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, mould-ridden stench of the cramped U-96 submarine.
In charge is Captain-Lieutenant Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow), a veteran submariner at the age of 30. Also onboard is Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent assigned to U-96.
When U-96 first attacks a British convoy (sinking two ships with torpedoes) it is spotted by a destroyer and has to dive below its rated limit to evade depth charges. During the depth-charge attack, Obermaschinist (chief mechanic) Johann (Erwin Leder) panics and has to be restrained under threat of being shot.
Despite damages, the boat surfaces under the night sky. A torpedoed enemy tanker is still aﬂoat and burning so they shoot again, realising afterwards that there are sailors still on board. Helplessly, they watch as the burning, terriﬁed sailors throw themselves overboard and attempt to swim toward their boat. However, the captain, in line with his orders to avoid taking prisoners, commands his men to back the submarine away from the desperate sailors.
The U-boat is ordered to sail on to La Spezia, Italy, through the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow sea passage heavily guarded by the royal navy. Docking in the neutral port of Vigo in Spain, U-96 meets up with the German cargo ship SS Weser for resupply and then heads for Italy.
Approaching Gibraltar, the sub is strafed by a British ﬁghter plane and the navigator, Kriechbaum (Bernd Tauber), is badly wounded.
U-96 crash-dives but when it attempts to level off, the controls do not respond and the boat continues to descend into the depths. Just before being crushed by the tremendous atmospheric pressure, the boat lands on an undersea shelf at the depth of 280 meters (918.6 feet).
Over the next 16 hours, Johann works feverishly to make repairs to the electric batteries to restore propulsion before the oxygen runs out. Ultimately successful, the boat is able to surface and return to La Rochelle.
At dawn, shortly after Kriechbaum is brought to land and placed in an ambulance, Allied planes bomb and strafe the base, killing most of the crew. After the raid, Werner ﬁnds the captain mortally wounded and clinging to an iron mooring bollard on the dock as he watches his battered U-boat sink at its berth.
Just after the boat disappears under the water, the captain collapses and dies. Werner rushes to his body and surveys the grim scene with tears in his eyes.
Blue-eyed leading man 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.
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 audio 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