Director Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 World War II drama Das Boot (“The Boat”) was nominated for six Academy Awards – a virtual “mission impossible” for any foreign film.
Capturing in authentic claustrophobic detail the sights and, most notably, the sounds of underwater warfare, the film sidelines issues of nationalism to focus on the dangerous task of manning a submarine in war-torn waters.
Following a single mission to hunt down Allied ships in the North Atlantic – from La Rochelle to Spain and back – the action takes place mostly in the filthy, mold-ridden stench of the cramped U96 submarine. In charge is Captain-Lieutenant Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, a veteran submariner at the age of 30.
Blue-eyed leading man Jürgen Prochnow – until then unknown outside Germany – tempers the captain’s expected ironclad professionalism with subtle, believable humanity.
Although he acts as he must – letting enemy sailors drown rather than picking up prisoners, barking for clear reports even as his vessel sinks far below its depth capacity as the cabin rivets pop like gunfire – he is not without heart. The emotional truth of the terrible events lies between the lines of his daily diary entries.
Prochnow, later embraced by Hollywood with appearances in The Keep (1983), The English Patient (1996) and others, so embodies the captain that it is unimaginable to think that both Robert Redford and Paul Newman were slated for this vital role when the film was going to be a German-American concern.
Within the superb supporting cast, Herbert Grönemeyer – now a well-known German rock musician – plays Lieutenant Werner, a character drawn from Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, the war correspondent upon whose best-selling 1973 memoirs the script for Das Boot was based.
Much of the nerve-shattering realism of Das Boot is due to the three scale-model U-boats built for the production. Taking up a large portion of the film’s $14 million budget, they were later used in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).
As much a sonic as a visual experience, the entire film was shot silent: it was impossible to record live in the submarine interiors.
The subtitled version is considered definitive, with all German and English dialogue added later – many of the German actors dubbing their own voices for the spoken English version.
Captain-Lieutenant Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock
First Lieutenant/Number One
U A Ochsen