During the Second World War, U-96, a German submarine, ships out from its French home port on a dangerous mission to sink shipping in the Atlantic. Commanded by a still young but highly experienced captain (Prochnow), the ship also carries a journalist (Grönemeyer), sent to write a propaganda piece on the heroic crew. Over the following weeks, the ship and its young crew barely survive numerous close calls as Allied destroyers and aircraft depth-charge the vessel. A clandestine visit to a Spanish port brings only brief respite: the ship is refuelled and restocked, but sent on an even more perilous mission through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. After further undersea tests of endurance, the submarine makes it back to port. But as it docks, an Allied air raid sinks the boat, killing captain and crew.
Das Boot’s gripping, claustrophobic depiction of the terrors and pleasures of war under water has made it a key example of the subgenre of the submarine combat film. A German war film, telling a German war story, made with German money, it was a surprise international hit on its theatrical release in 1981. Its reputation and reach increased when it was recast as a five-part TV mini-series in 1985, and then rereleased in a much longer director’s cut in 1997. Over time, it has become arguably the bestknown German film overseas since Metropolis (1927), or perhaps Triumph of the Will (1935). Das Boot raised questions regarding the appropriate and adequate representation of German history and of the Second World War, questions that go far beyond cinema, and continue to be discussed today. But the film – and this perhaps goes some way to explaining its global success – is as much about masculinity as it is about history, as much about love as it is about the Battle of the Atlantic. It celebrates the love of sailors for their boat and the love of soldiers for each other and their unit. But above all, Das Boot stages and eulogises the love of authority, and the strong social ties that beloved leadership guarantees.
Although there had never been any shortage of films about the Second World War, the late 1970s saw an intensification of the international traffic in stories and images focusing on Germany’s Nazi past. In 1978, the television mini-series Holocaust garnered huge audiences worldwide with its populist treatment of historical trauma, simplifying complex historical events into clear narrative lines and identificatory structures. In Germany the broadcast was a national event; it is often seen as a watershed in the treatment of the Holocaust in public life. Around the same time, for many of the auteurs of New German Cinema, the treatment of historical themes offered a way of combining a broadly critical stance with the possibility of larger audiences at home and abroad. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) and Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany Pale Mother (1980) all succeeded at the domestic box office – always a great weak point of the New German Cinema – but also on the international art-cinema circuit. In doing so, they helped to consolidate a key element – still very much alive today – in modern German cinema’s international brand: as channeller and interpreter of Germany’s ‘difficult and painful history’.
The team behind Das Boot – perhaps above all its producer Günter Rohrbach, newly arrived at the Bavaria studios, looking for a big project to consolidate his position – aimed to mine this rich seam of interest in historical themes, but on a larger scale and for a much bigger, mainstream market. The adaptation of Lothar-Günter Buchheim’s autobiographical novel was planned as a big-budget contemporary entertainment film, dealing with the German past, but made in a Hollywood style and on a Hollywood scale. Moreover, the film would emulate Hollywood’s latest, powerfully populist model: Das Boot would be a locally made blockbuster, its direct narration and strong identification augmented with immersive sound, corporeally involving action sequences and aggressive cross-media marketing. At the time, the film was the most expensive ever made in Germany. Deciding against Hollywood co-production, eschewing the state subsidy favoured by German art cinema, the studio gambled on lavish domestic production, raising unprecedented funds from TV stations and taxavoiding investors.1 Wolfgang Petersen, a shrewd populist, was engaged as director and screenwriter; top German specialists were entrusted with a project larger than any they had worked on before. The film’s look and feel owes much to their work: its immersive qualities depend on outstanding production and sound design, as well as Klaus Doldinger’s music.2 Jost Vacano’s camera lent particular viscerality and intimacy: thanks to his self-built gyroscopic attachment, the camera, smaller than a Steadicam, could move exhilaratingly through the small spaces of the submarine, racing down the length of the boat, and registering the many jolts and impacts that make the film a judderingly somatic experience.
Telling a German story about the war posed questions about whose stories could be told and whose suffering and whose loss might be represented. Das Boot shifted the political goalposts of German cinema, implicitly discarding the critical standpoint of the New German Cinema, which, for all its complex relation to state funding, understood itself as a critical counter-cinema. Instead, Das Boot tapped into national myths and local identification structures in a broadly affirmative way. Questions of politics and historical responsibility were laid aside in favour of a loose notion of powerlessness. For a domestic audience, the ‘us’ here is not only ‘we Germans’, but also ‘we without historical agency’: the film offered the possibility of identifying with the suffering and stoicism of the ordinary German serviceman, flotsam on the blind tides of history, victim of a criminal regime and a callous high command. But there were further, more contemporary layers of national spectatorship. Given the film’s relation to the blockbuster aesthetic (alluded to in direct references to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975)), German audiences were offered not only the pathos of fatalism and victimhood, but also the complex satisfaction of seeing a local production successfully inhabiting a newly hegemonic international style.
The producers’ gamble was a stunning success: the film did unexpectedly well overseas, particularly in the American mainstream market. This set up new dynamics of reception, with the interplay of the national and international giving rise to ironies and paradoxes. Overseas, a key selling point of Das Boot as a war film – its novelty value – was its highly atypical point of view, located firmly on the German side. To say the least, international audiences were unaccustomed to seeing German protagonists, usually simply The Enemy, as beloved figures who live, suffer and die before their eyes. Director Petersen enjoyed telling an anecdote – possibly true – which allegorises this aspect of the film’s international reception. The audience at one Los Angeles test screening, he claimed, cheered the opening title telling that 75 percent of German submariners died at sea, but the film wrenched their sympathies around, and its ending was greeted by tears and applause (Petersen and Greiwe 1997: 174). Paradoxically, this effectiveness meant that in the United States the film was to a degree denationalised, losing enough of its foreign marking to qualify as a culturally neutral, almost an American film. The triumphant proof came in six Oscar nominations, all of them for mainstream, ‘domestic’ awards, a different order of achievement to the vaguely condescending category of ‘best foreignlanguage feature’.
At home, initial critical response was quite negative, largely because of the film’s historical stance. The film, of course, distanced itself from the ideology of National Socialism, ridiculed in the figure of the First Officer, with his absurd self-sacrifice and his abstract musings on leadership. For critics, the problem lay rather in the film’s almost total lack of historical context. In the desert of the deep, there are no civilians and few consequences, barely a glimpse of the enemy. This allowed the viewer to forget that at every moment we are asked to sympathise with the forces of the National Socialist state. Foregrounding the crew’s courage and endurance occluded the boat’s real function: to starve Allied populations, defeat their armies and ensure Nazi hegemony. Even the crew’s hostility towards the high command and the national leadership, and their sympathy for enemy counterparts, was seen as subtly reinforcing an old, pernicious myth: that the armed forces simply did their duty, soldiering on in an insane hell, and that the real guilt lay with ‘mad’ leadership and with ‘fanatical’ units like the SS.3