Masterpiece: Das Boot (1981)

Claustrophobia, terror and watery graves—long before 'Poseidon', Wolfgang Petersen delivered this tale of hell in the Atlantic

by Nick de Semlyen

Claustrophobia, terror and watery graves—long before Poseidon, Wolfgang Petersen delivered this tale of hell in the Atlantic, says Nick de Semlyen

A movie set almost entirely in a clammy sea vessel and running to more than three hours in its restored version would seem to ask a lot from its audience. But back in 1981, throughout a highly testing year-long shoot at Munich’s Bavaria Film Studios, Das Boot demanded even more from its cast of would-be submariners. For starters, director Wolfgang Petersen insisted that his actors avoid going out into sunlight for the entire summer for fear they’d tarnish the sickly but authentic pallor they had developed after spending months inside a big metal tube. Complementing their newly chalky complexions, the cast developed ragged beards, which for continuity’s sake they couldn’t shave. Then there was the infernal heat, the cramped space, the smell, the sweat, the showers of sparks and torrents of icy water…

Far from being a sadist, Petersen’s obsession for detail stemmed from his humanitarian desire to show the world the hell that the U-boat crews of the Third Reich had endured. The events of the film unfold during the winter of 1941. By that time, thanks largely to Hitler’s disdain for naval policy, the Second Battle Of The Atlantic had already been virtually lost by the Wehrmacht. Not that the German public had any inkling of this. Fuelled by Nazi propaganda tales of glorious seabound adventure, young men signed up to set sail for their Fuhrer aboard a hi-tech Unterseeboot.

As Das Boot so masterfully illustrates, the reality was very different. The opening sequences, set in a shoreside beer hall in La Rochelle, contrast the raucous celebrations of Hitler’s new recruits with the cynical weariness of their captain (a magnificent Jurgen Prochnow) and the burned-out malaise of a naval hero (Otto Sander). Awarded a medal, the latter drunkenly litters his speech with anti-Nazi sentiments. Both men know what horrors lie beyond the harbour.

While writing his screenplay, Petersen had stuck closely to the factually based novel by ex-war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, represented in the movie by Herbert Gronemeyer’s wet-behind-the-ears Lieutenant Werner. But when the time came to reconstruct the U-96 itself, he took his quest for reality to a new level. After heading to the Chicago Museum Of Science And Industry to study the only existing type IX-C U-boat, his team assembled two full- scale mock-ups – an exterior and an interior – even drilling in the type of screws used during World War II. (One duly impressed person was Steven Spielberg, who borrowed the sub shell mid-shoot for Indy to straddle in Raiders Of The Lost Ark; to Petersen’s horror, it sank two weeks after being returned.) Unlike Hollywood subs, the interior set had no moving walls. Once in, the actors were forced to endure the same conditions as their real-life characters, with 48 men packed into a boat that in peacetime held 24.

Circling around the grey limbo of the choppy Atlantic, these soldiers experienced one of the purest forms of warfare: interminably long, agonisingly tense stretches of waiting broken up by sudden bursts of nerve-shredding action. With his 1998 extended cut of the film, Petersen makes both sides of the eguation even starker. Many of the reconstituted scenes are devoted to just showing the men killing time, whether picking at food and skirting around politics in the officer’s mess, or picking their noses in the filthy living guarters. Few films have dared to dwell so long on the tedious nature of combat, but as a result of these very human vignettes, something odd happens – we begin to forget that these men sail under a swastika flag. And like them, we start to get a strange yearning for a taste of the action. Yet, when that action finally arrives, it’s a brutal barrage to rival anything seen on the screen.

Though “seen” is probably the wrong word. This being a submarine, the only glimpse of the surface world is through a spindly periscope. So, when British destroyers attack with a ferocious succession of depth charges, all the men in this primitive vessel can really do is listen.

At the time, the sounds of impact were marked out by technicians smashing on the set’s walls with hammers; in post-production, a series of powerful sound effects were expertly layered onto the action. Witness the tour de force set-piece in which the hulking U-96 is forced to plunge far below safe depth; the aural storm of seismic detonations, violent creakings and groans of fracturing metal gets the heart pounding like a jack-hammer. Little wonder that two of Das Boot‘s six nominations at the ’82 Oscars were for its soundtrack. Factor in the physical effects – the explosive leaks, the bolts popping like bullets – and the surreal horror experienced by a sub crew under fire suddenly becomes very real. Next to this, Crimson Tide looks like Boat Trip.

This, then, is a rare case of a film’s technical brilliance being largely responsible for its humanism. By Das Boot‘s tragic climax, we have lost track of sides, forgotten politics, ditched preconceptions. All we’ve experienced is precisely what the men of the U-96 experienced – the inside of a combat boat. But, in Petersen’s hands, that’s more than enough to demonstrate the senseless chaos of war.

Empire, August 2006


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