Das Boot (1981)
The claustrophobic world of a WWII German U-boat; boredom, filth and sheer terror.
It is 1942 and the German submarine fleet is heavily engaged in the so-called "Battle of the Atlantic" to harass and destroy British shipping. With better escorts of the destroyer class, however, German U-boats have begun to take heavy losses. "Das Boot" is the story of the crew of one such U-Boat, with the film examining how these submariners maintained their professionalism as soldiers and attempted to accomplish impossible missions, all the while attempting to understand and obey the ideology of the government under which they served.
A look at the lives of the officers and men of the U-96, a German U-boat patrolling the north Atlantic during World War II. Led by Capt.-Lt. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the men, for the most part, are seasoned veterans of undersea duty. For the new recruits, including military journalist Lt. Werner, it's all a bit of an eye opener. The quarters are cramped with men sharing bunks - while one is on duty, the other gets sleep - and there's barely enough room for more that two men in passageways at any one time. Their trip is also marked by lengthy periods of boredom while they search for enemy shipping to attack and periods of absolute terror when they find themselves under attack by Allied naval vessels. Throughout it all, the men band together, cynical about just what they are doing but also proud of their accomplishments.
1941 and the Battle of the Atlantic - German U-boats versus freighters supplying Britain - is underway. We see this struggle from the side of the crew of a German U-boat, U-96. We see the relaxation and fun in port, the boredom of patrol, the tension of stalking a convoy, and the sheer terror when they become the hunted.
In October 1941, the German Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock of the U-96 U-Boat receives the war correspondent Lt. Werner to cover the work in the submarine during their mission in the Atlantic Ocean. They sail out of the shipyard La Rochelle and along the next weeks, Werner learns the lives, loves, fear and behavior of the young crew, the veteran Captain and his officers. The skilled captain hunts British vessels to sink and dives to depths below the limit of the boat to escape from the destroyers. Near Christmas, they plan to return to La Rochelle; but out of the blue, Captain Henrich receives and order to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to go to Italy. But the captain knows how protected the area is and plans a means to lure the British Navy. Will the U-96 succeed in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar?
- The movie opens with a title card noting that 40,000 Germans went out on submarines in WW2, and that 30,000 never came back. In Fall of 1941 the German Atlantic U-Boat fleet is a mere 12 subs and the German campaign to rule the North Atlantic is turning against them.
Three officers of U-96 are driving down a dark road by the shore. Enlisted sailors are drunk and hanging out on the road. They harass the officers in a fairly obnoxious way, including urinating on their car as it goes by. The officers (including, as you soon find out, the Captain) take this in stride.
The next scene is in a raucous beer hall. It is an award banquet for a sub captain Thomsen (Otto Sander), who just received a commendation, as well as a sending off for U-96's crew. Various scenes of debauchery play out. The officers are just a bunch of rowdy kids having fun. U-96's Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) looks on calmly. The Captain is then introduced to a party reporter, Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) who will be accompanying them on their next tour to report on the greatness of the Reich's sub crews. They meet the Captain's chief engineer and de facto second-in-command "The Chief", (Klaus Wennemann), who is older and obviously doesn't look forward to another tour. His wife is ill back home and he leaves to call about her.
Thomsen is brought out, looking very inebriated and supported by two officers. They note sadly that all the crews these days are just kids, and that the old guard is almost gone. At the podium, Thomsen gives a speech full of what comes very close to anti-Nazi rhetoric (a couple guys in the audience, possibly SS men, look tense), but ends it on a positive note without saying anything too incriminating, obscenely praising their Fuhrer for his courageous stance against Winston Churchill and Britain.
The Captain, Lt Werner & the Chief report to U-96 in the shipyards of La Rochelle, France. The Captain addresses his assembled crew and introduces them to Werner. Of most note are the first lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch), a prissy young hardcore Nazi, and the second lieutenant (Martin Semmelrogge) who is a clever jokester and constantly winds up the first lieutenant. Lt. Werner, the reporter, is led to the junior officer's bunks where he finds out that even the officers have to share beds because of space constraints. Lt. Werner is ribbed by Pilgrim (Jan Fedder), another jokester, and befriends a very young officer, Ullmann, with a French girlfriend back home who he constantly writes letters to. You also get your first shot of Johann, the head of the engine room, a pale, gangly fellow whom the crew members call "The Ghost".
The crew experience the drudgery of regular drills. Lt. Werner snaps pictures of everything in sight initially, but gradually calms down. The crew goes about their day to day business with increasing dreariness, all of them except the first lieutenant stop shaving and grow beards, and their moil is only broken by a false alarm arranged by the Captain to keep them on their toes. During this time you learn that the Captain has no love for the Nazis, and morale amongst the higher officers seems abysmal.
The Captain at one point decides to see how deep the sub can dive. The gauge limits the "safe" zone down to only 170 meters, but the Captain, much to the chagrin of the crew, takes it down to almost 200. This causes ominous creaking noises to emit from the hull, and everyone is relieved when the Captain orders the sub back up.
After more boredom, the sub receives a transmission that a convoy has been spotted. The crew leaps at the opportunity to go after them, but the Captain says they have no chance of getting there in time and so they go back to twiddling their thumbs.
Shortly thereafter, they get a message about a convoy that they will be able to intercept, and the Captain kicks the sub into full gear to catch it. They approach the convoy in very heavy fog, but before they can even get close enough to see anything one of the escort destroyers spots them and the sub has to dive. After being depth charged repeatedly by the destroyer but taking no real damage, the Captain manages to lose them and escape. The Captain notes that the British destroyers are getting smarter, and that they no longer make mistakes.
The crew is totally demoralised since they didn't even get close to sinking a ship and barely escaped with their lives, but still remain in fairly good spirits. Lt. Werner sits in the middle of the boredom of the crew. Half the crew ends up with crabs. They randomly run into one of the other eleven subs in the Atlantic, which is a brief happy interlude, followed by the Captain being annoyed at the horrible planning and navigation that resulted in 1/6 of the fleet being in the same spot for no good reason.
A new transmission is received that there is a large convoy spotted and that several other subs are already converging on it. They decide to go for it too, and this time they approach the convoy unnoticed and fire several torpedoes at two of the freighters, landing direct hits. While they are launching the torpedoes they spot a destroyer in the distance, but don't think it will cause a problem. However, after launching the last of the torpedoes the Captain can't see the destroyer in the periscope any more. When he finally does see it, it is rapidly coming straight for them.
They dive quickly and manage to get far enough away that the depth charges don't cause any damage. They hear the torpedoes hit, and are quite happy until the first dreadful ping of the destroyer's ASDIC (British sonar) system sounds. The sub sits there with the pings getting closer and louder, the destroyer approaching, unable to do much besides hope it doesn't notice them. It does notice them, though, and starts depth charging them like mad. You see a shot of Johann wedged under some machinery, holding his head in his hands and looking freaked out and miserable.
The Captain manages to evade the destroyer, only to have a second destroyer come at them from a different direction. Left with no choice, the Captain orders them to dive VERY deep, well into the red zone on their depth gauge. The water pressure causes bolts to start popping inwards, damaging equipment and wounding a crewmember. At this point Johann, now totally out of his mind, stumbles onto the bridge babbling incoherently. The Captain orders him back to his post, but Johann just lurches towards him. The Captain moves away and eventually the other officers are able to get Johann out. As he winds himself down, the Captain sets aside his pistol.
Finally all signs of the destroyers fade, and the sub remains under water for six more hours just to be safe. It then surfaces to find that one of the ships it torpedoed was an oil tanker, which is now surrounded by burning oil but hasn't sunk. The Captain orders another torpedo fired at it to finish the job. As this torpedo hits, the sub crew is able to see that there are still survivors on the tanker. The Captain is incensed that in six hours no one came to rescue them. The survivors swim towards the sub, but the Captain sadly orders them to move away. The crew who witness this, particularly Lt. Werner, are very distressed.
Running low on supplies and fuel, the crew expects that they are now to dock at La Rochelle, France. Instead they are given grim orders: they are to secretly dock with an undercover German supply ship at Vigo, a neutral Spanish port. .
Another top-secret communique is received and decoded: U-96 will not return to La Rochelle but instead make the crossing of the British-controlled Straights of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean to reach the Italian coastal town of La Spezia. The Captain knows that this is essentially a suicide mission since the Straight of Gibraltar is one of the most heavily defended Allied naval zones in the world, and he arranges for Lt. Werner and The Chief (whose wife is very ill) to leave the sub at the Spanish port and make their way back to Germany. Lt. Werner doesn't want to go, but the Captain insists that he's already been in too much danger. Werner agrees to take the junior officer's love letters (there are dozens of them) to his French girlfriend.
Johann comes to the Captain and apologises for leaving his post, insisting that it won't happen again and begging the Captain to not court-martial him. The Captain is hesitant, but eventually accepts Johann's apology and sends him off.
They make it to Vigo and the secret supply ship turns out to be fantastically well appointed. The officers go aboard and are treated like heroes by the fawning crew. The officers are sullen and do not take kindly to the princely treatment. They are even more annoyed by the ship's crew begging them to tell their exciting stories. The Captain's face and voice become haunted when he talks about their latest run and nearly being destroyed during the heavy depth-charging they received.
In the midst of this the Captain receives a telegram from headquarters. Leave for Lt. Werner and The Chief has been denied. They have to stay with the ship til the end. The Chief is visibly upset, but says that it's a good thing as his replacement would be some incompetent kid. Lt. Werner is conflicted, but definitely unhappy about having to give the junior officer back his love letters. The ship is resupplied and they go on their way.
The sub stops away from the Straights of Gibraltar to take stock of things. They can see a fleet of British warships patrolling the depressingly narrow gap between the cliffs. The Captain, for lack of a better idea, decides that they will make a silent run towards the gap, then dive deep at the last minute and hope that the tide can help them drift under the enemy fleet. No one, including the Captain himself, seems to put much stock in this plan.
When the time is right, they begin their run towards the Straights. Unfortunately, considering advances in Allied naval RADAR technology, they are immediately spotted; a British fighter plane immediately begins strafing the sub and releasing a direct hit with a bomb. Shots from the ships begin exploding around them. The Captain and navigator (who is badly shot up) head back into the sub, which immediately starts diving.
Unfortunately, due to the damage from the bomb the sub is unable to pull out of the dive. It goes deeper and deeper, past the point that the bolts start blowing out again and horrible noises come from the hull. The pressure causes several pipes to burst and parts of the sub start flooding. The sub eventually comes to a rest on a rock at about 280 meters down, well beyond the limit of the depth gauge.
The sub is flooding badly and its engines aren't working. Meanwhile, the navigator is bleeding to death and the doctor is desperately trying to keep him alive. The crew goes into a panic of trying to patch up the damage and stop the water from flooding the entire sub. Amidst the chaos of people madly jamming whatever they can into the leaks, Johann heroically dives into a deep flood puddle to find and jam the source of a major leak. The Chief shimmies under floor panels to replace a bunch of damaged batteries, braving the noxious fumes created by the spilled battery acid in the process.
As the leaks stop and the shot navigator stabilizes, the Captain and the Chief assess their situation. There is a bunch of damage to fix, and all the water needs to be bailed out, and if all goes perfectly they might have one shot at surfacing. They are also short on oxygen and need to do everything quickly so they don't run out.
The crew goes about bailing the massive amount of water, bucket-brigade style, into the bilge where it will be blown out when they try to surface. The Chief starts repairs. After hours the water is all bailed and the crew is utterly exhausted from the effort. Oxygen is critically low. The Captain orders all men not on immediate duty to go to their bunks and relax, while the Chief continues his repairs. In their bunks, the sleeping men wear small oxygen to save air.
The crew is all collapsed about the sub, oxygen deprived and resigned to death. Even the Captain despairs and blames his own recklessness for the crew's fate. The Chief finishes repairs, however, and believes that they still have a chance. The Captain and the Chief resolve to give it a try. They blow their ballast and slowly start rising. Johann fires the engines and, amazingly, they start and work. They surface and everyone takes ecstatic breaths of fresh air. On top of the observation tower, the Captain yells joyously that they can escape since the Brits presumed they were all dead.
The sub limps back to La Rochelle. Droves of people are out to greet them, and the tired mariners get a heroes' welcome. They look exhausted but happy that they made it.
Suddenly, an air raid siren sounds. Enemy warplanes swoop in, gunning and bombing everyone and everything in sight. Lt. Werner and the Chief manage to make it into a shelter along with a few of the sub's crew. After the planes leave Lt. Werner goes out to survey the damage.
Most of the crew is dead. You see the corpses of Johann, the second lieutenant, Ullmann, and others. Finally Werner comes to the Captain, who is still standing... but a trickle of blood flows from his mouth and he slowly collapses. Werner looks on, horrified. The Captain lives just long enough to see U-96 sink from sight. The camera zooms out of the scene, with Werner holding the dead Captain.