to the perilous nature of his orders, the captain attempts to have Lt. Werner and the head mechanic, whose wife was having a child, leave the ship. This is where the third and in my opinion most impactful shot of the film takes place. These men had been at sea, under constant stress, in dingy lighting, inhaling diesel fumes for months now. The entirety of their food had all but spoiled, they hadn’t bathed, and we were with them seeing their transition from clean-cut sailors to primal castaways. They board the ship they met in Spain, climb the stairs, and enter a room. They enter this room that is filled with light, clean air, and fresh food. Not just fresh food, but German delicacies that would only be enjoyed by true heroes. These same bearded dirty submarine officers are met with the clean-cut uniformed German naval officers. There had only been one scene prior with reference to anything political (we’ll get to that). The German naval officers greet the officers of U-96 with a Nazi salute. The crew does not reciprocate. This completely unexpected meeting, with the food, the light, and the air blindsides the captain. It’s the only experience that seems to dumbfound the captain. As the chief officer blabs on about the captain, dying to hear about his adventure-expecting a boastful response-the captain looks at the officer as if he, the captain, was dreaming or dead. As the surreality of the situation subsides, the captain and his officers gorge on the buffet. The captain is advised, and therefore advises Lt. Werner and the head mechanic that they will not be allowed to disembark. Both accept their fate.

Once resupplying is finished, they depart for Gibraltar. The captain and navigator agree that it is suicidal, but from the depths of despair, the score swells, and the captain is enlightened with a plan: push through the naval patrols and coast in with the currents to bypass the British naval defenses. The crew is filled with determination, and the cliche line “this just might work” echoes. However, it does not work, the crew is struck by a patrol aircrafts strafing run and begins to plummet towards the bottom of the ocean. Submarines are only capable of reaching certain depths before they succumb to pressure and implode. They sink, and as the ship begins to pop at the seams, they land atop a seamount; for the moment their imminent death seems to be postponed. 

The ship is severely damaged from the strafing run and is taking on water. All men except the captain begin the effort to stop the leaks. Miraculously the crew plugs the leaks. However, they have taken on too much water to successfully resurface. They need electricity to power the pumps and the air filtration systems, but all batteries aboard the ship are damaged, and they only have a few hours of oxygen left. It is up to the chief mechanic to save the ship. Hours go by, the mechanic is still working as if possessed. At the last moment, the mechanic arises and advises the captain that the batteries are working again, and they can now begin to think of resurfacing. In another miraculous turn of events, the engines fire up after being completely flooded and they successfully resurface. Another great shot is here as the captain climbs the ladder and opens the hatch to fresh air, the entire crew crowds around the opening gasping for the fresh ocean air. 

The music is happy, and since their ship is severely damaged, they return to France. They approach the dock, there are more high ranking naval officers there, a band plays, and people cheer. However, something isn’t right. The pen is more damaged than before, and as the crew clammers out of their would-be-coffin, planes dive out of the sky. They strafe the pen, sink U-96 and kill the entire crew except for Lt. Werner.

As an American, this movie should have been rejoiceful. The ship is sunk, the Nazis are dead, and there is one less U-boat on the prowl. However, the ending isn’t that simple, obviously. In that political scene I mentioned earlier,  the South American officer aboard U-96 was convinced by the German propaganda machine that it was his duty to return to the fatherland and help the cause. He is new to the ship, but still a smart and useful crew member. During dinner one night, the captain and his more experienced cohort of officers prod this young Nazi. They make fun of him and ridicule him for his idiocy in joining the war effort. Their mission on that ship was to protect their families; they had no room for politics. They end the scene by playing “A Long Road to Tipperary,” a common song for British soldiers and sailors to sing. This seems to disconnect their attachment to the Nazi cause. Their efforts at sinking convoys also obscures their actions-they fire and sink these ships yet we see none of it, we only hear the distant booms of torpedo impacts. In one scene, they return to finish off a burning ship, they see burning men jumping off the ship. They have compassion for them, and the carelessness of the Allies for not rescuing the stranded sailors makes us feel like the U-boat was at least not completely morally culpable in this situation. 

We become attached to these characters through the wonderful performances of Jurgen Prochnow and Klaus Wennemann. The beautiful cinematography at every turn ensures that we feel the angst at every moment the crew senses it, we feel the relief when they survive another would be death, we feel the shock as we witness the crew’s death. 

However, no matter how disconnected this crew is from the Nazis, and no matter the emotions one may feel towards the specific characters of this movie, there is no debate, they were despicable. They killed American merchant marines for the direct advancement of the Nazi war machine, which murdered and oppressed millions. The shock should be followed with gratitude that this U-boat would never surface again and that its expert crew would never man another submarine. For if it had, then my ancestors or my friends’ ancestors may have been killed. This is the dog-faced reality of war. There is death, there is shock. There may be extremely courageous and admirable actions like those of the chief mechanic; however the eternal outcome is death. It is not something to celebrate, glorify, or want. 

This movie is highly realistic in its depiction of submarine tactics. Without a doubt, the film contains some feats of cinematography and makes for a great story. One thing this film is not, however, is an accurate representation of war, no film can be. The emotional rollercoaster we ride when watching it is jarring. However, in war there is no “rollercoaster” of emotions, for they never resurface, they only plummet as the casualties rise. In war there is only tragedy. So let us not hope, but act toward preventing the tragedy of war in our future. With the ending of this film, and the knowledge of war’s true cost, the cause to maintain peace in our time should remain as strong as ever.

This article was written by William Howard currently based in Southampton, New York. Please send an email to wjh327@nyu.edu to get in touch.
Photo Credit
: the movie Das Boot

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