It is difficult to recall a more widely revered or more effective anti-war movie than Das Boot (The Boat), a movie has remains, some 40 years after its release, as one of the finest works of German cinema ever produced. Yes, there are many great war and anti-war movies. But few do it with such single-mindedness or such self-awareness as this one, which dares to tell us a compelling WWII adventure story from the German point of view, capturing both the shared human experience of war, as well as daring us to believe all wars have heroes on both sides. But the question really becomes: when war is such a grim slaughter that easily forgets purpose or morality, what is it to be considered a hero within such a thing? Not much at all, our characters suggest, and under that cloud, they set sail, knowing full well they probably won’t come home. Whether any of them feel like they deserve to…well, that’s another matter.
The story takes place in 1941, during WWII’s Battle of the Atlantic. German submarines (or U-Boats) have been conducting unrestricted warfare against Atlantic maritime traffic in an effort to strangle Great Britain’s shipping and supply. But even at this early stage in the war, anti-submarine tactics and tech are advancing much faster than the U-Boats themselves. The writing is already on the wall: by the end of the war, some 40,000 German sailors will have gone out in U-Boats, but only one-quarter of them will survive. Into these dire conditions sails Captain Werner, who at 30 years old is considered an old man of the U-Boat service. Werner, like many of his fellow submariners is no fan of Hitler or the war in general, but go where they are told, despite decreasing morale and odds for survival. He captains U-96 on what is an ordinary patrol in the Atlantic: endure foul weather, even fouler conditions on board, attack shipping when you see it, hope their escorts don’t destroy you, and spend a whole lot of time deep underwater wondering in terrified silence what will kill you first: depth charges, hull implosion, lack of oxygen or a simple lack of will to live.
Watching Das Boot is less a cinematic experience than it is a kind of endurance test. Depending on which version one watches, this movie runs somewhere between two and six hours (the director’s cut is about 3:30:00) and for much of its runtime, we simply look upon the filthy, haggard faces of the crew of U-96, as they stare upward in vain search for some sign that they aren’t about to die. During the sequences when the sailors aren’t trying to repair their stricken vessel, they are crammed in with each other, slowly succumbing to a lack of sunlight, basic hygiene, fresh air and elbow room. If the point of this movie is to drive home the notion of just how little glory there is in submarining, then Das Boot delivers in spades, as we are almost made to feel like one of the crew, and not a mere observer. It’s a technique that doesn’t exactly make for fun watching, but strangely, the longer the movie is, the more effective it becomes. When one hits hour three of this deadly monotony, one realizes that these cruises lasted for weeks.
A great amount of energy went into making Das Boot feel realistic rather than romantic, and that is most definitely the result, as anybody who has ever tapped out of this movie will attest. Perhaps the toughest part about it is how, after a time, we come to believe that these guys aren’t simply against bad odds. They are truly doomed from the outset. Even when they get the occasional rare break, things swiftly turn against them. A major crisis not long after a much-needed resupply run gives us a memorable image of fresh loaves of bread and nets of oranges floating in diesel-befouled seawater as the U-96 takes on water. There is no comfort this far from home, this deep into the abyss. We would take solace in the knowing that these are Hitler’s sailors who suffer throughout this story, but the more we see this crew, the less German they remain and the more human they become. In war, we are all equally mortal, and amid such astonishing loss of life, we do well to stop and remember that any life lost is a tragedy. Even the ones who are fighting for an evil cause they don’t really believe in but don’t have the courage to abandon.
With all that in mind, the moment of truth comes during a relatively early scene, when we see what the U-boat was meant to do: destroy civilian shipping. A routine torpedo attack becomes something much more when Captain Werner surfaces to confirm U-96’s kill, and sees that they still have to finish the job. Just moments before, we see the crew’s jubilation over having blasted their enemy. But then they have to go look at it, and live with Werner’s awful decision to finish off the stricken ship and leave its living and dead sailors floating in the cold Atlantic. I
It is a scene of unspeakable cruelty, and we see it on the crew’s faces—the first-timers who witness the reality of what they have shipped out to do; the veterans who know only too well what it means to die in the ocean; and the captain who bears the grim truth of his line of work: the hunters always become the hunted, and the hunted never die of old age. On his path, there is no end but oblivion. And those who do not yet know it will learn only too soon.