Das Boot

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This article is about the Wolfgang Petersen film. For other uses, see Das Boot (disambiguation).
Das Boot
Das boot ver1.jpg
Original 1981 theatrical poster
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Produced by Günter Rohrbach
Screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen
Based on Das Boot
by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
Music by Klaus Doldinger
Cinematography Jost Vacano
Edited by Hannes Nikel
Distributed by Neue Constantin Film
Release date
  • 17 September 1981 (1981-09-17)
Running time
149 minutes
Country West Germany
Language German
  • 32 million DM
  • ($12 million)
  • (24.3 million, 2009)
Box office $84.9 million[1]

Das Boot (German pronunciation: [das ˈboːt], German meaning "The Boat") is a 1981 German epic war film written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, produced by Günter Rohrbach, and starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer and Klaus Wennemann. It has been exhibited both as a theatrical release and as a TV miniseries, and in several different home video versions of various running times.

An adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim's 1973 German novel of the same name, the film is set during World War II and tells the fictional story of U-96 and its crew. It depicts both the excitement of battle and the tedium of the fruitless hunt, and shows the men serving aboard U-boats as ordinary individuals with a desire to do their best for their comrades and their country. The screenplay used an amalgamation of exploits from the real U-96, a Type VIIC-class U-boat.

Development began in 1979. Several American directors were considered three years earlier before the film was shelved. During production, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the captain of the real U-96 and one of Germany's top U-boat "tonnage aces" during the war, and Hans-Joachim Krug, former first officer on U-219, served as consultants. One of Petersen's goals was to guide the audience through "a journey to the edge of the mind" (the film's German tagline Eine Reise ans Ende des Verstandes), showing "what war is all about".

Produced with a budget of 32 million DM (about $18.5 million), the film was released on September 17, 1981, and was later released in 1997 in a director's cut version supervised by Petersen. It grossed over $80 million worldwide between its theatrical releases and received critical acclaim. Its high production cost ranks it among the most expensive films in the history of German cinema.


The story is told from the viewpoint of Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), who has been assigned as a war correspondent on the German submarine U-96 in October 1941. He meets its captain (Jürgen Prochnow), chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann), and the crew in a raucous French bordello. Thomsen (Otto Sander), another captain, gives a crude drunken speech to celebrate his Ritterkreuz award, in which he openly mocks not only Winston Churchill but implicitly Adolf Hitler as well.

The next morning, they sail out of the harbour of La Rochelle to a cheering crowd and playing band. Werner is given a tour of the boat. As time passes, he observes ideological differences between the new crew members and the hardened veterans, particularly the captain, who is embittered and cynical about the war. The new men, including Werner, are often mocked by the rest of the crew, who share a tight bond. After days of boredom, the crew is excited by another U-boat's spotting of an enemy convoy, but they soon locate a British destroyer. While the captain attempts to sink the destroyer, it sees the sub's periscope, and they are bombarded with depth charges. They narrowly escape with only light damage.

The next three weeks are spent enduring a relentless storm. Morale drops after a series of misfortunes, but the crew is cheered temporarily by a chance encounter with Thomsen's boat. Shortly after the storm ends, the boat encounters a British convoy and quickly launches four torpedoes, sinking two ships. They are spotted by a destroyer and have to dive below the submarine's rated limit. During the ensuing depth-charge attack, the chief mechanic, Johann, panics and has to be restrained. The boat sustains heavy damage, but is eventually able to safely surface in darkness. An enemy tanker remains afloat and on fire, so they torpedo the ship, only to realize that there are still sailors aboard; they watch in horror as the sailors, some on fire, leap overboard and swim towards them. Following orders not to take prisoners, the captain gives the command to back the ship away.

The worn-out U-boat crew looks forward to returning home to La Rochelle in time for Christmas, but the ship is ordered to La Spezia, Italy, which means passing through the Strait of Gibraltar—an area heavily defended by the Royal Navy. The U-boat makes a secret night rendezvous at the harbour of Vigo, in neutral although Axis-friendly Spain, with the SS Weser, an interned German merchant ship that clandestinely provides U-boats with fuel, torpedoes, and other supplies. The filthy officers seem out of place at the opulent dinner prepared for them, but are warmly greeted by enthusiastic officers eager to hear their exploits. The captain learns from an envoy of the German consulate that his request for Werner and the chief engineer to be sent back to Germany has been denied.

The crew finishes resupplying and departs for Italy. As they carefully approach Gibraltar and are just about to dive, they are suddenly attacked by a British fighter plane, wounding the navigator. The captain orders the boat directly south towards the African coast at full speed. British ships begin closing in and they are forced to dive; it is later implied that the ships used radar to locate the sub. When attempting to level off, the boat does not respond and continues to sink until, just before being crushed by the pressure, it lands on a sea shelf, at the depth of 280 metres. The crew work desperately to make numerous repairs before running out of oxygen. After over 16 hours, they are able to surface by blowing out their ballast of water, and limp back towards La Rochelle under cover of darkness.

The crew is pale and weary upon reaching La Rochelle on Christmas Eve. Shortly after the wounded navigator is taken ashore to a waiting ambulance, Allied planes bomb and strafe the facilities, wounding or killing many of the crew. Ullmann, Johann and the 2nd Watch Officer are killed. After the raid, Werner leaves the U-boat bunker in which he had taken shelter and finds the captain, badly injured by shrapnel, watching the U-boat sink at the dock. Just after the boat disappears under the water, the captain collapses and dies. Werner runs to his body, recoils, and quickly glances around at the destruction, his face frozen with distress. He then looks down at the captain's body, with tears in his eyes.


The U-96 officers. From l. to r.: the II. WO (Semmelrogge), the Commander (Prochnow), Navigator Kriechbaum (Tauber), the I. WO (Bengsch), Lt. Werner (Grönemeyer), "Little" Benjamin (Hoffmann), Cadet Ullmann (May), and Pilgrim (Fedder).
Johann (Leder) and the LI (Wennemann) inspecting the engine.
  • Jürgen Prochnow as Kapitänleutnant (abbr. "Kaleun", German pronunciation: [kaˈlɔɪ̯n]) and also called "Der Alte" ("The Old Man") by his crew: A 30-year-old battle-hardened but good-hearted and sympathetic sea veteran, who complains to Werner that most of his crew are boys.[2] Based on the real life Captain of U-96, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock.
  • Herbert Grönemeyer as Leutnant (Ensign) Werner, War Correspondent: Naive but honest, he has been sent out to sea with the crew to gather photographs of them in action and bring them back to use for Nazi Propaganda purposes. Werner is mocked for his lack of experience, and soon learns the true horrors of service on a U-boat. His character is based on the author of Das Boot, Lothar-Günther Buchheim.
  • Klaus Wennemann as Chief Engineer (Leitender Ingenieur or LI, Rank: Oberleutnant): A quiet and well-respected man. At age 27, the oldest crew member besides the Captain. Tormented by the uncertain fate of his wife, especially after hearing about an Allied air raid on Cologne. The second most important crewman, as he oversees diving operations and makes sure the systems are running correctly. His character is based on the historic U-96 Chief Engineer Oberleutnant zur See (Ing.) Hans Peter Dengel. Dengel was later promoted to Kapitänleutnant and served as Chief Engineer of German submarine U-543.
  • Hubertus Bengsch as 1st Watch Officer (I. WO, Rank: Oberleutnant): A young, by-the-book officer, an ardent Nazi and a staunch believer in victory. He has a condescending attitude and is the only crewman who makes the effort to maintain his proper uniform and trim appearance while all the others grow their beards in the traditional fashion. He was raised in some wealth in Mexico by his stepparents who owned a plantation. His German fiancée died in a British air raid. He spends his days writing his thoughts on military training and leadership for the High Command. His character is based on the real life U-96 First Watch Officer Gerhard Groth.
  • Martin Semmelrogge as 2nd Watch Officer (II. WO, Rank: Oberleutnant): A vulgar, comedic officer. He is short, red-haired and speaks with a mild Berlin dialect. One of his duties is to decode messages from base, using the Enigma code machine. Based on the historic 2nd Watch Officer of U-96, Werner Herrmann.
  • Bernd Tauber as Obersteuermann ("Chief Helmsman") Kriechbaum: The navigator and 3rd Watch Officer (III. WO). Always slightly skeptical of the Captain and without enthusiasm during the voyage, he shows no anger when a convoy is too far away to be attacked. Kriechbaum has four sons, with another on the way. Kriechbaum's character is based on the historical Navigator of U-96, Alfred Radermacher.
  • Erwin Leder as Obermaschinist ("Chief Mechanic") Johann, also called "Das Gespenst" ("The Ghost"): He is obsessed with a near-fetish love for the U-96's engines. Johann suffers a temporary mental breakdown during an attack by two destroyers. He is able to redeem himself by valiantly working to stop water leaks when the boat is trapped underwater near Gibraltar. Speaks Austro-Bavarian. His character is based on Knight's Cross recipient Hans Johannsen.
  • Martin May as Fähnrich (Senior Cadet) Ullmann: A young officer candidate who has a pregnant French fiancée (which is considered treason by the French partisans) and worries about her safety. He is one of the few crew members with whom Werner is able to connect; Werner offers to deliver Ullmann's stack of love letters when Werner is ordered to leave the submarine. Ullmann's character is based on the historical Hans Heinrich Hass who served as a watch officer trainee on U-96 and later commanded a Type XXIII submarine. Hass survived the war and rose to the rank of Fregattenkapitän in the Bundesmarine.
  • Heinz Hoenig as Maat (Petty Officer) Hinrich: The radioman, sonar controller and ship's combat medic. He is in many ways the third most important crewman, since he gauges speed and direction of targets and enemy destroyers. Hinrich is one of the few officers that the Captain is able to relate to.
  • Uwe Ochsenknecht as Bootsmann ("Boatswain") Lamprecht: The severe chief who shows Werner around the U-96, and supervises the firing and reloading of the torpedo tubes. He gets upset after hearing on the radio that the football team most of the crew supports (FC Schalke 04) are losing a match, and they will "never make the final now". He speaks a Mannheim dialect.
  • Claude-Oliver Rudolph as Ario: The burly mechanic who tells everyone that Dufte is getting married to an ugly woman, and throws pictures around of Dufte's fiancée in order to laugh at them both.
  • Jan Fedder as Maat (Petty Officer) Pilgrim: Another sailor (watch officer and diving planes operator), gets almost swept off the submarine during a storm—a genuine accident during filming in which Fedder broke several ribs and was hospitalised for a while.[citation needed] Speaks Hamburg dialect.
  • Ralf Richter as Maat (Petty Officer) Frenssen: Pilgrim's best friend. Pilgrim and Frenssen love to trade dirty jokes and stories. He speaks Ruhr dialect.
  • Joachim Bernhard as Bibelforscher ("Bible scholar", also the contemporary German term for a member of Jehovah's Witnesses): A very young religious sailor who is constantly reading the Bible. He is punched by Frenssen when the submarine is trapped at the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar for praying rather than repairing the boat.
  • Oliver Stritzel as Schwalle: A tall and well-built blond torpedoman who speaks Berlin dialect.
  • Jean-Claude Hoffmann as Benjamin: A red haired sailor who serves as a diving planes operator.
  • Lutz Schnell as Dufte: The sailor who gets jeered at because he is getting married, and for a possible false airplane sighting.
  • Konrad Becker as Böckstiegel: the sailor who is first visited by Hinrich for crab lice. Speaks Austro-Bavarian of the very distinctive Viennese variation
  • Otto Sander as Kapitänleutnant Philipp Thomsen: An alcoholic and shell-shocked U-boat commander, who is a member of "The Old Guard". When he is introduced, he is extremely drunk and briefly mocks both Hitler and Winston Churchill on the stage of the French bordello. (In the audio commentary of the director's-cut DVD, Petersen says that Sander was really drunk while they were shooting the scene.) Sometime after U-96 departs, Thomsen is deployed once again and the two submarines meet randomly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean being put off course by the storm. This upsets the captain because it means that there is now a gap in the blockade chain. After failing to make contact later, it becomes apparent that Thomsen's boat is missing.
  • Günter Lamprecht as the Captain of the Weser (rank: Kapitän zur See): An enthusiastic officer aboard the resupply ship Weser. He mistakes the I. WO for the Captain as they enter the ship's elegant dining room. An ardent Nazi, he complains about the frustration of not being able to fight, but boasts about the food that has been prepared for the crew and the ship's "specialities".
  • Sky du Mont as an Oberleutnant aboard the Weser (uncredited). The II. WO amuses him with a comical demonstration of depth charging, involving a bowl of punch, a ladle and oranges.

The film features both Standard German-speakers and dialect speakers. Petersen states in his DVD audio commentary that young men from throughout Germany and Austria were recruited for the film, as he wanted faces and dialects that would accurately reflect the diversity of the Third Reich, around 1941. All of the main actors are bilingual in German and English, and when the film was dubbed into English, each actor recorded his own part (with the exception of Martin Semmelrogge, who only dubbed his own role in the Director's Cut). The German version is dubbed as well, as the film was shot "silent", because the dialogue spoken on-set would have been drowned out by the gyroscopes in the special camera developed for filming.


Sets and models[edit]

U 995, a U-boat of the version VII-C/41, at its exhibition in Laboe in 2004

The interior U-boat mock-up was mounted five metres off the floor and was shaken, rocked, and tilted up to 45 degrees by means of a hydraulic apparatus, and was vigorously shaken to simulate depth charge attacks. Petersen was admittedly obsessive about the structural detail of the U-boat set, remarking that "every screw" in the set was an authentic facsimile of the kind used in a World War II U-boat. In this he was considerably assisted by the numerous photographs Lothar-Günther Buchheim had taken during his own voyage on the historical U-96, some of which had been published in his 1976 book, U-Boot-Krieg ("U-Boat War").

Special camera[edit]

Most of the interior shots were filmed using a hand-held Arriflex of cinematographer Jost Vacano's design to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere of the boat. It had two gyroscopes to provide stability, a different and smaller scale solution than the Steadicam, so that it could be carried throughout the interior of the mock-up.[3]


Several versions of the film and video releases have been made: The first version to be released was the theatrical 150-minute (2½-hour) cut, released to theatres in Germany in 1981, and in the United States in 1982. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Sound (Milan Bor, Trevor Pyke and Mike Le Mare), Sound Effects Editing, and Writing).[4]

The film was partly financed by the German television broadcasters WDR and the SDR, and much more footage had been shot for the film than was shown in the theatrical version. A version of three 100-minute episodes was transmitted on BBC Two in the United Kingdom in October 1984, and in Germany and Austria the following year. In 1988 a version composed of six 50-minute episodes was screened. These episodes had additional cutback scenes summarising past episodes.

Petersen then oversaw the editing of six hours of film, from which was distilled Das Boot: The Director's Cut, 209 minutes long (3 hours, 29 minutes). Released in 1997, this cut combines the action sequences seen in the feature-length version with character development scenes contained in the mini-series. This release also provides better sound and video quality.[5] Petersen originally had planned to release this version in 1981, which for commercial reasons was not possible. The Director's Cut was released to cinemas in Germany on 11 December and on 4 April 1997 in the U.S. In addition to the "Director's Cut" DVD, a Superbit version, with fewer additional DVD features but a higher bit-rate (superior quality), was released by Columbia Pictures.

An uncut miniseries version, running 293 minutes (four hours, 53 minutes), was released to DVD on 1 June 2004, as Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version with enhanced video and audio quality. It omits the cutback scenes of the 1988 television broadcast and is therefore shorter.

On 14 October 2010, the 208-minute "Director's Cut" was released on a German-language Blu-ray Disc in Europe.[6] It was released in the United States on 5 July 2011. The shortest version begins an evening in a French nightclub. The longer begins in a car that is driving to the same place, and several drunken sailors are urinating at the car, in which the U-boat commander and the guest reporter are sitting. The commander does not care, but later the new German-Mexican volunteer officer complains about it. This complaint is also cut in the short version, hence the introduction of this officer becomes very short. The long version was released for at least cinemas in Sweden at the time (a long time before 1997).


  • 150 minutes (1981, 1982) Theatrical
  • 209 minutes (1981) unreleased
  • 300 minutes (1984, 1988) BBC mini-series
  • 208 minutes (1997) Director's Cut
  • 293 minutes (2004) Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version


Critical response[edit]

The film received critical acclaim and is seen as one of the greatest of all German films. The film currently has a "certified fresh" score of 98% based on 46 reviews with an average rating of 9 out of 10 on Rotten Tomatoes. The critical consensus states "Taut, breathtakingly thrilling, and devastatingly intelligent, Das Boot is one of the greatest war films ever made."[7] The film also has a score of 86 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 15 critics indicating "universal acclaim".[8] For its unsurpassed authenticity in tension and realism, it is regarded internationally as pre-eminent among all submarine films. The film was ranked #25 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[9]

At the 55th Academy Awards, Das Boot was nominated for six awards, including Best Director.[4] To this day, it holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations for a German film.

In late 2007, there was an exhibition about the film Das Boot, as well as about the real U-Boat U-96, at the Haus der Geschichte (House of German History) in Bonn. Over 100,000 people visited the exhibition during its four-month run.


The film was unusual in its North American promotion, since it was referred to both in German as Das Boot, and in English as The Boat. The lack of drama in the translated title eventually led to its being marginalized, with Das Boot becoming the normal title for the film.

Historical accuracy[edit]

Even though the beginning and the end of the film occur in the port of La Rochelle, it does not correspond historically. The submarine base in La Rochelle was not functional before November 1941, and at the time of the film the port was dried up.[10]

Criticism by novelist Buchheim[edit]

Even though impressed by the technological accuracy of the film's set-design and port construction buildings, novelist Lothar-Günther Buchheim expressed great disappointment with Petersen's adaptation in a film review[11] published in 1981, especially with Petersen's aesthetic vision for the film and the way the plot and the effects are, according to him, overdone and clichéd by the adaptation. He also criticised the hysterical overacting of the cast, which he called highly unrealistic, while acknowledging the cast's acting talent in general. Buchheim, after several attempts for an American adaptation had failed, had provided a script detailing his own narrative, cinematographical and photographical ideas as soon as Petersen was chosen as new director. It would have amounted in full to a complete six-hour epic; however, Petersen turned him down because at the time the producers were aiming for a 90-minute feature for international release. However, today's Director's Cut of Das Boot amounts to over 200 minutes, and the complete TV version of the film is 282 minutes long.

Buchheim, himself a U-boat correspondent, attacked specifically what he called Petersen's sacrificing of both realism and suspense in dialogue, narration, and photography for the sake of cheap dramatic thrills and action effects (for example, in reality one single exploding bolt of the boat's pressure hull would have been enough for the whole crew to worry about the U-boat being crushed by water pressure, while Petersen has several bolts loosening in various scenes). Buchheim also criticized depictions of the crew's loud behaviour during patrols as unrealistic and celebrations after achieving a torpedo hit or surviving a bombing as unprofessional. Furthermore, an officer—even an outsider like Lt. Werner—would have commanded special respect and that throwing an oil-drenched towel into his face would not have been tolerated.

Uttering concerns about the end result, Buchheim felt that unlike his clearly anti-war novel the adaptation was "another re-glorification and re-mystification"[11] of the German World War II U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism. He called the film a cross between a "cheap, shallow American action flick"[11] and a "contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II".[11]


The characteristic lead melody of the soundtrack, composed and produced by Klaus Doldinger, took on a life of its own after German rave group U96 created a remixed "techno version" in 1991. The title theme "Das Boot"[12] later became an international hit.

The official soundtrack[13] features only compositions by Doldinger, except for J'attendrai sung by Rina Ketty. The soundtrack ("Filmmusik") released following the release of The Director's Cut version omits J'attendrai.

Songs heard in the film, but not included on the album are La Paloma sung by Rosita Serrano, the Erzherzog-Albrecht-Marsch (a popular military march), It's a Long Way to Tipperary performed by the Red Army Chorus, Heimat, Deine Sterne and the Westerwald-Marsch.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Box Office Information for Das Boot. The Numbers. Retrieved March 27, 2013.
  2. ^ See comment by Wolfgang Petersen in 'Extra Features'; 'The Making Of/Behind The Scenes, Das Boot: The Director's Cut (1997). DVD.
  3. ^ SOC 2011 Historical Shot: Das Boot by Jost Vacano. Vimeo. Retrieved 15 February 2016. 
  4. ^ a b "The 55th Academy Awards (1983) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  5. ^ Original Movie Website restoration information --> http://www.dasboot.com/classics.htm
  6. ^ "Das Boot (Directors Cut) Blu-ray". Retrieved 2014-03-16. 
  7. ^ "Das Boot". 17 September 1981. Retrieved 15 February 2016. 
  8. ^ "Das Boot". Metacritic. Retrieved 15 February 2016. 
  9. ^ "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema – 25. Das Boot". Empire. 
  10. ^ "History of the submarine base of La Rochelle". Archived from the original on 26 March 2007. 
  11. ^ a b c d Lothar-Günter Buchheim (1981). Kommentar - Die Wahrheit blieb auf Tauchstation ("Commentary: The truth remained hidden under the sea"), Geo, no. 10, 1981
  12. ^ Die Original Titelmelodie: Das Boot (Klaus Doldinger single) at Discogs (list of releases)
  13. ^ Das Boot (Die original Filmmusik) (album) at Discogs (list of releases)

External links[edit]