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(Credit: Bavaria Productions)


40 years of 'Das Boot': A truly bleak German anti-war film

'Das Boot' - Wolfgang Petersen

In the political and sociological complexity of world war, to consider just one perspective is, of course, to limit your total understanding of the problem at large. Such explains why, when it comes to the dramatic retellings of WWII, often it is the perspective of ‘the axis’, Germany, Italy, and Japan, that provides the most enlightenment. Consider Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City or Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, with each film providing a self-reflective question mark over their perspective of the war. 

Released in 1981, Wolfgang Petersen’s war epic Das Boot added further complexity to the German perspective, depicting the miserable life onboard a claustrophobic U-boat where the darkness of submarine life becomes a psychological test. Production began for the film in 1979 with specific intentions for the film to well-reflect the turgid state onboard the German U-Boats, replicating life below the sea with painstaking accuracy.

Adapted from the WWII u-boat veteran Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 German novel of the same name, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the captain of the real U-96 during Buchheim‘s 1941 patrol was brought on as a consultant for the film. His job was to accurately reflect the space and conditions of life on board a U-boat, reflecting the true realities of war by taking the audience on “a journey to the end of the mind” as the film’s tagline suggested. 

As the influential François Truffaut once stated, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” with the director’s reasoning being that each film simply ends up being too exciting to properly reject its anti-war sentiment. With that being said, however, Das Boot does a very good job to disprove this apparent fact. Clocking in at 210 minutes upon its original release, Wolfgang Petersen’s film reflects a state of mental tediousness whilst somehow retaining a compelling narrative for his audience. It’s a remarkable feat of direction. 

Cramped and congested, life below the water is a dystopian nightmare, though the film is really more interested in how such a nightmare continues to operate against all odds. With all its complicated winches, pipes, pulleys and levers, the U-boat seems more similar to an alien spacecraft than a human-made machine with precise instructions in how to operate its might. Such technicalities must be handled with military precision by the boat’s captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow, the conductor of this impossible contraption. Experienced and composed, even as the machine is crumbling around him, he is constantly fixed to the job at hand, ordering his sailors around with robotic precision. 

As much the engine of the ship as the mechanical heart itself, the captain is not a villain, even mocking the Nazi general Goering and other major leaders at the start of the film. Wolfgang Petersen positions the audience in such a way that they can respect the hardy persistence of the crew, in spite of their evil intentions. Das Boot’s greatest achievement is in its dark, grim, cold, and almost fantastical vision of war. It’s a dreary journey, and one most certainly imbued with the senselessness and pointlessness of war itself.