Das Boot (1981)

Das Boot (1981), directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

A tremendous epic of life on a WW2 German U-boat. Cramped quarters, months of boredom, then sudden fighting, terror and an exhausting struggle to survive and get back into the war.

The mission: sink cargo ships then hide from the inevitable destroyer pounding. That was the Battle of the Atlantic, an attempt to starve Britain out of the war.

The war correspondent stands in for us here: initially excited, then dismayed at life in that tiny sub (48 men, 1 toilet), terrified during battle, but still unwilling to give it up. The sequence of his fear scenes is great: initially he is hazed by the other officers when they take the sub "too deep" for a test; later this happens for real more than once and now those who were kidding him are terrified as well.

You seldom see survival scenes that go on so long in such a bad situation: resting on the sea floor well below the limit of their depth gauge, running out of air, rivets popping, seams failing, battery acid leaking. They hold it together with lumber and their bare hands, and still come back.

The film-makers visited the U-505 in Chicago and took meticulous notes. It is the last remaining U-boat of its class. I toured it many years ago and thought it was the last place in the world I would want to be.

The open water scenes showing the sub surfacing or submerging was done with a 1/6 scale model. I always thought it looked rather good.

Available on Blu-ray with a commentary track by the director, Jurgen Prochnow, and others. I've lost track of the different cuts I've seen; this is the 3h28m version. Several of the German actors did their own dubbing on the English track.

They say the German critics disliked the film for it's sympathetic portrayal of the seamen. At that time German soldiers in German films had to be villains as part of the national expiation of war guilt. They brought the film to America and everyone loved it.