The loyalty of the crew – and the film’s invitation to audience sympathies – does not focus on the regime or the nation but on the unit and the captain. Like most combat films, Das Boot celebrates the profound homosocial bonding of a small group of men placed in an extreme situation.4 In the Spielbergian phrase, the crew of U-96 is a ‘band of brothers’; women appear only in the opening scene, as singers and prostitutes, or as extras waving the boat in and out of port. But thanks to the setting, the depiction of this group is subtly different from the one in the infantry film, which, although it often uses soldiers’ regional and ethnic diversity to suggest a microcosm of the nation, tends to emphasise the fate of individuals within the unit and celebrate the loyalty of the soldier to the man in the next foxhole. The focus of Das Boot’s representation is more abstract. The crew is a collective, and the submarine – the machine whose functioning is essential to their survival – is an enclosed lifeworld, a micro-society, a home. Throughout the film, in spite of the horrors and terrors, the boat is a utopian space: a world in which everyone knows his place and his job, where work is inherently and urgently meaningful, where privacy is secondary to common property and a common goal, where social bonds are unbreakable, and where authority is effective, respected and merciful.
The film is a paean to this authority, embodied in the figure of the ‘Kaleun’ (the ‘KapitänLeutnant’), the submarine’s captain. The captain – his aura of Good Fatherhood is unsullied by the banal specificity of a personal name – is a model of moderate masculinity, self-contained and always in control. His paternal authority does not rest on fear or coercion, but on omnicompetence and a profound understanding of his men. Several times, he describes them explicitly as ‘children’; their mission is a ‘childrens’ crusade’. While on one level, the plot brings the ship across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, on another, the film stages the crew’s passage to manhood – a passage indexed by beards and increasingly haggard faces – through a series of evermore profound tests of courage, in the endurance of bombardment and the prospect of inundation.5
The captain’s authority remains unquestioned throughout. The crew responds to his leadership with trust and love, depicted as more beautiful and effective bonding agents than the abstractions of ideology, satirised in the First Officer’s dogmatism. The film’s incessant reiteration of good authority is above all staged visually, in the orchestration of gazes between captain and crew, and in close-ups on Prochnow’s saintly face, melancholy with the weight of responsibility.6 A key instance occurs just as the voyage begins. After the excesses of the last night on shore, the captain’s benevolent regime is rewarded with professionalism: hangovers notwithstanding, the boat is ready and the crew lined up on the dockside. Standing at relaxed attention, the men gaze on the captain, their faces beaming, visibly suppressing smiles of happiness, suggesting a deep affection which sustains but overspills military protocol, necessary but inadequate in itself. No speeches required: the captain simply smiles and asks quietly, ‘Na, Männer, alles klar?’ [‘So men, are we all set?’] As the vessel ships out, the look of love is multiplied: Thomsen, the other ‘good captain’, drunkard and noble cynic, comes to wave them off. In a long-lens framing, we see the U-96 crew arranged around the conning tower, waving back towards the viewer. Cut to a close-up of Thomsen, his old alcoholic eyes filling with tears as he gazes after the departing ship.
Only once does a crack emerge, allowing the reality of power relations to appear. During yet another depth-charging, Johann the engineer breaks under pressure, abandons his station and tries to open the sea-door to escape. Faced with this one-man mutiny, the captain rushes for his revolver; but the gun is barely visible in the frame, as if, for the film, it would be obscene to depict the captain actually wielding the violent technology of ultimate authority. Minutes later, organic bonds of social order are restored. Again, this is staged through the look: a repentant Johann comes to beg for mercy, asking that he not be court-martialled. Huge eyes bulging in his gaunt face, he beseeches the captain, soliciting his look. At first, the captain’s gaze is withheld, but eventually he turns towards the engineer. His face softens with eye contact; the desertion is quietly forgiven.
The film’s largest deviation from its source material comes at the end. The real-life captain and crew of U-96 survived the war. In fact, the real crew’s first ever reunion took place during a visit to the location shoot in La Rochelle, France. But Das Boot turns the voyage into a tragedy. Having survived the trials of the deep, the ship is sunk in a bombing raid just as it reaches the illusory safety of the port. Crew and captain are left dead or dying on the dockside. Only the journalist, our central figure of narrative orientation, is left alive. Ultimately, he will tell the story. Before that, he – and the audience – experiences a last exchange of looks with the dying captain. In this way, the film, in its final moments, quite deliberately presents its audience with an invitation to mourn. But to mourn what? The answer might give us pause for thought: Das Boot ultimately asks the viewer to lament a lost utopian, fraternal social space, to mourn a beloved leader, and to feel, palpably, the absence of a face onto which all hopes have been projected and towards which all fears were directed.
1. Early adaptation attempts were problematic: screenplays were written and discarded, discussions with Hollywood figures (Robert Redford mooted as a star, Don Siegel as possible director) went nowhere, elaborate scale models were built, and then mothballed.
2. Sound design is crucial for the war film in general and the submarine film in particular. The repeated sonar ‘ping’ which plays a key role in the film is in fact a processed composite of nine separate ‘pings’, heavily processed to create a single rich and evocative sound (Koldau 2011: 73).
3. For an example of the critique, see Fritz J. Raddatz, ‘Das Boot ist leer: Einspruch gegen ein politisch fragwürdiges Heldenepos’, in Heptner and Reichmann 2006: 132–4.
4. This homosociality is usually heavily policed for suggestions of homosexuality. Among his many objections, Buchheim, the ebullient and cantankerous author, protested any hint of homoeroticism in the adaptation, as in the invented scene of cross-dressing as on-board entertainment (Buchheim 1981: 181).
5. Brad Prager, in a convincing psychoanalytic reading, sees this process as an education in continence: under constant threat of inundation, the crew must learn to be neither too dry, like the First Officer, nor too wet, like Thomsen, but just right, like the Captain (Prager 2003: 249–53).
6. The gaze towards the captain contrasts with the other main look in the film: the wide-eyed stare into a non-existent distance, a look without a visual object, a look of waiting and of listening, listening for sonic traces of the enemy, for the impact of a depth charge and to the ominous creaking of the hull.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: West Germany (Das Boot), Germany, USA (Das Boot: The Director’s Cut). Production Company: Bavaria (Das Boot), Bavaria, Columbia Pictures (Das Boot: The Director’s Cut). Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Producer: Günter Rohrbach. Screenwriter: Wolfgang Petersen (based on the book by Lothar-Günther Buchheim). Cinematographer: Jost Vacano. Music: Klaus Doldinger. Editor: Johannes Nikel. Production Designer: Rolf Zehetbauer. Cast: Jürgen Prochnow (The CapitanLieutenant), Herbert Grönemeyer (Lieutenant Werner), Klaus Wennemann (Chief Engineer), 110 Das Boot (1981); Das Boot: The Director’s Cut (1997) Hubertus Bengsch (First Officer), Martin Semmelrogge (Second Officer), Erwin Leder (Johann the Engineer).]
Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Der Film Das Boot: ein Journal, Munich, Goldmann, 1981.
Lothar-Günther Buchheim, The Boat, New York, Knopf, 1975.
Thomas Elsaesser, ‘German Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood: Looking into a Two-Way Mirror’, in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2005, pp. 299–320.
Christine Haase, ‘Wolfgang Petersen: Blockbuster Auteur?’ in When Heimat Meets Hollywood: German Filmmakers and America, 1985–2005, Rochester, Camden House, 2007, pp. 63–100.
Tim Heptner and Hans-Peter Reichmann, Das Boot: auf der Suche nach der Crew der U-96, Frankfurt am Main, Deutsches Filmmuseum, 2006.
Linda Maria Koldau, ‘Why submarines? Interdisciplinary approaches to a cultural myth of war’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, pp. 65–78.
Wolfgang Petersen and Ulrich Greiwe, Ich liebe die grossen Geschichten: Vom Tatort bis nach Hollywood, Cologne, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1997, pp. 151–84.
Brad Prager, ‘Beleaguered under the Sea: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot as a German Hollywood Film’, in Randall Halle and Margaret McCarthy (eds), Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2003, pp. 237–58.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.