Germany / 1982
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Writer: Wolfgang Petersen based on Luthar G Bucheim’s novel
Cast: Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennenmann, Hubertus Bengsch
Das Boot ranks alongside All Quiet On The Western Front and The Big Red One as one of the handful of great anti-war films. The plot is simple, following the mission of one German U-Boat from its departure from La Rochelle. Captained by Jurgen Prochnow, a war veteran despite being in his early 30s, and crewed by men barely teenagers, Petersen adds in Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) as a war correspondent who becomes the audience’s eyes and ears, allowing the crew to set and describe scenes that would otherwise be baffling.
After a last night of revels, U-96 slips into the Atlantic searching for the convoys heading to Britain from America. After escaping the attentions of a prowling battleship which shows the claustrophobic horrors of being in a submarine under depth charge attack, the boat tracks down a convoy and sinks three ships. Returning to finish off an oil tanker, the officers are horrified that the British crew haven’t been evacuated – they cannot take prisoners and must leave fellow seamen to drown or burn.
Once again hunted by escorting destroyers, they survive another hellish attack by depth charges and set course for home. Only to receive new orders – to restock in the ‘neutral’ Spanish port of Vigo and then proceed to La Spezia in the Mediterranean – which can only be reached through the British controlled Straits of Gibraltar. Can the wily, experienced captain see his boat and crew through the jaws of hell?
Petersen wisely concentrates on a handful of characters and refuses to make them Nazis apart from the Number One (Hubertus Bengsch), who is mildly ridiculed but accepted for his skills. “The film is not about Germans or Americans or the English, it’s about people. It’s a journey into madness that the audience should go through to know what war is all about,” Petersen said. And he succeeds – the terror of the depth charge attacks, the rushing of the crew through the cramped boat from bow to stern to trim it, the tense quiet while circling destroyers begin their search-and-destroy mission, the prosaically practical attack on the convoy – all convey the reality of war, from the boredom of days of inaction to the fear of sudden death.
Bucheim’s novel was based on his wartime experience as a correspondent on a U-boat and the adaptation is faithful, as is the set – most of the $15m was spent on a replica of the boat, built by the original builders, their first such assignment since the war ended. Such attention to details, the superb playing of the ensemble cast who Petersen shows going out boys and swiftly becoming grizzled veterans, and the tense, driving plot were rewarded with six Oscar nominations. Petersen went on to Hollywood, returning to the sea for The Perfect Storm while Prochnow mixed Hollywood with his established film career in Germany; he is probably best known here for The English Patient and Airforce One , where he re-united with Petersen.