The story for Das Boot was taken from the actual experiences of photographer Lothar-Guenther Buchheim (played in the film by Herbert Gronemeyer) who chronicled his wartime adventures in a best selling semi-autobiographical novel published in 1973. In addition to the insights into submarine warfare provided in his novel, many of Buchheim's photos of the interior of a German U-boat proved invaluable in recreating the look of life on the sub.
The film centers on the dramatic shifts that occur on board a U-boat patrolling the North Atlantic in 1941 as experienced by the sub's strong-willed Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) and his crew. Das Boot is comprised of moments of extreme tedium, as the crew awaits their next battle or the medic examines the men for venereal disease in the ship's cramped quarters.Petersen's film then shifts suddenly and dramatically to heart-pounding tension as the sub engages in battles with British warships. One of the film's most memorable scenes is a battle that occurs midway through the picture as the U-96 tries to penetrate the British-controlled Strait of Gibraltar by sneaking past a flotilla of enemy destroyers. Petersen's edgy, intense use of hand-held cameras enhances the reality-effect inside the ship and magnifies the tension throughout the film. That sense of veracity was achieved through a great deal of unseen preparation on the part of the film's photographer Jost Vacano who raced back and forth within a claustrophobic submarine interior in order to film the action without injury to self or camera.
The gloomy, doom-filled ambiance of Das Boot, in which every battle seems like the crew's last, was backed up by historical fact. Of the 40,000 members of German U-boat crews who served during WWII, only 10,000 survived.
Das Boot is notable for its sympathetic treatment of the naive, young men aboard the submarine who seem to sense their own impending doom in a near-suicidal self-destructive drinking binge that opens the film. Combining rousing action with an anti-war message, Das Boot conveys the yearning and loneliness of soldiers missing home and wives who have been placed in an inescapably desperate situation by the rulers of the Reich. Strangely enough, the events of the film bear a strong resemblance to a 1933 Ufa production called Morgenrot (Dawn) a film endorsed by Hitler and Goebbels as brilliant military propaganda for the masses.
Many critics of the film upon its original release (a longer Director's Cut was later released in 1997 with newly added footage and redesigned sound effects) noted the absence of any real character development in this cast largely composed of unknowns. The boat itself, some noted, seemed to instead serve as the audience's primary point of identification. But that lack of focused attention to one individual also helps make the film more resonant as a statement about war in which the horrific circumstances of many soldiers are privileged above the unique suffering of just one.
Most of all, Das Boot is revered as a film of remarkable technical proficiency and skill including Rolf Zehetbauer's production design of the U-96 interiors and the rapid editing of Hannes Nikel. Das Boot went on to secure the Hollywood futures of both Petersen (The Neverending Story (1984), In the Line of Fire (1993), Outbreak (1995), Air Force One (1997) and Director of Photography Vacano (Starship Troopers (1997)) as two of Hollywood's most sought after talents. Considered a major influence on the contemporary action film, Das Boot was especially notable for its innovative use of sound to enhance the claustrophobic sense of entrapment inside the small submarine, as with the creaking pressures on the beleaguered sub of tons of seawater crushing in upon its frame.
Das Boot's effectiveness as an action film was best evidenced in the film's public reception. The film went on to be the highest grossing production in the history of the German cinema and the most successful foreign language film ever released in the United States.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Producer: Guenter Rohrbach
Screenwriter: Wolfgang Petersen from the novel by Lothar-Guenther Buchheim
Director of Photography: Jost Vacano
Production Design: Rolf Zehetbauer, Goetz Weidner
Music: Klaus Doldinger
Cast: Jurgen Prochnow (The Captain), Herbert Gronemeyer (Lt. Werner/Correspondent), Klaus Wennemann (Chief Engineer), Hubertus Bengsch (1st Lt./Number One), Martin Semmelrogge (2nd Lieutenant), Bernd Tauber (Chief Quartermaster).
In German with English subtitles
by Felicia Feaster