Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, is an extraordinary cinematic masterpiece that delves deep into the harrowing realities of submarine warfare during World War II. Based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, this German epic captures the claustrophobic tension and psychological toll experienced by the crew of a German U-boat. With its impeccable performances, immersive storytelling, and stunning cinematography, Das Boot leaves an indelible mark on the viewer’s psyche. The film revolves around the fictional U-96 submarine and its crew as they embark on a perilous mission in the treacherous Atlantic Ocean. Led by the experienced but world-weary Captain (Jürgen Prochnow), the crew members face constant threats from depth charges, enemy warships, and the oppressive confines of their vessel. Through their eyes, we witness the physical and emotional toll of war, the strain on relationships, and the moral dilemmas that arise amidst the chaos of battle.

Das Boot excels in its portrayal of the gritty realism of submarine warfare. The intricate attention to detail in the set design, costumes, and sound design transports viewers into the cramped and suffocating interiors of the U-boat. The claustrophobia and constant danger are palpable, evoking a sense of unease and tension that builds throughout the film. The performances in Das Boot are nothing short of exceptional. Jürgen Prochnow delivers a powerful and nuanced portrayal of Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock, capturing the complex mix of authority, weariness, and determination that defines his character. The ensemble cast, including Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, and Martin Semmelrogge, bring authenticity and depth to their roles, each showcasing the emotional toll of their circumstances with remarkable skill.

Petersen’s masterful direction creates a relentless sense of impending doom, balancing heart-pounding action sequences with quiet introspection. The use of low lighting and shadow play adds to the atmosphere, emphasizing the tense atmosphere and the psychological toll on the crew. The film’s pacing is deliberate, allowing viewers to absorb the emotional weight of the story and immerse themselves in the characters’ experiences. There is a great scene in the movie where two of the submariners are bored to death; still makes me laugh loudly when I rewatch the movie. The score, composed by Klaus Doldinger, perfectly complements the film’s themes, ranging from hauntingly beautiful melodies to heart-pounding rhythms. It heightens the emotional impact of each scene, underscoring the visceral nature of war and the sacrifices made by those involved.

Das Boot is not merely a war film; it is a profound exploration of the human spirit and the effects of war on individuals. It forces us to question the nature of loyalty, morality, and survival in the face of unimaginable adversity. By focusing on the experiences of the German crew, the film provides a unique perspective, fostering empathy and understanding beyond traditional narratives. Das Boot is a remarkable cinematic achievement that stands as one of the finest war films ever made.

Director: Wolfgang Petersen Genre: War/Drama Duration: 149 minutes


The cast was deliberately kept indoors continually during the shooting period in order to look as pale as a real submarine crew would on a mission at sea.

The bulk of the film’s $15 million budget was spent on constructing U-boats. Specifications for the original Type VII-C U-boat were found at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The plans were taken to the original builder of the subs, who was commissioned to build a full-sized, sea-going replica, their first such assignment since the war ended. A second full-sized model was built for interior filming.

Scenes were shot in sequence so that the growth of beards would be entirely natural, although a few shots had to be redone later on with false hair.

The submarine models were also used in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Originally filmed in German, all of the major actors could speak English. When the movie was dubbed into English for USA and UK distribution, all of the principal actors – with the exception of Martin Semmelrogge – actually dubbed their own voices into English. Semmelrogge however caught up in 1997 by dubbing himself for the director’s cut.

The full-scale model was little more than a hollow shell with an engine, and could be used only in calm waters. While it was being filmed in rougher weather, it cracked in two and sank. It was later recovered, patched with wood planks and used for the final shots.

The movie was shot silent because of exaggerated camera noise in the submarine interiors. All German and English dialogue had to be looped.

To simulate the storm in the Atlantic, a model of the tower was splashed with water from a large tank. Jan Fedder lost his grip on the railing and was washed off the model, breaking a few ribs in the fall. One of the other actors instantly shouted “Man Overboard!” Wolfgang Petersen, not realizing it was an accident, enthusiastically yelled “Good idea, Jan. We’ll do that one more time!” Peterson kept the scene and rewrote Fedder’s part so that his character spent part of the movie in bed. The actor, who had a concussion, was brought back and forth from the hospital every day. The painful expression on his face is real. The scene which features him bedridden is on the uncut edition.

To help his actors convey the claustrophobic conditions found on a real U-boat, director Wolfgang Petersen insisted on filming within the actual confines of the ship, scarcely wider than a man’s outstretched arms.

The original TV mini-series was severely criticized in Germany for portraying World War II Germans sympathetically. When the film opened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, no one was sure how a former enemy nation would react, especially in a city with a large Jewish population. The audience applauded the opening caption saying 30,000 of 40,000 German men who went to war in submarines didn’t come back. At the end, the audience gave the film a standing ovation.

A miniature submarine was used for scenes of the submarine from outside. It was steered by a diver inside. The diver quit three days into shooting, after experiencing seasickness for the first time in his 20+-year career.

When Wolfgang Petersen set out to cut down the German TV mini series version of the film to the 3 hour 26 feature director’s cut, he discovered that the original music soundtrack had been lost due to film melt. Original soundtrack composer Klaus Doldinger painstakingly archived all the original soundtrack and remixed all the music cues that had been melted in 6 track format. Music editors then had the unenviable task of re-cutting the music to fit the new feature length of the film.

The scene in which the navigation officer takes an astronomical sight using a sextant is very accurate. The actor is even filmed rocking the sextant from side to side which is not very known to non sailors.

To get one particular interior shot, a section of the model’s wall was removed. However, Wolfgang Petersen and cinematographer Jost Vacano felt that it detracted from the film’s overall authenticity, and from then on only ever filmed the interior from within the confines of the boat.

This is one of the few foreign language films referred to on the American market by its original foreign title rather than its translated English title.

American director John Sturges was initially called by Edward R. Pressman to make the film. But he was not satisfied by what the Germans wanted to make with the script, too close for him to the novel. So he decided to retire from the project. But when he later watched the movie he loved it, he was truly amazed by the work that Wolfgang Petersen did. Sturges admitted that he would never have been able to make such a realistic and claustrophobic masterpiece.

This became the most expensive German movie ever made, with production costs of 31 million DM. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), a German-French-Spanish co-production shot in English, beat it in 2006.

When the submarine leaves port at La Rochelle, all modern craft had to be evacuated from the area, while the various modern structures in the background were disguised with plumes of smoke.

Lothar G. Buchheim was incensed when he first saw the scene of one crew member dancing like Josephine Baker while the rest of the crew shouted out catcalls and wolf whistles. He said that no U-boat crew would ever behave in such a way.

Rutger Hauer was offered to play the Captain, but turned it down to do Blade Runner (1982).

Steadicams were not yet in use during the production of the movie. In order to get the fast tracking shots through the U-boat without a shaky image, director of photography Jost Vacano created a system of heavy gyroscopes together with his father that kept the camera steady as he ran through the hallways. The set of the U-boat had intentionally been built slightly bigger to give Vacano more room to work. Even so, as he had to look through the camera, he had to wear a helmet because he would regularly bump his head.

The names of the Captain, Chief Engineer, 1st Watch Officer, and 2nd Watch Officer are never given.

The Captain awards include the Knight’s Cross which is worn around his neck and the U-boat War Badge, the former awarded for “extreme battlefield bravery or outstanding military leadership” and the latter was awarded after two successful u-boat patrols

The Engineer is seen wearing a German Cross in gold on the right side of his tunic and the Iron Cross first class on the left side. Both were awarded for repeated acts of bravery in combat.

The human figures on the 35 foot model were modified Barbie (or rather Ken) dolls.

The original German language version grossed more than the English language one at the US box office.

Three scale models were built for special effects work. The first, a 35 foot remote controlled model, could sail in high seas and dive; the other two, 18 feet and 8 feet in length, were used for underwater shots. Scale models of tankers, destroyers and other ships were also built to complete the armada.

Depth-charge explosion effects were created by detonating small explosives in a 5m-deep tank and filming them at 1500 frames per second.

The character of Phillip Thomsen is very loosely based on Heinz Hirsacker, the real life commander of U-572. Hirsacker was not as noble or brave as Thomsen is portrayed in the film and was never awarded a combat decoration for his U-Boat service, much less the Knight’s Cross. He was further accused in 1942 of cowardice before the enemy after repeatedly avoiding enemy ships and retreating to base at the first sign of pursuit. Hirsacker was convicted by a court martial and sentenced to death, but committed suicide in 1943 before the sentence could be carried out.

The emblem on the U-96’s conning tower is the Laughing Sawfish, the emblem of the 9th flotilla from Brest. It was usually green in colour.

Unusually for a major motion picture, was filmed largely in sequence.

The real first watch officer of U-96 (“Number One”) was Gerhard Groth, who was born in 1917 and immigrated to Mexico as a young boy. As with his character in the film, Groth returned to Germany in the late 1930s and joined the Navy just prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was a U-boat flotilla staff officer before joining his first submarine, U-96, as 2nd Watch Officer. He was promoted to 1st Watch Officer in October 1941 and in April 1942 became Captain of his own boat, U-143. He would serve on three boats as commander before the end of World,War II, after which he returned to Mexico City.

Wolfgang Petersen supervised the director’s cut of the film around the same time he was making Air Force One (1997). It premiered on April 4th, 1997, after Air Force One wrapped filming.

The only remaining U-boot of the VII-C class wasn’t used in the movie because it is a technical monument and memorial which can not only be visited, you can actually get an inside view of the U-995. It’s located in Laboe/Germany and was placed there in 1972.

In the scene where the radioman tunes the radio and, when music is heard, the Captain screams at him to turn it off: what is playing is “Les Preludes” by Franz Liszt, near its finale.

At the time of its release, this was the most successful foreign language at the US box office ever.

While shooting scale models in the Northern Sea, filming was disturbed by doves landing on the submarine.

Several additional scenes were scripted based on the original “Das Boot” novel, but in the end were never filmed due to budget and time constraints. In the original script, the U-Boat departs from St. Nazaire and docks at La Rochelle only at the end of the film due to heavy damage and an inability to reach its home port. The escape out of Gibraltar is also extended somewhat including the U-boat stopping a passenger liner and nearly sinking it, but at the last moment realizing the ship is of Spanish registry. The U-boat also encounters another submarine with an inexperienced crew at the entrance to La Rochelle harbor. The second submarine strikes a mine and the entire crew must be rescued. Finally, the character of Lieutenant Werner is much more heavily explored in the original script, including a love interest where Werner was seeing a French girl and by the end of the film suspected she was a member of the French resistance.

Klaus Wennemann, who portrays the Chief Engineer, was forty one years old when the film was produced. The actual Chief Engineer of U-96, Hans Peter Dengel, was just over twenty five during his first patrol onboard the submarine. Dengel survived the war patrol, was promoted to Captain Lieutenant in 1943, and assigned as Chief Engineer of the type IX U-boat U-543. He was killed when the boat was sunk by an allied air attack in July 1944.

The only film that year to be Oscar nominated for Best Director, but not Best Picture.

Lothar-Günther Buchheim fell out with the director, who refused to let him write the screenplay. He later disparaged the film.

The real captain of U-96, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, joined the Navy in 1931 and served as Navigator of the naval tender “Weser” from 1933 to 1935. The name “Weser” appears in the film “Das Boot” as the name of the merchant vessel which the submarine meets for resupply in Vigo, Spain.

Vigo is a coastal city in the Galician province in northern Spain. Two U-boats, U-506 and U-523, are reported to have been sunk near Vigo during the Second World War.

The dance in a banana skirt done by a crew member to entertain his mates is in imitation of Josephine Baker, who performed like that in Paris before the war.

The only surviving class IX U-Boat is in a Chicago museum, so a full-size floating replica of the exterior was built. Clever editing made this look like three different boats in the La Rochelle pens. Before filming began, it was used by Steven Spielberg for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The replica comprised three sections, which started to break apart during filming at sea – in the scene following the crew singing “It’s A Long Way From Tipperary”, a crack can be seen between the first & second sections, midway between the gun which points forward and the crewman with his arms down. That night the replica was blown out to sea and destroyed, but enough parts were salvaged from the surrounding beaches to reconstruct about 2/3rds of the replica, though this now required some extra flotation devices.

The film omits references to a scene in the novel where Lieutenant Werner reads some of the First Officer’s diary and in fact gains respect for the man who is otherwise generally disliked by the other officers.

Special cameras were developed using gyroscopes. These were smaller and more practical for the cramped interior sets than the regular Steadicam.

Germany maintained its unrestricted submarine warfare was in response to the Royal Navy’s blockade, which was illegal under international law as it violated Article X of the Hague Convention of 1907.

A sixth officer mentioned in the novel, and omitted from the film, is the 2nd Engineer who joins the boat on a training cruise in order to take over for the Chief Engineer at the end of the patrol. The 2nd Engineer does not socialize or dine with the other officers and is immediately dis-liked by the Captain who pledges he will find a way to prevent the man from become the new Chief Engineer. In the film, much of the antagonistic elements of the 2nd Engineer are written into the character of the First Officer.

Some of the model sub scenes were shot in a small custom-built pond in the back lot of the Bavaria Film Studios. The same pond was later used in Enemy Mine (1985) and the The NeverEnding Story (1984) (The NeverEnding Story), both also Wolfgang Petersen movies.

La Spezia, a city in the Liguria region of northern Italy at the head of La Spezia Gulf, is one of the major Italian military and commercial harbours and is located between Genoa and Pisa. It has been a major naval base since the 1800s.

At the time, this received the widest release of any other film in West Germany.

After the war Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the real captain of U-96, was captain of the “Otto Hahn”, the first and only nuclear powered boat Germany ever built.

The poem Lt. Werner cites when the submarine stuck in the Strait of Gibraltar is “Schlacht – Das Maß” from Rudolf G. Binding (“Einmal vor Unerbittlichem stehen…”).


By Michael Kurcina

Mike credits his early military training as the one thing that kept him disciplined through the many years. He currently provides his expertise as an adviser for an agency within the DoD. Michael Kurcina subscribes to the Spotter Up way of life. “I will either find a way or I will make one”.

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