Das Boot

Three German soldiers standing in front of a u-boat salute the camera

“They made us all train for this day. ‘To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland.’ Oh God, all just empty words. It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.”

War movies often comment on the nature of war, showing how horrible it can be, but there are always things that undermine or prevent a truly negative comment, such as patriotism and exciting depictions of war. Even films that showed us true horrors, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, also gave us heroes and camaraderie. Das Boot is different. For one, it’s a German movie about World War II—a time that Germany fully admits was a terrible time in their history, so there is no patriotism or need to give us heroes. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Neverending Story) and starring an all-German cast, this film gives us horror on top of nihilism, with some characters even making negative comments on the propaganda the German government was pumping into young men’s heads at the time. This is also probably the most tense war film I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot considering how hard-hitting other war films have been. But even in a genre full of powerful movies, Das Boot hits hard and shows us, perhaps more than any other film, that war is hell.

The film follows the crew of a German u-boat on a mission to sink British supply ships, although it would probably be more accurate to say that it follows the vessel itself. All of the characters take a step backward and the entire submarine takes on a life of its own through the collected actions of all of its passengers. A title card in the beginning of the film shows us just how dangerous these missions were: of the 40,000 men who went out on u-boats, only 10,000 would return home. The dangers are enormous and ever-present, and the crew must work under enormous pressure, both literally and figuratively.

The boat is rated to 90 metres, but of course we can go deeper. There’s a limit somewhere. We can only take so much pressure… before the boat will be crushed.

It’s rare for Americans to see a war from the other side’s perspective. I’ve covered a Japanese account of World War II, which was exceedingly sad, but this one takes a different direction. As I mentioned, there’s no expectation of heroism here; although the crew is certainly brave and capable, the film makes no effort to say they were a force of good. What’s more significant, though, is that there’s no guarantee of safety. If this was a movie about an American submarine, the audience would be fully expecting a happy ending. But we know from the beginning of the film that the Germans are the bad guys. The crew is not explicitly evil, but they’re also completely vulnerable from a storytelling perspective. Every time danger came around, I really feared for the safety of the crew, and I had no idea what the outcome will be. When the credits finally rolled, I was still somewhat surprised with the direction things went.

Although the actors put on amazing performances, the star of the show was the u-boat itself. The film had a budget of $15 million, and most of that was spent on constructing two full-size u-boats. The boats themselves were about 10 feet by 150 feet, and you really feel how cramped it was inside. Only a handful of scenes take place outside of the sub, and the ones inside the sub are crowded, busy, and claustrophobic. There are long shots where crew members rush through the sub, finding small spots to squeeze around other crew members and acrobatically getting through small openings, and these really give a feel for how small this space was. And the ship itself presents many of the obstacles to overcome in this film. When the crew encounters British sailors fleeing a burning ship, it’s the u-boat’s capacity that prevents the German crew from taking prisoners. Technical malfunctions caused several problems, some quite serious, and the knowledge that they were never really safe took a heavy toll on the crew. This isn’t a film about a u-boat—the film is the u-boat.

A disheveled-looking captain looks grimly at his crew
The captain is the rock of the crew, not only keeping his head in tough situations, but making the tough calls no one else wants to.

This film walks a very delicate balance between nihilism and hope. The characters, while not heroes, are likable enough that you want them to pull through. At the same time, the film doesn’t pull any punches, and you figure out pretty quickly that nothing is off-limits for this film. This, combined with the claustrophobic and dangerous setting of the u-boat itself, makes for what I believe is the most tense war film I’ve ever seen. In any other film, if a hopeless situation presents itself, you know the heroes will either get out of it or find some other way to succeed. Not so here. Anyone and everyone is in real danger, and the film makes excellent use of that tension.

Das Boot is a tough film to classify. It’s an excellent war film, but it doesn’t celebrate heroism, nor does it come with the violence and gore present in most other war films, so it may lose some of the fans of other war movies while picking up some fans who don’t like other war movies. It’s also a fascinating little snapshot of history—you don’t hear much about World War II from a German perspective. Overall, this is a great film that doesn’t rely on sentimentality or heroism to keep the viewer engaged. It’s more of an intellectual film, although some scenes do pack an emotional punch. Definitely worth viewing for any serious film fan.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:29 (theatrical), 3:28 (director’s cut)

Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Year: 1981

Genres: drama, war

Rating: R

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