In an opening scene unparalleled in war movies, The Captain* (Jurgen Prochnow) is driving along a coast road with Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent despatched to accompany U-96 on her next voyage, when a group of drunken sailors appear, blocking the road. They obligingly reposition themselves onto a small promontory by the roadside and from this vantage point relieve themselves all over the captain’s Mercedes. Werner is aghast. The Captain blandly identifies them as his crew.
They complete the drive without further urination incidents and at the Bar Royal, where a blowsy singer is gyrating on stage. This is the venue of a party in honour of the newly promoted Captain Thomsen (Otto Sander), the u-boat’s former 1st Lieutenant. Here, The Captain meets Thomsen’s replacement (Hubertus Bengsch), a haughty type with a rod so far up his own arse that it’s playing the xylophone on the fillings of his teeth. He complains that “the men harassed me”. Prodded for details, he stammers haplessly. “You mean they pissed on you?” The new 1st Lieutenant nods. “Me too,” The Captain says.
The party degenerates into drunkenness, lewd conduct with the singer, vomiting and the discharge of a firearm into a mural decorating the walls of the bar. Thomsen gives a profane speech, karate chops the cork out of a bottle of champagne and guzzles it like it was lemonade.
Thus the first quarter of an hour of ‘Das Boot’. A short sequence follows as The Captain addresses his men before they board the U-96, then the remaining three plus hours – with the single exception of a short stop for refuelling – play out at sea; or, more specifically, play out in the cramped compartments and tight corridors of the u-boat. Much of the action takes place beneath the waves. ‘Das Boot’ is steeped in sweaty claustrophobia and Wolfgang Peterson’s genius as director is that he portrays this state of being – fifty men breathing second-hand air and living in each other’s pockets as they wait for a cry of “ALERT” or the confirmation of a convoy nearby. War is hell; but much of war is also ennui: waiting around, killing time, time ticking away and wearing at your nerves; wondering when you’re going to see some action, never mind that you could die as a result of that action.
When the U-96 first sets sail, Werner flits around the conning tower with his camera. The Captain admonishes him to take the men’s pictures when the u-boat returns hope, explaining that they’ll have beards by then. “It would shame the Brits to see mere boys give them hell … I feel ancient around these kids, like I’m on some children’s crusade.”
A measure of Peterson’s commitment to realism is that he shot ‘Das Boot’ (at the time – 1981 – the most expensive German film ever) in sequence over the period of a year. To quote the highly readable Wikipedia article on the film’s production, “this ensured natural growth of beards and hair, increasing skin pallor, and signs of strain on the actors, who had, just like real U-boat men, spent many months in a cramped, unhealthy atmosphere.” The interiors were life-size reconstructions built from original u-boat blueprints. Likewise exteriors. The reconstruction used for exterior shots was rented out, during production, to Spielberg and makes a cameo appearance in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. (The Wikipedia article provides a wealth of information on technical aspects of the production, as well as the different versions of the film, including its incarnation as a six-hour TV mini-series. My review is based on the 209-minute director’s cut theatrical print.)
Although Lothar-Gunter Buchheim (on whose technically precise but prosaic novel ‘Das Boot’ is based) blasted Peterson for what he saw as an over-reliance on Hollywood style effects and set-pieces, it’s hard to imagine a less Hollywood-like war movie. It’s not just the length (three and a half hours) or the proliferation of non-action scenes (the sheer frustration of inactivity becomes as effective an exercise in agonising tension as anything Hitchcock achieved); it’s the fact that the captain and crew of the U-96 don’t act the way the movies have taught us they should.
Only the 1st Lieutenant spouts the party line, which The Captain mocks by leading the crew in an English-language rendition of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ (“surely the song won’t offend your ideologies”). Everyone else comes off as apolitical. The effect is brilliantly reductive: you never really think of them as Nazis, consequently you quickly stop thinking of them as Germans; ultimately, they’re simply men, most of them awfully young, crammed together in a tight space and thrust into the middle of a war they’d rather not be fighting.
If the ‘Tipperary’ scene challenges national identities and stereotypes – ie. the very nature of being on one ‘side’ or another – two other moments, one raucous, one subdued, reinforce the challenge. There’s Thomsen’s speech, in which he excoriates Hitler and Churchill (basically, a front-line veteran’s fuck-you to the leaders whose decisions put him on that front-line); and there’s Werner’s conversation with Cadet Ullmann (Martin May), a young man terrified that his French fiancée, who’s pregnant, will suffer at the hands of partisans if it’s revealed that her child is half-German. This is not the usual stuff of war movies. It is, however, the stuff of human drama.
And that’s what ‘Das Boot’ is: great human drama. The finale – a heavy-handed statement on the futility of war – threatens to tip over into melodrama, but it’s the only niggle in a rivetting, intelligent film. Because it sidelines politics and causation, ‘Das Boot’ perhaps doesn’t shine a torch into the darker corners of Germany’s still-recent history the way ‘Downfall’ does, or ‘The Lives of Others’, but it’s still a milestone in German cinema, a weighty entry on the personal faves list, and unsurpassed in Wolfgang Peterson’s filmography.
*The character, based on Captain-Lieutenant Henreich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the real-life captain of the U-96 (who served as a consultant on the film), is referred to only as “Captain” or “der Alte” (“the old man”). Several other characters are referred to solely by their rank.