Masterpieces #12: Das Boot

Das Boot
About Das Boot (1981)
Das BootIt is 1942 and the German submarine fleet is heavily engaged in the so called “Battle of the Atlantic” to harass and destroy English shipping. With better escorts of the Destroyer Class, however, German U-Boats have begun to take heavy losses. “Das Boot” is the story of one such U-Boat crew, with the film examining how these submariners maintained their professionalism as soldiers, attempted to accomplish impossible missions, while all the time attempting to understand and obey the ideology of the government under which they served.

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Das Boot (1981)

I have yet to see a better war film than Wolfgang Petersen’s World War II epic which is told from the perspective of a German U-Boat crew. Based on the novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, this was the first war film I saw where the focus wasn’t on the Americans or the British. Interpretations of the Second World War tend to be of the Germans being evil while the Allies are the crusaders fighting for the common good. While German actions in beginning the war and the atrocities they committed, particularly to the Jews, are undoubtedly a dark chapter in history, it is important to look at the common German soldier and remember many were following orders and just because Hitler and the Nazis were evil, that didn’t necessarily filter down to all of the German army. Das Boot is an eye-opening depiction of a German U-Boat crew whose initial enthusiasm for their latest venture in the Atlantic Ocean is soon changed irrevocably by the many ordeals they have to face and their difficult struggle for survival.

Das Boot focuses on the crew of U-96, one of the few remaining German U-Boats left to patrol the Atlantic Ocean and sink convoy vessels while evading Destroyers, battleships equipped with ASDIC that can detect the presence of U-Boats beneath the ocean and drop depth charges onto them! Das Boot is particularly tense when U-96 plays psychological games with Destroyers trying to steer silently out of detection and trouble. The idea that a Destroyer’s depth charges can cripple the U-96, meaning certain death for the crew, is a terrifying prospect throughout and the film’s tagline rings true of the precarious duty of these crews: “Hitler sent out 40,000 men aboard German U-Boats during World War 2. Less than 10,000 returned.”

Das Boot isn’t just about fighting though. The film’s primary focus is on the crew and how they have to combat everything from claustrophobia to monotony while they await action in the Atlantic Ocean. Lt Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) joins the U-96 crew as a war correspondent, another of the crew has a pregnant girlfriend waiting for him in France, while Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann) longs to be with his family, particularly his ill wife. The U-96 crew also face the dark side of war and take no pleasure in killing their enemies but are determined to fulfil their duties.

Das Boot is a long film regardless of which version you watch and requires a lot of commitment for the intense journey of the U-96 crew. Though set at the end of 1941 Das Boot reflects a time when the tide of the Second World War is already turning against Germany and you will have to watch many struggles for this U-boat crew. Petersen’s war masterpiece depicts the brutal reality of war. It has no heroes or winners here, but a group of men fighting for survival amidst increasingly impossible odds.

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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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