Das Boot, West Germany (1981, 1997) Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, written by Peterson and Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, based on Buchheim’s novel. Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronenmeyer, Klaus Wennemann.
Das Boot is the story of a single Nazi U-Boat mission, from beginning to end. The submarine is 10 feet by 150 feet, and the sweaty claustrophobia of dim lights, reverberating sounds and confined faces is conveyed by strong performances and spectacular Steadicam photography. For this mission, an assignment to torpedo Allied shipping in the North Atlantic, a journalist expecting to catalogue the victories of heros has been assigned to the crew. Instead, he experiences with them long anxious stretches of cramped boredom and unbearable tension broken by brief moments of paralyzing terror.
Das Boot was the most expensive German film ever made when it was released in 1981. Originally a 6-hour tv miniseries, it took two years to film. The director’s cut was re-edited to 3 hours and 30 minutes. The reviews of this longer version were of two opinions. Either the character development was enhanced, adding greater depth and urgency to the action scenes, or you felt like you were stuck on a U-Boat for a really, really long time.
This film was based on an autobiographical novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim. Half-way through World War II, the submarine war to blockade Britain became Germany’s last desperate hope of victory. Buchheim was ordered on board a submarine as an official artist to send back inspiring drawings that the German Navy could use for propaganda, and he was granted a camera and unlimited supplies of film. He took more than 5000 photographs, which were almost cinematic in their intense vignettes of U-Boat warfare. They are so similar to many of the scenes in the film, director Wolfgang Peterson must have used them as a framework for the cinematography.
War movies are about fathers and sons. Jurgen Procnow, in Das Boot is the ideal father, trying to mold his young crew into one that, at the very least, survives. The modern war film, such as Saving Private Ryan, also does something unacceptable in another context; mythologize a world of men. For women, patriarchal bonding may be a bore. But, as Richard Goldstein argued in a recent article on WWII chic in the Village Voice, as Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation begins to pass away, Baby Boomers feel an aching need to reconcile with their ailing fathers, with whom there was often so much conflict in the Viet Nam era. Movies about The Good War fulfill that need.
The unambiguous values of the wartime era still resonate. According to Goldstein, for conservatives, it’s nostalgia for the old order, for liberals, an escape from post-modern ambiguity, for Boomers a tribute to dad, and for swing-dancing GenXers, an erotic masquerade.
The thrills of Das Boot complicate the issues of WWII nostalgia for German audiences, surely, and for us, because the Nazis are the United States’ one unforgiven enemy. War is one of the great dehumanizing experiences; it’s us against them. No other film as powerfully humanizes the German enemy, with the exception of the WWI German soldiers in the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front. Peterson may be essentially an action film director, but Procnow’s thoughtful U-Boat commander may be the only Nazi hero ever embraced by American filmgoers.