Film: Das Boot

Alaaaaarm!!!

Captain of the Weser: So, what's it like down there, in a submarine?
Der Leitende: It's... quiet.
Captain of the Weser: Quiet? Hmm.

Das Boot is a 1981 German movie (based on the 1973 novel of the same name by Lothar-Günther Buchheim) about the German submersible U-96. It is directed by Wolfgang Petersen and stars, among very good German stage actors, Jürgen Prochnow as The Captain (commonly called Kaleun, short for Kapitänleutnant, or der Alte / the Old Man). The movie is generally praised for its realistic portrayal of the claustrophobic atmosphere in a WWII sub. As noted by many visitors to Bavaria Studios, the interior set of the sub is actually even more claustrophobic than comes across on the screen.

By now you may wonder why nothing has been said about the plot so far. That is because the plot is quite simple. The U-96 sets sail. They then spend weeks trudging around the mid-Atlantic dealing with boredom, bad weather and a complete absence of Allied targets. They manage to attack one convoy and sink two ships, and get almost killed by the Allied navy. They then get ordered into a near-suicidal situation entering the Mediterranean sea through the British controlled Strait of Gibraltar, the most heavily defended seaway in the world, and are only spared from death pretty much by chance. They escape after a horrendous, odds-defying ordeal and limp home. The ship is then sunk the instant it docks by an Allied air raid. That's pretty much it: all the weeks-long stretches of boredom interspersed by hours-long stretches of terror that made up real German naval patrols.

Fun Fact: When the movie premiered in the United States, the audience cheered at the caption at the very beginning that says that 30,000 of 40,000 German submariners died. The makers of the movie were really afraid at that moment, because that was supposed to be a tragic fact. By the end of the movie, however, the audience was also sympathetic to the submariners and, as said in the director's commentary, gave a standing ovation to the film.

The film is currently being remade by Bavaria Studios, who made the original.

This work contains examples of:

  • Actually, That's My Assistant: The captain of the supply ship Weser awkwardly assumes the young, clean shaved and uniformed 1WO is the Captain among a bunch of jaded and bearded sea-wolves.
  • Airstrike Impossible: U96 is told to redeploy to the Mediterranean, which means sneaking through the narrow Gibraltar sound, which at the time was swarming with warships and planes. It gets worse: since the crewmen are unaware of British radar innovations, they are detected and bombed outside the strait, before they can even submerge and properly begin their approach.
  • All for Nothing: After all they've suffered and survived through the entire film, most of the crew die or get injured suddenly in an air raid the moment they get back home.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Averted, as befits a film made by Germans, for Germans. Only the 1WO has any faith in Hitler's program. However, historically only partially accurate: of all the services, the German Navy was the least political, but the number of true believers in the Uboat service was among the highest.
    • This may well be caused by the fact that the Uboat service had to receive so many replacement (to replenish casualties they sustained which was growing to such massive amount by 1943), as the service loses men (especially old experienced ones) they will tend to get replaced by newer ones that are either heavily indoctrinated or similarly more entrenched with the Nazi ideology. During the earlier part of the war, they probably are as apolitical as the other Kriegsmarine aspect, but as the staggering casualties mount, they get slowly refilled with men who are more aligned with the Nazi.
    • The Captain even states that the newer crewmembers he has are not long out of the Hitler Youth.
  • Anachronism Stew: While the song itself is old enough, the recording of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" used in the film is sung by the Red Army Choir and post-dates the war by decades.
  • Anyone Can Die: The text at the top of the page suggesting a 75% mortality rate for German submariners? It's not an exaggeration. No other branch of any armed service suffered such a high casualty rate and continued to function.
    • The German U-Boat crews suffered higher casualty rates than even the Japanese Kamikazes.
  • Artistic License – History: While the film does give an excellent feel of what life was like on a U-Boat, the film takes place in autumn 1941, when the U-Boat Force was doing much better than it would later on.
    • The submarine base at La Rochelle was not operational until November 1941. At the time U-96 departs, the port was dried up. While U-96 was based out of Saint-Nazaire, the filming location was switched to La Rochelle as the port had not changed by such a large degree after the war.
  • Author Avatar: Leutnant Werner. The author of the original novel was himself a WWII naval correspondent, and the novel was heavily based on his own experiences.
  • Badass Boast: "They are in the casino, celebrating our sinking... Not yet kameraden, not yet!"
  • Bait and Switch:
    Crew member #1: Bad news, guys. [putting on a serious face]
    Crew member #2: What's going on?
    Crew member #1: Soccer. Schalke. We lost, 5-0.
  • Beard of Sorrow:
    • After weeks of being stuck on the U-boat, the 1WO is pretty much the only one who still bothers to shave.
    • Nicely foreshadowed, when the Captain advises Werner to save some pictures for when they return, as the whole crew of mostly young new recruits will have beards by then.
  • Binocular Shot: Used for the looks through the periscope.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Happens to the Captain in the final moments of the film. In the novel, it is explained that he has shrapnel wounds through his back.
  • Boring Return Journey: The travel back home after Gibraltar is quick and uneventful compared to the novel.
  • Can't Catch Up: In time to turn the tide, anyway. The film opens at the beginning of the tipping point in the Battle of the Atlantic, when the second 'happy time' of hunting is over for the Germans, the Tommies have stopped making mistakes, and radar and active sonar are nasty but increasingly common factors for U-boat crews to (often unsuccessfully) try to deal with. Near the war's end, the German navy had successfully developed the vastly superior Type-XXI submarine, but by then Germany's industrial capability was so devastated that only four ships of the type put to sea.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Averted. It's mentioned that during their time in France many of the crew are Properly Paranoid about spies, and in particular, Ullmann is terrified of what will happen to his French fiancée if La Résistance find out she's pregnant by a German.
  • Chromosome Casting: As one might expect given the setting and period, all of the characters are men.
  • Comforting Comforter: Towards the end, the captain covers the Chief Engineer with a jacket after the latter lies tired out on the floor after his great achievement.
  • Composite Character: 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 disliked 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.
  • Counting Bullets: Pilgrim uses a blackboard to count the number of depth charges dropped by the Allied destroyer. The last number we see is 23.
  • Damage Control: Stuck at the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar, the entire crew has to help repair the boat.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: The stiff 1WO comes off less callous and more sympathetic in the mini-series when he reveals his fiancée died in an aerial raid on Cologne only weeks before the start of the patrol.
  • The Darkest Hour: All hope seems lost when U-96 has sunken to the floor of the strait of Gibraltar, the bow plane is jammed, hull breach is immanent, water is rushing in uncontrollably and battery cells are cracked.
  • Death from Above: The crew are menaced by Allied aircraft several times. The first time (shown only in the uncut edition) takes place right after they leave their port with minor equipment damage. The second time, Krichbaum is badly wounded. The third...well...
  • Determinator: The chief engineer.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Possibly not an example because the ending is justified by the premise and the aerial menace has been foreshadowed and shown, but the Downer Ending does come suddenly out of nowhere and is guaranteed to shock a first time viewer.
  • Dive! Dive! Dive!: Standard evasive maneuver against incoming or present danger. Deconstructed at Gibraltar when the immersion can't be stabilized due to the damage sustained and the boat keeps diving and diving out of control.
  • Downer Ending: A pretty extreme example - there really wasn't a much stronger way for the efforts of the submarine's crew (and the entire German navy really) to be rendered totally useless.
  • The Dreaded/Hero Killer: No Allied characters are shown, but their destroyers and airplanes fulfill this role. Evasion is the only option and a number of German aces of the deep have met their end against those hunters.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: The film starts with sub crews getting obnoxiously, paralytically drunk on shore leave. Given what they've just come from and are about to go back to you can't really blame them.
  • Drowning Pit: When the submarine takes water, one section turns into a drowning pit and the crew has to dive under to fix the leaks.
  • Ear Worm: Both in-universe and out-example. The crew of the U-96 are fond of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", a World War I British soldier song, and audiences of the film will likely not forget the song in a hurry.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: One of the tracking shots required special effects to produce. It pans across a submarine factory/pen, passing by at least three subs. However, only one model sub was actually built for this scene.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Only a few of the enlisted crewmen have their names provided. Everyone else is "The Captain", "The 1WO" etc.
  • Fan Disservice: To produce exactly the effect intended, the stark realization of the cold dehumanizing grind of war. The film goes into detail about the toilet habits and medical well being (or lack thereof) of the crew, and has several lingering close up male naked butt shots as they either rush out of the loo in an emergency or are examined for disease.
  • Fatal Family Photo:
    • On two occasions Werner gets shown pictures of crew's family: The chief engineer shows him pictures of his wife and cadet Ullman shows him a picture of his (pregnant) French girlfriend who wants to marry him. The end of the film sees Ullman die in the air raid, but the engineer subverts it by staying alive.
    • In the uncut edition, Navigator Kriechbaum shows Werner a picture of his four sons, and says he has a fifth on the way. He gets wounded by a British fighter and is last seen being loaded onto an ambulance at the base, being driven away seconds before the air strike.
  • A Father to His Men: The Captain feels too old among his young children.
  • Fiery Redhead: The 2WO, who's as loud and vulgar as his hair is red.
  • From Bad to Worse:
    • First they hit a three-week storm. Then they fall afoul of a destroyer. Then destroyers with ASDIC. Then aircraft with radar. Then their hydroplanes break, nearly sinking them. Then, after frantic repairs and just managing to resurface the boat before they are crushed/drowned/suffocated, they are sunk in port by an air-raid.
    • On the bright side, the journey home went pretty smoothly compared to the novel version. Along with the above, U-96 in the novel spent their return journey without periscopes, without radio, without sleep, with the entire hull shuddering and twisting around with every wave (they spent most of the return trip in escape gear, in case a large wave snapped the pressure hull open), without working torpedoes (they tried to sink a neutral liner with them and failed thanks to the first officer's incompetence), with engine fumes venting into the boat and only one intermittently working engine. Then upon coming in sight of the shore, they found themselves in a minefield (as they discovered when a friendly U-boat a few hundred meters away ran into one), were forced to stay perfectly still on the surface in full view of any passing enemy aircraft (due to risk of hitting said mines) and then were subject to an air raid that destroyed the nearby friendly U-boat, leaving U-96 to return to port with two dozen traumatized and hideously wounded sailors from another boat on their already ruined deck. It was only at that point that the full air raid occurred and sank U-96 in port.
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: The film has French club singer Monique singing to a drunk and cheering German crowd of soldiers at the beginning of the movie.
  • Glory Days: The period in which German submarines had the upper hand is called "the happy times" and ended a few months before the beginning of the movie. The remaining aces get only more bitter and cynical.
  • Gratuitous English:
    • Aside from the afore-mentioned Ear Worm, the Captain is fond of defiantly stating "Not yet!" Justified Trope in that he's directing his comments at the Royal Navy that's trying to sink his boat and kill his crew.
    • Also Thomsen's "I am not in the condition to fuck."
  • Gratuitous French: In the novel, usually when the submariners are reminiscing about their time in France. The Old Man is fond of saying "Comme ci, comme ça" in dire situations, but by far the biggest offender is Werner's Girl Back In France, Simone.
  • The Great Repair: A matter of life or death after the U-boat nearly hits rock bottom at Gibraltar.
  • Gung Holier Than Thou: The 1WO is fresh into the U-boat corps having come from a plantation in Mexico and knowing nothing about the horrors of the war or U-boat life. He is an ardent Nazi and a by-the-book officer and is the only one who even tries to maintain his appearance and cleanliness throughout the film, though even he winds up frayed around the edges by the end.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The "ping" sound of the sonar picking up the enemy sub.
  • Heroic BSOD: Johann, of all people, cracks under pressure and is subsequently terrified of the consequences, but the Old Man is lenient and Johann's top performance returns.
  • Hero of Another Story: Thomsen, awarded with the Knight's Cross.
  • Hero-Worshipper: The crew of the supply ship Weser. Their enthusiasm is met with apathy by the submariners, but the food is welcome anyway.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: 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.
  • Hope Spot: When the crew manage to resurface the submarine, epic music plays, and the scene cuts to the men happily singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". Then, they arrive at La Rochelle, and are strafed by a British fighter-bomber.
  • The Hunter Becomes The Hunted: U-96 is on patrol to intercept Allied ships but winds up being hunted by destroyers left and right. The trope is used as the Tag Line in the English box art.
  • If We Get Through This: The Captain tells the crew "it's half a bottle of beer for each" if they can make it safely back to La Rochelle.
  • Man on Fire: Some of the British sailors from the burning ship are on fire which prompts them to jump into the sea.
  • Mr. Exposition: The 2WO explains a lot about submarine operations to Werner.
  • Mr. Fixit: Chief Engineer, whose skills save the day when the submarine lies inoperable on the sea floor.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Everybody aboard U-96 except the 1WO.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Werner is on board as a journalist, thus it's his job to be inquisitive about everything. He has naval experience on surface ships but this is his first voyage on a submarine. The crew and officers sometimes pause to explain what they're doing to him but he often has to figure it out by observation.
  • Nazi Protagonist: It is World War II and the crew is German, but only the 1WO seems to be the only one who supports Hitler.
  • Not Quite Saved Enough: A particularly cruel example. Most of the film deals with the sheer terror faced by the men in a German U-Boat during World War II, including several points where they're nearly sunk by Allied depth charges. Somewhere in the last quarter of the film, the titular submarine actually sinks, but the crew manages to devise a plan, repair the damage, get to the surface, and return home. It seems like the film will have a happy ending as the crew survives and makes it back to port, and then the majority of them get killed in an air raid.
  • Not-So-Safe Harbor: The Wretched Hive bar at La Rochelle, full of drunken U-Boat sailors and cheap girls.
  • Plot Armor: Played with and deconstructed. Werner often tries to reassure himself that the boat can't sink because he's on the boat and of course he has to get out of this. After all, we're all the main character according to ourselves, and every one of the 75% of German submariners who perished felt the same way. Ultimately Played Straight.
  • Present Tense Narrative: The novel was written this way.
  • Putting on the Reich: 1WO.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: When everything is going to hell and the submarine is stuck on the ocean floor, the depth gauge is far past its last marking (260 meters). 260 meters is already way past the point where the navy originally expected the hull to be crushed and destroyed. The manufacturer's warranty extended only to 90 meters.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: At the party at the beginning of the film, one officer staggers in drunk and begins firing his pistol randomly. Luckily, he doesn't hit anybody. He scores perfect hits on the face, chest, and groin of a nude wall painting, though.
  • Re Cut: Several. Das Boot was 150 minutes long for its original theatrical release in 1981, then expanded into a five-hour Mini Series on British and German television a few years later. In 1997 Wolfgang Petersen made a new Director's Cut edit for a theatrical reissue, which clocks in at just under 210 minutes. Both the miniseries and 1997 versions have been released on DVD.
  • Red Alert: "ALARM!!!"
  • Redemption in the Rain: Sort of. Johann makes up for his earlier breakdown by working tirelessly to repair a number of life-threatening leaks, and of course gets extremely wet in the process.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying!:
    • The first scenes involve the crews from a pair of submarines in the Wolf Pack having a party the night before going back to the Atlantic.
    • Later aboard the submarine, the crew is enjoying themselves after a stressful day. We see one crew member dancing like some sort of tropical girl while the rest of the crew shouted out catcalls and wolf whistles.note 
  • Seadog Beard: The Captain's is the most prominent beard among the crew.
  • Sensor Suspense: Inverted to great effect, as the sonar pings bouncing off the boat are being used to showcase how the Allied navy is hunting the German U-boat.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Thomsen. In the uncut version, while at the bar with Der Alte, the telephone rings and Thomsen cries out "ALARM!!!"
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Every single detail of the internal construction of a VIIC U-Boat was painstakingly researched and included on the set. Literally the only difference between the internals of the set and the internals of a real U-Boat was that the set could have the side removed to allow for effective filming, though they only did that for one scene. A pretty short scene. The rest of the movie used a novel hand-held gyroscope equipped camera, as Steadicam was too bulky to be used inside the cramped set. The camera was specially designed and made to facilitate filming of this movie, and the gyroscopes were so noisy that most of the movie had to be dubbed.
    • In addition to this, for the bridge of the U-Boat (where the lookouts stood, mostly exposed to the ocean), rather than stick with the then-standard method of throwing buckets of water at the actors to simulate waves hitting the ship in a storm, the crew built a specialist rig that would throw realistic amounts of water at the bridge at realistic pressure - this led to the previously noted incident where the amount of water caused an actor to lose his footing and threw him into a railing, breaking one of his ribs. The setup was realistic enough that when a shot called for a wave to come down the hatch into the control room (Extremely common and not at all a problem for the bilge pump), the exact same system in the exact same setup provided what could only perhaps be described as a 'column of furious water' - more than 4 metres and two hatchways down from the bridge.
  • Silent Running Mode: It is a movie featuring a submarine after all.
  • Sitting Duck: The U-boat survives every attempt to sink it, until it reaches harbour at the end of the movie, only to get sunk by an Allied air raid where it cannot dive to safety.
  • SteadiCam: Used to great effect, as it enabled camera operators to work within the confines of a real-size replica U-Boat and produce tracking shots following crew members through bulkheads and around pipes.
  • Stock Sound Effects: Ping... Ping... Ping.... Unlike most examples of the trope, only used when appropriate, since it implicitly tells the audience of the use of Allied active sonar.
  • Sub Story: Trope Codifier: not only universally regarded as the greatest submarine film, but also easily among the greatest war films.
  • Suicide Mission: The U-Boat is supposed to get to Italy via the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the most heavily defended Allied naval zones in the world.
  • The Stoic: The 1WO is all about this in the initial stages of the film, being new to the war effort and a dedicated Nazi. He remains immaculately dressed and clean shaven for most of the film while the rest of the crew all become steadily filthier and more bedraggled with every scene. It is only in the latter stages of the film when even he cannot keep ontop of it all and slowly becomes disheveled and unshaven too by the end of the film.
  • Tablecloth Yank: During the scene in the La Rochelle whorehouse, one crew member tries this. He's so drunk he can barely stand, so needless to say he fails.
  • Tagalong Reporter: Lt. Werner is on U-96 as a war correspondent for the express purpose of chronicling the crew's exploits.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Averted, ironically. The story is primarily concerned with the ordeal of the submariners, to the point that, beyond the token "True Believer" and a brief mention of racial policy (Werner recalls a colleague who attempted suicide after discovering he had slept with a Jewish girl), the Nazi ideology is never brought to the surface.
  • Toros y Flamenco: The soundtrack plays flamenco music when the crew arrive in Spain. They dock at Vigo, a northern city where that kind of folklore has no roots in real life.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: The Captain finds Thomsen nearly passed out drunk and full of vomit in the bathroom.
  • War Is Hell: Life aboard the submarine is harsh, and the crew's chances of survival low. The film captures the horror of it quite well.
  • The Watson: Werner is a Naïve Newcomer who has naval experience on surface ships but this is his first voyage on a submarine. He's on board as a journalist, thus it's his job to be inquisitive about everything, and pass on his knowledge. He has the crew and officers sometimes pause to explain what they're doing to him but he often has to figure it out by observation.
  • We Have Reserves: The implied attitude of the off-screen Commanders.
  • We Just Need to Wait for Rescue: The crew are horrified that the Allies did not come to help the burning suffering crew of a ship they had bombed.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out what happened to Ullmann's French girlfriend, or the LI's wife in Köln. Fairly justified, as the crew is not allowed to send personal messages and the movie ends just as they return home.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Old Man frequently heaps praise on the tactics and skill of the British, often in the same breath as an utterance of "Tommy bastards", and often while on the point of being sunk by them. The crew even have a fondness for It's A Long Way To Tipperary.