Das Boot (1981)




Director:  Wolfgang Petersen.

Starring:  Jurgen Prochnow (Captain), Herbert Gronemeyer (Lt. Werner/Correspondent), Klaus Wennemann (Chief Engineer), Hubertus Bengsch (1st Lt./Number One), Martin Semmelrogge (2nd Lieutenant), Bernd Tauber (Chief Quartermaster).

U-boats in 1941


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"La Rochelle, France, Autumn, 1941.  Germany's vaunted U-boat fleet, with which Hitler hoped to blockade and starve out Britain, is beginning to suffer its first major setbacks.  British freighters are now sailing the Atlantic with stronger and more effective destroyer escorts, inflicting heavy losses on the U-boats.  Nevertheless, the German high Command orders more and more U-boats, with even younger crews, into battle from their ports in occupied France.  The battle for control of the Atlantic is turning against the Germans."

"40,000 German sailors served on U-boats during World War II.  30,000 never returned." 

The captain drives to his U-boat with two passengers.  Along the last part of the drive the road is covered with his drunken sailors. 

The captain and his two companions come into a night club where a pretty red-head is singing for the crowd.  He finds his second officer drunk and having just failed to successfully pull out a tablecloth from under the table setting.  He sees his captain and salutes him.  The captain says to his two companions that this is the second officer.  He introduces the second officer to Lt. Werner, Naval War Correspondent, who will be going on the voyage with them.  Another lieutenant comes over to the captain and says the the boat is ready for sea. 

A naval man gets up and toasts to Captain-Lieutenant Thomsen, newly given the knight's cross medal.  Thomsen is really drunk and has to be supported by a man on either side of  him. Thomsen starts criticizing Hitler as the greatest of all naval strategists, but a couple of the officers approach him, and he switches over to a criticism of that "asshole" Churchill. 

The captain complains to Thomsen that the new crews are green, eager and wet behind the ear braggarts.  One naval officer starts shooting his pistol at the walls.  Thomsen passes out on the bathroom floor. 

The captain goes down to the docks.  The place is really busy fixing U-boats.  The captain reaches his U-boat and the first officer tells him that everything is set to go.  The men are standing at attention on top of the U-boat in two rows.  The captain tells the men that they have a guest on board, a war correspondent, so the men better behave accordingly.  The men stay on top of the submarine as it makes its ways past the docks.  Thomsen arrives to yell a wish of victory to the men.

Lieutenant Werner gets his grand tour of the submarine.  He comes up on deck where a number of officers are using binoculars to check out their surroundings.  The captain says that with all the boys on board, it makes him feel ancient.  But soon they will have their beards and not look so young.  One of the officers came all the way from south of Mexico City, Mexico to go on this submarine tour.  The other officers are impressed that he came so far just to get on a U-boat, but the fellow says, as a German, it was his duty to do so.

A man on deck shouts down into the sub:  "Alarm!"  Everyman on board immediately starts performing their various tasks.  The men in charge start yelling:  "All hands forward!"  The submarine heads below the water surface. Then it turns out that this was just a practice drill.  The journalist is sweating bullets.  The captain has the crew take the sub down 160 meters and then brings the U-boat back up to the surface. 

Lt. Werner learns from one of the crew, Ullman, that he has a French girlfriend and they are secretly engaged.  But now the woman is pregnant.  Lt. Werner says the French Resistance better not find out that the child is half German. 

The captain is not happy with the military higher-ups.  He says they are just sitting here waiting for orders, while many of the ships of the British convoys are reaching their destinations.  The captain likes to tease the guy from south of Mexico City by saying he is a leader of the Hitler Youth.  He tells the fellow to put on the song "Tipperary" and the crew sings:  "It's a long way to Tipperary, it's a long way to go . .."  

The most recent message is decoded via the Enigma machine.  The message is from U-37, Marten's sub.  He is going after a convoy.  The captain says the area is too far away.  They could never make it there in time.  One of the submariners wants to see some action.  In the torpedo room, the men are greasing down the torpedoes.  Lt. Werner is taking photos until he is hit in the face with a completely greasy rag.  His face is now covered in black grease.  The man in charge of the torpedo room demands to know from the men who did that.  No one says anything.  Lt. Werner leaves the torpedo room and closes the door behind him. 

The entry in Lt. Werner's diary is that it is the 20th day at sea.  The alarm goes off.  The U-boat goes down 30 meters.  The sound man tells the captain that the noise of the propellers is growing fainter.  The captain says the ship is going fast and they have no way of getting that ship in this light.  The captain adds that they are very comfy is this well-ventilated ship.  But they are bored.  The captain says:  "The British have stopped making mistakes."

Suddenly there's some action.  U-32, Berthold's ship, has spotted a British convoy and their U-boat can be there in ten hours.   The men give a cheer when the captain announces that contact is expected somewhere around 1800 hours.  There are more than 30 freighters.  The U-boat is going about as fast as it can.  The visibility is nil.  Prepare to dive.   The U-boat heads down 30 meters below the surface of the water. They will have a hydrophone check for the noise of a convoy, since they can't see in this lousy weather they are having.  The sound man, however, can't hear anything. 

A little later the sound man picks up some quite faint sounds.  The captain listens in and says they are blasting someone with depth charges.  The sounds indicate that the convoy is moving away from them.  The captain gives the order to surface. 

One of the men in the tower spots a vessel, starboard ahead. The captain spots the freighter, but as it comes closer, the captain sees that is is a "damn" destroyer.  Clear the bridge.  Take her down.  Battle stations.  Periscope depth.  Flood tubes one to four.  Open bow caps.  Tube one through four ready for firing.  The captain looks again and can't see the destroyer.   When he finally spots the destroyer it is almost on top of them.  Depth charges dropped!  The submarine takes a big hit and the men are tossed around.  No serious damage.  The captain figures they must have seen their periscope.  The destroyer is now ahead of the U-boat.  They take the U-boat down deeper.  Now all the crew can hear the sounds of the destroyer.  Depth charges blast away almost on top of the submarine and the submarine really shakes and rattles.  The captain tells the men to be calm.  There is worse to come. 

The destroyer is closing fast.  It's coming straight at them.  Dive deeper!  The captain says:  "Someone up there knows what he's doing."  The sounds of the destroyer can be heard by the crew again..  They are 165 meters below the surface of the water.  Some of the men are very frightened.  They go down to 175 meters and keep going.  The sub creaks and moans.  Depth charges now cause some real problems since water is coming into the submarine from many points.  The men, however, quickly stop the leaks.  The U-boat goes back to 150 meters. 

The destroyer is turning around for another attack.  It gets directly above the U-boat.  Contact fading to starboard.  The sound fades until the sound man can barely hear it.  He says the destroyer has past them by.  All compartments are to report damage. 

The captain and his staff have dinner.  Lt. Werner is exhausted from the fear of the experience.  They have waited an hour.  The captain says the destroyer might have just stopped and is waiting for them on the surface.  Periscope depth.  The captain searches for the destroyer.  He doesn't see anything so he orders the vessel to surface.  The men celebrate their survival with music and dance.  They are so loud that one of the officers comes back to tell them to quiet down. 

A fellow is checked in the groin area and is found to have crabs.  A powder is applied to the area.  The other men have a big laugh about it.  One of the officers tells the fellow from south of Mexico City that he has crabs in his eye brows.  The guy goes to check on his eyebrows.  He goes to see the medic.  He has to stand in line behind a lot of men with the same problem. 

The U-boat is on the surface and the sea is really rough.  Some men are tossed around.  The captain is informed that in this rough weather they are just wasting fuel because the boat is hardly moving.  The U-boat now submerges under the water.  The captain comments that there are no ships as save as the U-boats. 

The ship surfaces, but the weather is still very rough.  A man is knocked out of the tower by a wave and is in danger of going completely overboard.  The other three men in the tower save his life.  The fellow's face is all bloodied.  The U-boat submerges again.  At dinner the captain comments:  "What a rotten month!" 

A lot of the men have brought quite a few photographs from home and at times they share them with their buddies.  A U-boat is spotted straight ahead.  It too is being tossed around.  The captain sends a message using a lantern signal.  He screams:  "It's Thomsen!" 

The captain is shocked.  He asks how can this happen?  They only have a lousy dozen U-boats out in the Atlantic.  And yet they almost collide with another U-boat.  No one knows where their own U-boat is located on the map. 

At night the ocean calms down and the U-boat travels along on the surface.  They have spotted a convoy.  There are five columns of enemy ships.  And there is no sign of any destroyers.  There are five U-boats in the larger area.  The captain is going to go to the attack.  Without submerging they flood tubes one to four.  Tubes one and two fire at will.  Tube 3 fire!  Tube 4 fire!  Then the shout goes out.  "Destroyer ahead!"  They have to submerge as fast as possible.  The crew runs to the front of the boat.  Battle stations!  They go down 80 meters.  A torpedo hits the first ship.  A second ship is hit.  A third torpedo hits.  They got all three ships they had targeted.

The captain says now the enemy will now take their revenge.  Depth charges go off but way aft of them. 

The U-boat is rocked again by depth charges.  Men are tossed around again like toys. The crew realizes that the British are using an ultrasonic detection system.  Another depth charge hits near them.  A fire starts in the sub, but is quickly put out.  The men are now coughing a great deal.  The submarine goes deeper.  The men hear the sound of the ultra sonic detection system again.  The captain wants to double back to keep the destroyer guessing as to their location.

Second contact.  The captain says:  ":Damn them!"   And now he orders:  "Deeper!"  They go down to 190 meters and then to 230 meters.  The submarine makes a lot of noise.  The bolts come shooting out of the U-boat's walls.  Men are wounded by these bolts.  More depth charge explosions.  And then more depth charges go off near the U-boat. 

150 meters, full speed ahead.  Johann show up from the engine room.  It looks as if he has gone mad.  The men have to jump on him and take him away.  The captain went to get his pistol to possibly kill the man. 

The destroyer comes over them again.  The captain says:  "That's it.  Come on."  And come on it does as the U-boat is shaken far more than it has been shaken before on this voyage.  The sub goes down to 220 meters.

It's now quiet and most of the men are resting or sleeping.  Lt. Werner hears that the destroyer has lost them.  They will surface in ten minutes.  The captain says to the lieutenant:  "You see, lieutenant.  They didn't kill us."  The sub surfaces.  There are huge fires ahead of them from burning freighters.  They are going to sink one of the ships that just won't go down.  So they fire a torpedo at the ship.  They thought the men on the burning ship had already been rescued, but they can see with their binoculars that the ship still has men on board.  They watch the sailors jump ship and they can hear cries of "Help me!" from the survivors.  The sailors are now swimming toward the sub U-96.  The captain gives the order to back up.  He tells his men that they know they can't take prisoners.  The ship now goes under the water.  One German cries over the loss of the enemy sailors.

The staff is quiet.  Reports come in from other U-boats.  One says it has sunk three freighters.  That was U-112 under Wenzel.  Kupsch is pursuing the same convoy.  Stackmann has hit a 6,000 tonner.  The captain says:  "They're having a field day."  The navigator asks when are they going home and the captain says when he gives the order.  Repairs are being made to the U-boat.  Johann comes to apologize to the captain.  He hopes there won't be any court-martial.  He says he just cracked up all of it sudden, but it won't happen again, he swears.  The captain indicates there will be no court-martial. 

The U-boat will now return to La Rochelle, France.  A top secret message comes in for the captain only.  The message is triple encoded.  The captain tells the crew over the loud speaker that they will be going to a new port, La Spezia, an Italian naval base on the Mediterranean sea.  They will pick up fuel and supplies in Vigo, Spain.  The men are not happy.  It's tough getting through the Gibraltar Strait. 

The captain tells Lt. Werner that when they get to Vigo, he and the chief will get off the U-boat.  German agents will smuggle the two men out of Spain somehow. 

Lt. Werner tells the submariner with the French girlfriend, Ullman,  that he is going ashore with the chief and he will mail the man's many letters to France. This makes Ullman very happy. 

At Vigo the submarine surfaces.  The officers go visit a German freighter impounded in port. The officers are welcomed aboard the vessel "Weser".  The officers of the "Weser" have had a lavish banquet prepared for the U-boat officers.  The U-boat captain says virtually nothing.  When he does talk, he says:  "This time we very nearly had it."  The freighter captain asks what's it like, life on a U-boat?  He doesn't get much of an answer. 

The two German agents arrive to smuggle Werner and the chief out of Spain.  They have orders for the captain.  The captain and the two crew members go for a little fresh air.  The captain reports to them that both men have been ordered to stay on the U-boat.  The captain apologizes to the two men.  

Back on the U-boat, the boat is loaded down with food.  Lt. Werner tells Ullman that they are staying on board and he can't deliver his mail for him.   The captain tells his officers that they have to go through the very narrow Gibraltar Strait.  They will go at night.  The strait is filled with British vessels of different types.  They spot a destroyer, but it is moving away from them.  They see the lights of the naval base at Gibraltar. All of a sudden an airplane comes at them firing its machine guns at the sub.  The navigator is badly wounded.  The captain gives the order to prepare to abandon ship.  The navigator is a bloody mess from his wound. 

The men say that the captain is heading for the northern coast of Africa.  Now they dive to 90 meters.  All men are ordered aft.  The tanks are blown out to lessen the weight of the U-boat.  The sub goes down to 250 meters and the bolts start firing out of the walls.  At 280 meters the U-boat hits the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.  More bolts blow and water starts pouring into the sub.  The engine room is completely wrecked.  The sub is badly damaged.

They need wire to bridge the batteries.  They get some wire.  Johann says that all the leaks have been stopped.  The men start baling water out of the sub into the bilge room and then it will be pumped out of the sub.  All the sub's compasses are damaged and they may have lost sonar, too.  The radio is also dead. 

They are going to use their last pressure to blow the remaining air out of the sub in order to lighten it.  The men have to don oxygen masks.  The chief says everything is doing okay.  The captain makes a tour of the sub checking on every compartment. 

The chief tells Lt. Werner that it was crazy for them to be send through the strait.  Things were bound to go wrong.  He adds that the captain knew it all along.  And that is why he wanted Lt. Werner and him off the boat at Vigo, Spain. 

The chief goes back to work.  The next time the captain sees him, he has a very good report for the captain.  They may get out of this yet. 

The captain says they are going to blow the tanks now to see if they can get their rear-end out of the sand.  If they make it, they will head for La Rochelle.  The sub starts to move and the U-boat rises to 250 meters and then all the way up to the top.  The engines start up and the sub can move forward now.  They go full speed ahead.  The U-boat slips back through the strait without being noticed. 

The ship makes it out of the strait and the men sing the "Tipperary" song in good spirits.  The captain lays down to sleep. 

The U-boat arrives at La Rochelle.  They are greeted by a crowd and a musical band.  The crew lifts up and out the navigator so he can be taken to the hospital.  It's a beautiful day. 

All of a sudden an air raid siren goes off and airplanes start strafing and bombing the area, including U-96.  Many of the crew are killed or wounded.  The men get under cover, but they soon have to run for it as parts of the ceiling start falling down.  Lt. Werner is shocked to see so many of the U-96 men dead.  The captain survives and watches as U-96 sinks.  He then dies.




And you thought you had a tough job.  The suffering the crew of the U-96 submarine went through was absolutely astounding.  One man broke under the pressure.  And the men really had to work extremely hard constantly repairing the damages caused by depth charges and air plane strafings.  And then comes the surprise ending. 

In the early days of World War II, the German submarines (u-boats) were the scourge of the Atlantic.  Over time, however, the Allies improved their convoy procedures (allowing greater protection from u-boat attacks) and their anti-submarine weaponry.  With these changes, serving on a u-boat was the most dangerous occupation a German serviceman could have.  (Three out of every four crew members never returned.)

This movie is anti-war in stressing the futility of war.  The German submariners survive tremendous danger only to find themselves in even greater danger when they are "safe" in port.

Among German films, this film was the highest-ranked in the Landmark Theaters Favorite Foreign Films Poll; it was the highest-ranked German film in the IMDb (ranked #46 as of October 2005); and it was also nominated for six Academy Awards, the most ever for a German film.

I watched the director's cut and thought the film was way too long.  The two key depth charge scenes could have been rolled into one scene. And you have to know something about submarine engineering to fully understand what were the problems caused by the depth charges for the crew. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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