Wolfgang Petersen’s obsessively detailed World War II epic remains one of the most influential war movies and certainly continues to set a gold standard for submarine movies. Even the best of the rest, such as Hunt for Red October, run a distant second. If this all sounds like fanboy blather, well, it is, but it’s still hard to overstate the achievements of this film.
Despite the era being a touchy subject for their countrymen, or perhaps because of it, the Germans have always seemed to make the best World War II films, including Stalingrad and the recent Downfall, presenting the most unflinching, apolitical examination of that conflagration. Das Boot certainly fits into that category.
Telling the tale of a single, eventful voyage of the U-96, Das Boot presents a war fought by disillusioned veterans and boys barely old enough to shave. The captain (Jürgen Prochnow), an “old man” barely in his thirties, commands an eager crew of inexperienced teenagers more interested in girls and dirty jokes. For this mission, the boat is carrying Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a young naval war correspondent, along to document the story of some “proper German heroes.”
The ship compliment of the U-96 contains few experienced sailors. Only the chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann) and Johann (Erwin Leder), the chief mechanic, are veterans. The boyish but crude second officer (Martin Semmelrogge) and the upright, fastidious, loyally Nazi first officer (Herbertus Bengsch) have been around the block before but are still relative children compared to the captain.
The early parts of the mission are an exercise in tedium, chasing fragmentary reports of British convoys all over the Atlantic but finding nothing to shoot their torpedoes at. When they finally do, it’s a destroyer that pins them down for a depth charge attack.
The attention to detail in Das Boot is exhaustive to the point of being obsessive. The interior of the U-boat is painstakingly recreated and director Petersen makes maximum use of it to convey the claustrophobic living conditions on board the German submarines. The film also provides details not often seen in other depictions of the Atlantic war. As the voyage begins, we see every spare cubic centimeter of space crammed with food. During a crash dive, every spare crewman dashes into the torpedo room to move as much weight as possible forward to help speed up the dive.
Das Boot does not directly address the uglier side of the German war effort but mainly because the crew of a submarine was so isolated from the rest of the war. We get a taste of that darker side when the captain follows standing orders and abandons the crew of a burning, sinking British ship. Mostly, however, the crew is conspicuously apolitical, the younger men because they are just that, too young to care about anything but getting drunk or laid.
The older officers eschew politics because they know better. The film takes place at the end of the “happy times,” with Allied anti-submarine tactics finally beginning to catch up with the Kriegsmarine. The captain has more respect for his British opponents than his own high command, cursing Hermann Göring for their lack of air support. He brazenly dares Werner to report what he has said.
This is ultimately the story of honorable men in the service of a dishonorable regime during the course of a futile war. By portraying this aspect of the war with unflinching honesty, Das Boot does a great service to both history and cinema