Das Boot (German for The Boat) is a 1981 feature film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, adapted from a novel of the same name by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Hans-Joachim Krug, former first officer on U-219, served as a consultant, as did Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the captain of the real U-96.
The movie has an anti-war message. One of Petersen's goals was to guide the audience through "a journey to the edge of the mind" (the film's German tagline [Eine Reise ans Ende des Verstandes]), showing "what war is all about." Petersen heightened suspense by very rarely showing any external views of the submarine unless it is running on the surface and relying on sounds to convey action outside the boat, thus showing the audience only the claustrophobic interior the crew would see. The original 1981 version cost DM 32 million to make. The director's meticulous attention to detail resulted in a historically accurate movie that was a critical and financial success, grossing over $70 million worldwide between its two releases in 1981 and 1997. Its high production cost ranks it among the most expensive films in the history of German cinema. It was the second most expensive up until that time, except for Metropolis. However, Metropolis was made in the 1920s, a period of hyperinflation in Germany, which makes direct cost comparisons between the two eras difficult.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), who has been assigned as a war correspondent on the German Submarine U-96 in October 1941. He joins its Captain (Jürgen Prochnow), who is only named as der Alte ("the Old Man") or Kaleu (short for his rank of Kapitänleutnant) and Chief Engineer (Leitender Ingenieur or LI, played by Klaus Wennemann). As the U-96 officers, including the "1WO" (the First [watch] Officer, played by Hubertus Bengsch) and "2WO" (the Second [watch] Officer, played by Martin Semmelrogge) drink in a cabaret, Kapitänleutnant Phillip Thomsen (played by Otto Sander), celebrating his Ritterkreuz award, gives a crude drunken speech in which he mocks Adolf Hitler.
The next morning, they sail out of the harbor to cheering crowds and a band playing "Muss Ich Denn", Thomsen (now sober) sends them off by saying "Hail victory and happy hunting!" Werner is given a full tour of the boat by Chief Bosun Lumprecht and becomes acquainted with the rest of the crew. As time passes, he learns the routine of being crammed together with forty people in a small space. Werner can neither relate to the officers nor the tough enlisted crew. The boredom is only broken by occasional airplane sightings, practice crash dives, and listening to morse code on the radio (which are orders going to other far-off boats). He is able to make friends with Cadet Ullman (Martin May), and sympathizes with his problem--as the French partisans might kill his French fiancée, Françoise, if it is revealed her child is half-German.
Initially, the U-96 fails to make contact with the enemy but finally they're informed that U-32 has sighted a convoy somewhere within their search grid. A thick fog reduces visibility on the surface to zero, and they dive so that they can use the hydrophones. They locate a British destroyer and while preparing to attack, the U-96 is itself hit by depth charges. The boat is lightly damaged and they resurface safely a few hours later.
After a week of enduring a relentless storm, with little rest or sleep, even the sea-hardened crew is pushed to the limit. They are somewhat cheered when they randomly meet Thomsen's boat, but the Captain realizes that a huge part of the sea is unpatrolled when two boats operate in such close proximity. The misfortunes, which range from large to small - horrible weather, a crewman (Pilgrim) nearly getting swept off the boat, a crabs outbreak, learning their favorite soccer team (Schalke) lost, never hearing from Thomsen or other boats again, and radio broadcasts detailing how the war is turning against Germany - sends the crew's morale even lower. Shortly after the storm ends, the U-96 encounters a British convoy and, with support from several U-boats in the area, torpedoes the convoy. They are forced to dive below the submarine's rated limits when they are spotted by a destroyer, and they sustain damage, but they cannot surface until they're sure that the pursuit has ended.
The entire crew falls silent to minimize noise and avoid detection. Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) has a mental breakdown and is restrained before the Captain threatens to shoot him with his Walther P38. The U-96 sustains heavy damage and nearly implodes while Werner retreats to the officers' bunk with one of the LI's pictures from home. He wakes up six hours later, amazed that they survived. After hours of silent running, the boat resurfaces safely in darkness. There is one tanker remaining afloat and on fire. The Captain orders a single torpedo to be launched into her, and the crew is stunned when they see surviving British sailors are desperately leaping overboard, swimming towards them. Following standing orders not to take prisoners, the Captain gives the command to abandon the doomed sailors and backs the ship away. As the Captain is updating the ship's logs, Johann apologizes to the Captain for his actions, and is forgiven in consideration of his several tours of duty. Despite a radio message about another convoy contact from Captains Kupsch and Stackmann, U-96 has nearly exhausted its fuel supply and must return to base.
The worn-out U-boat crew look forward to returning home to La Rochelle in time for Christmas, but the ship is ordered to La Spezia, Italy, which means passing through the Straits of Gibraltar — an area firmly controlled by the British navy. The destination has been changed as the U-96 has been assigned to help secure Field Marshal Rommel's supply routes in Northern Africa. Unable to let Werner and the LI perish, the Captain arranges for them to be taken ashore once they stop to resupply.
Before going to Gibraltar, U-96 makes a secret night rendezvous in neutral Vigo, Spain with the Weser, an interned German liner that clandestinely provides U-boats with fuel, torpedoes, and other supplies. After months in the filthy, cramped submarine, living on canned food and moldy bread, the crew clearly feels out of place amidst the appointments of the luxury liner. The U-96 officers meet pampered, decadent Nazi officers who believe German propaganda about the glorious life of the "grey wolves." In a subtle indication of how the crew's opinions of one another is changing that the liner's officers mistake the 1WO for the U-boat's captain, as he is the only officer in uniform, but he firmly corrects them. The following sumptuous meal has many features of a Henkersmahlzeit, the final meal before an execution.
During the dinner, the Captain receives his orders for the mission from the Weser's naval attaché, as well as a radiogram from headquarters denying his request for Werner and the LI to be sent home. The crew finishes resupplying and the U-96 departs Spain for Gibraltar. The Captain plans to take advantage of the surface currents in the narrow Straits, and enter the Straits with his engines off, submerging only at the last possible moment. They are nearly successful, but as they prepare to dive, the boat is spotted and attacked by a British fighter plane, wounding the navigator. The Captain sends the boat south, towards the African coast, at full speed; British ships begin closing in and she is forced to dive. When the ship attempts to level off, the forward diving planes do not respond and the ship continues to sink.
Just before the ship sinks below the depth at which the water pressure would crush it, the submarine is lucky to catch on a shelf at 280 meters (918 feet). However, it has sustained critical damage while passing through Gibraltar, and the crew must make numerous repairs before they run out of oxygen. To preserve oxygen, all crewmen who are not working go to sleep and breathe from their rescue gear. After over sixteen hours, they surface by blowing out their ballast of water, and limp home under the cover of darkness to La Rochelle.
Their return to La Rochelle on Christmas Eve is a little less triumphant than their departure; the boat is battered, the crew is pale and weary after their long tour. The wounded navigator is taken ashore to a waiting ambulance, but as soon as the fleet commander comes aboard for an inspection, Allied planes strafe the facilities. Werner, the LI, the 1WO, Pilgrim, Frenssen, the Chief Bosun, Schwalle, and a few other members of the enlisted crew take refuge in the secure U-boat bunker, though most of the men are wounded. After the raid, Werner leaves the bunker and is horrified when he sees the lifeless bodies of Johann, Ullmann, and the 2WO, their bodies riddled with bullets and crushed by concrete. Looking towards the entry passage he finds the Captain, with multiple bullet wounds and bleeding from the mouth, watching the U-96 sink at the dock. When the Captain collapses after the conning tower disappears, Werner rushes to his side and looks about helplessly.
The movie features characters who speak German with a regional dialect. Director Wolfgang Petersen states in his DVD audio commentary that young men from throughout Germany and Austria were recruited for the film. He wanted faces and accents that would accurately reflect the diversity of the Third Reich circa 1941. All of the main actors speak fluent English as well as German; when the film was dubbed into English, each actor recorded his own part (with the exception of Martin Semmelrogge, who only dubbed his own role in the Director's Cut). The German version is actually dubbed as well; the film itself was shot "silent", since in any case the dialogue spoken on-set would have been drowned out by the gyroscopes in the special camera developed for filming. While several actors went on to even greater success, Wolfgang Petersen established himself as a long-standing fixture as a Hollywood director and producer.
Production for this movie originally began in 1976. Several American directors were considered, and the Kaleu (Kapitänleutnant) was to be played by Robert Redford. Disagreements sprang up among various parties and the project was shelved. Another Hollywood production was attempted with other American directors in mind, this time with the Kaleu to be portrayed by Paul Newman. This effort primarily failed due to technical concerns, for example, how to film the close encounter of the two German submarines at sea during a storm.
The final scene of the captain collapsing gives the impression that he dies from injuries, which was the director's intention. However, the real captain actually survived and visited the submarine set and met with Jürgen Prochnow during filming.
Several different sets were used. Two full-size mock-ups of a Type VIIC boat were built, one representing the portion above water for use in outdoor scenes, and the other a cylindrical tube on a motion mount for the interior scenes. The mock-ups were built according to U-boat plans from Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
The outdoor mock-up was basically a shell propelled with a small engine, and stationed in La Rochelle, France and has a history of its own. One morning the production crew walked out to where they kept it afloat and found it missing. Someone had forgotten to inform the crew that an American filmmaker had rented the mock-up for his own movie shooting in the area. This filmmaker was Steven Spielberg and the movie he was shooting was Raiders of the Lost Ark. A few weeks later, during production, the mock-up cracked in a storm and sank, was recovered and patched to stand in for the final scenes. Contrary to what some may believe, the full-sized mock-up was used during the Gibraltar surface scenes; the bomber plane (a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber) and rockets were real while the British ships were models.
A mock-up of a conning tower was placed in a water tank at the Bavaria Studios in Munich for outdoor scenes not requiring a full view of the boat's exterior. When filming on the outdoor mockup or the conning tower, jets of cold water were hosed over the actors to simulate the breaking ocean waves. During the filming there is a scene where actor Jan Fedder (Pilgrim) falls off the bridge while the U-boat is surfaced and lands in the front and breaks several ribs. This scene was not scripted and during the take one of the actors exclaims "Man Overboard" in order to draw attention to Fedder. Petersen, who at first did not realise this was an accident said "Good idea, Jan. We'll do that one more time!". However since Fedder was genuinely injured and had to be hospitalised this was the only take available and eventually Petersen kept this scene in the film. In this scene, the pained expression on Fedder's face is authentic and not acted. Petersen also had to rewrite Fedder's character for a portion of the film so that the character was portrayed as bedridden. For his scenes later in the movie Fedder had to be brought to and from set from the hospital since he suffered a concussion while filming his accident scene. Fedder eventually recovered enough and Pilgrim is seen on his feet from the scene when the U-96 abandons the British sailors. A ⅓ sized full hull operating model was used for underwater shots and some surface running shots, in particular the meeting in stormy seas with another U-boat. The tank was also used for the shots of British sailors jumping from their ship; a small portion of the tanker hull was constructed for these shots.
The interior U-boat mock-up was mounted five metres off the floor and was shaken, rocked, and tilted up to 45 degrees by means of a hydraulic apparatus, and was vigorously shaken to simulate depth charge attacks. Petersen was admittedly obsessive about the structural detail of the U-boat set, remarking that "every screw" in the set was an authentic facsimile of the kind used in a World War II U-boat. In this he was considerably assisted by the numerous photographs Lothar-Günther Buchheim took during his own voyage on the historical U-96, some of which had been published in his 1976 book, U-Boot-Krieg ("U-Boat War").
Throughout the filming, the actors were forbidden to go out into the sunlight, to create the pallor of men who seldom saw the sun during their missions. The actors went through intensive training to learn how to move quickly through the narrow confines of the vessel.
The movie was partly financed by the WDR and the SDR, and much more footage had been shot for the film than was shown in the theatrical version. In 1985, a TV miniseries of Das Boot was shown on German and Austrian television. Two different versions were aired. The broadcast in 1985 had three parts each 100 minutes long. In 1988, Das Boot aired in six episodes each 50 minutes long. These episodes had additional cutback scenes summarising past episodes. This version was first broadcast on BBC in October 1984 in German with English subtitles.
Petersen then oversaw the editing of six hours of film, from which was distilled Das Boot: The Director's Cut, 209 minutes long (3 hours, 29 minutes), released in 1997, which combines the action sequences seen in the feature-length version with character development scenes contained in the mini-series. This release also provides better sound and video quality. Petersen originally had planned to release this version in 1981, which for commercial reasons was not possible. The Director's Cut was released to cinemas in Germany on December 11 and on April 4 1997 in the U.S.
The uncut miniseries version, running 293 minutes (four hours, 53 minutes), was released to DVD on June 1 2004, as Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version with enhanced video and audio quality (inferior to The Director's Cut though). It omits the cutback scenes of the 1988 television broadcast and is therefore shorter. In addition to the "Director's Cut" DVD, a Superbit version, with fewer additional DVD features but a higher bit-rate (superior quality), has been released by Columbia Pictures.
In late 2007, there was an exhibition about the film Das Boot, as well as about the real U-Boat U96, at the Haus der Geschichte (House of German History) in Bonn. Over 100,000 people visited the exhibition during its four-month run.
Even though the beginning and the end of the movie occur in the port of La Rochelle, it does not correspond historically. The submarine base in La Rochelle was not functional before November 1941, and at the time of the movie the port was dried up. Moreover, none of the British fighter-bombers of late 1941 to early 1942 had the range to bomb La Rochelle. While Saint-Nazaire was the base used in the novel, the film was changed to La Rochelle because its appearance had not changed to such a large degree in the years following World War II.
Buchheim himself was a U-boat correspondent. He has stated that the following film scenes are unrealistic:
Buchheim attacked specifically what he called Petersen's sacrificing of both realism and suspense in dialogue, narration and photography just for the sake of cheap dramatic thrills and action effects (for example, in reality one single exploding bolt of the boat's pressure hull would have been enough for the whole crew to worry about the U-boat very likely being crushed by water pressure, while Petersen has several bolts loosening in various scenes).
Uttering deep concerns about the end result, Buchheim felt that unlike his clearly anti-war novel the adaptation was "another re-glorification and re-mystification" of German WWII U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism, and he called the film a cross between a "cheap, shallow American action flick" and a "contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II".