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“They are drinking at the bar, celebrating our sinking! Not yet my friends, not yet!” shouts U-96’s captain with delight, as they practically bounce up onto the surface of the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, which they’ve been marooned at the bottom of for 15 hours.
He’s not a lover of war and he hates the Nazis. World-weary and war-weary, battle has aged him – he’s meant to be 30, the oldest man on the boat, but he comes across as much older with the weight of both experience and expectation heavy on him.
There’s a gulf between old-guard seamen like him, and most of the young crew (“all wind and smoke” he calls them, likening their voyage to being on “a children’s crusade”). For the captain (a brilliantly jaded yet stoic Jürgen Prochnow) the boat is his partner and he takes pride in her ability to withstand the worst that the Allies, bad luck and the weather can throw at her.
He’s not alone in his cynicism. Several of his officers share his disillusionment, as do other captains. At the start of Das Boot he and some of his officers visit a raucous French nightclub in La Rochelle, their base. Fellow U-boat captain Thomsen arrives drunk before giving a speech which mocks both the Fuhrer and Churchill. It isn’t just Nazis which enrage them, but also the futility of the battles they’re leading their men into.
This is a war film that leaves ideology at the door in favour of grimly realistic life-and-death tension, terror, ennui, excitement and, at times, joy.
It’s 1941 and in the North Atlantic the tide is, metaphorically, turning. “the British have stopped making mistakes” says the captain gloomily, as he and his officers and crew sail out of La Rochelle only to spend days searching and waiting rather than fighting.
The crew are bored, and a bit daft. War correspondent Lt Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) on board to document the U-boat’s voyage, is much in demand snapping pictures of the young men, who are delighted that they might end up in a magazine.
The realities of war and life underwater don’t take long to change him. Even the First Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch), the most uptight and haughty officer, and a Nazi, gradually has to loosen up – after days spent in full uniform, writing his papers on how to be a leader.
Their voyage seems almost haphazard, randomly coming across British destroyers; and often doomed, as the captain has to obey orders that send them into the Straits of Gibraltar, seven miles wide and teeming with the British Navy.
The boat is a cosy, warm haven and a soaking, claustrophobic prison. The days grind on, and everyone wants to see some action. Doing nothing is emasculating and the crew take great delight in slathering the huge torpedoes in Vaseline before they’re fired. Where the dive alarm sounds, they suddenly drop everything and run, careering along the sub, throwing themselves through hatches, delighted to be physically moving.
This director’s cut came out in 1997, and is three and a half hours long. This version is also dubbed into German-accented English, though within a minute or two I didn’t notice it. (Apparently most of the original cast did their dubbing, as they were bilingual.)
It’s not a slow-moving film, and despite long periods of waiting it’s never boring. Though the action is riveting, the most heart-stopping moments are when we wait and listen with them for some explosion or event. Holding their breath, knowing it may be their last. Sinking down through the waves, crippled by an Allied air attack, the captain stands in front of his crew as the depth indicator goes beyond crush point and eventually past the end of the gauge itself.
Director Wolfgang Peterson’s pacing is exemplary. Despite the length of the film, it rises and falls like the boat ploughing the lonely surface of the sea. Tiny details resonate; the boat’s creaks and groans keep time with a young sailor’s arm as he lifts weight in his bunk.
Much of their voyage takes place during a horrendous storm. With the boat powering along the surface of the sea, the captain and his officers stand invigorated in their black raincoats and huge hats as the waves crash over them on the bridge. The boat lifts and plunges, every wave looking likely to wash them overboard. When they come down the ladder into the sub, water pours in.
The claustrophobia is crushing at times, and cramped spaces mean indignities as a matter of course. There’s only one toilet as the other is used to store provisions. The medic sees a long line of young men, naked from the waist down, who’ve all caught crabs. As he treats them the cook prepares their meals in the galley behind him.
Cinematographer Jost Vacano absolutely brings home the neutral power and beauty of the sea and the weather above, and the vast loneliness. When the waves aren’t smashing into the sturdy boat, the skies above are brilliantly bright – pink and red. Then there are the man-made threats from bombs and warships (at one point we see from underneath the surface the British destroyer glide over the fast-descending U-boat). Down below what he’s captured so well is how narrow it is. Beds are slept in in shifts. Re-provisioning means chart tables overflowing with bread and bananas.
Klaus Doldinger’s extraordinary score is haunting; the last piece spine-tinglingly mournful.
War scoops up many with no ideological or murderous axe to grind, their “side” decided by a border, and in Das Boot “us and them” means the many men sent out to sea to die, and the Nazi High Command. At one point the U-boat anchors in Spain to secretly refuel and fill up with provisions from a German boat. Invited on board, the captain and officers of U-96 now resemble fishermen in their thick jumpers, hair and beards increasingly unkempt. They’re greeted by a team of smiling, uniformed officers, and a table groaning under a vast spread of fruit and German delicacies. It’s a scene that reinforces their difference from their Heil Hitler-saluting hosts in spotless braided uniforms.
40,000 men were sent out on the U-boats during WW2 and fewer than 10,000 returned. By the end of Das Boot, as British planes unleash their decimating cargo, the men – in grey overalls, white faced from ash, smeared with blood, some of them staggering, some with limbs flailing – look not like Nazis, or sailors, or fishermen, but, rather appropriately, like the walking dead.
Watch the Das Boot trailer (please note this is from the 1981 version):