Classic Film Scene: Das Boot

Das Boot

Great films appear every year and with them are potentially classic scenes that may become more famous than the film itself. The shower scene in Psycho, the chariot race in Ben Hur, the chest bursting moment in Alien, and the opera music sounding across the prison yard in The Shawshank Redemption are just some of the examples of the classic celluloid moments that we may be familiar with even if we’ve never seen the film. I’ll be sharing my favourite film scenes, some you will know others may be unfamiliar, but hopefully they’ll be moments you enjoy as much as I do.

Das Boot (1981) – The Convoy Attack

Das BootWolfgang Petersen’s 1981 adaptation of Lothar G. Buchheim’s novel is a depiction of a German U-boat crew’s progress during the Second World War and is, in my opinion, the finest war film ever made. Like Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) or Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad (1993), it’s refreshing to see the war from the perspective of someone other than the Americans. There is no glorifying in any of the films mentioned and with Das Boot the Germans are portrayed simply as soldiers doing their respective duties, no matter how impossible the odds are against them. The film’s tagline gives an idea of what’s to come:- “Hitler sent out 40,000 men aboard German U-Boats during World War 2. Less than 10,000 returned.”

The film opens with the background to the current state of the war. It reveals that late in 1941 Germany’s initial success in the Atlantic Ocean with its U-Boats, destroying cargo ships, had now ended and that the battle for control of the waters is starting to favour the Allies. The film follows the crew of one U-Boat, the U-96, led by Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jurgen Prochnow), who is referred to simply as the Captain. A journalist, Lt Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer), has joined the tour and intends to write reports on the lives of the U-Boat crew. The Captain leads a mission into the Atlantic Ocean where the crew’s objective is to seek out and sink cargo ships. Improved defences from the Allies in the form of fierce battleships known as Destroyers has made life difficult for the U-Boats with sophisticated technology known as ASDIC which uses sonar to detect where U-Boats are before dropping depth charges into the ocean. The U-Boats must target enemy vessels carefully for fear they may be escorted by the Destroyers! Das Boot covers the harsh reality of life on a U-Boat:- shared bunk beds, narrow corridors, the boredom of many weeks at sea with no action, missing families and friends, and the tense exchanges with Destroyers as the Captain delves into psychological battles trying to manoeuvre the U-Boat to safety while avoiding both ASDIC and depth charges. The U-96 survives many tense encounters at sea such as hitting the ocean bed after failing to negotiate the heavily guarded Straits of Gibraltar and trying to take out a Destroyer and the Captain losing track of it in his periscope, protruding just above the ocean’s surface, until suddenly the Destroyer is almost on top of them!

Das Boot is at its best when the Captain leads an attack on a convoy of three ships that appear to be unguarded by any Destroyers. After discussing what to do with his crew, the Captain launches torpedoes at the three ships but before they can see whether they have struck their targets a Destroyer appears and the U-96 has to dive. While underwater the crew gather round and listen as one by one the torpedoes hit the respective ships they were aimed at. Celebrations ensue for the crew of the U-96 but when they surface six hours later things are very different. One of the ships is still afloat but is now a raging inferno, lighting up the night sky across the Atlantic Ocean. The Captain decides to fire another torpedo to finish off the crippled ship but what follows is the most moving moment of Das Boot and one that reveals the severe impact war has on those in the midst of the fighting. After the latest torpedo hits the fiery vessel and an explosion lifts flames towards the stars, the crew of the U-96 looking on are horrified to see men are still aboard the sinking ship! With many on fire they begin jumping in the ocean and swimming towards the U-96. The Captain is furious the men have not been rescued but when he sees them coming towards the U-Boat he reluctantly orders his crew to pull back. The Germans are not allowed to take prisoners on the U-Boats so are forced to leave the men in the ocean to their deaths. As the U-Boat retreats from the devastation they have left on the ocean, one of the crew begins to weep. It’s a reminder that these men were fighting because they had to and although sinking a convoy brought them joy, the reality of the men whose lives they have ended is simply too much.

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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