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 then re-released in 1997 in a longer director's cut version supervised by Petersen. It grossed over $80 million worldwide from these two theatrical releases and was a critical and financial success. Its high production cost ranks it among the most expensive films in the history of German cinema. It was the second most expensive up until that time, after Metropolis.
Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), 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 leap overboard and swim towards them. Unable to accommodate prisoners, the captain orders the boat 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 Johann 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. 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.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. He is openly anti-Nazi, though he is engaged to a "Nazi girl" (a widow of a Luftwaffe pilot). Prochnow later became one of the few German actors to establish themselves in Hollywood. 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. Prior to appearing in the film, Grönemeyer was known as a popular German singer. 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 the Endsieg. 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. 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".
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.
Ralf Richter as Maat (Petty Officer) Frenssen: Pilgrim's best friend. Pilgrim and Frenssen love to trade dirty jokes and stories.
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.
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.
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 "Director's Cut" DVD audio commentary, 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 the 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.
The director's meticulous attention to detail resulted in a historically accurate depiction. In the film, there is only one ardent Nazi in the crew of 40, namely the First Watch Officer (referred to comically in one scene as Unser Hitlerjugendführer or "Our Hitler Youth Leader"). The rest of the officers are either indifferent or openly anti-Nazi (the Captain). The enlisted sailors and NCO are portrayed as apolitical. In his book Iron Coffins, former U-boat commander Herbert A. Werner states that the selection of naval personnel based on their loyalty to the party only occurred later in the war (from 1943 onward) when the U-boats were suffering high casualties and when morale was declining. Such a degree of skepticism may or may not have occurred. In support of Das Boot on this subject, U-Boat historian Michael Gannon maintains that the U-boat navy was one of the least pro-Nazi branches of the German armed forces.
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.Mock-up of the interior at the Bavaria Studios in Munich
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").
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.
Director Wolfgang Petersen has overseen the creation of several different versions of his film. The first to be released was the 149-minute (2 hours, 29 minutes) theatrical cut, released to theatres in Germany in 1981 and America 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).
The film was partly financed by German television broadcasters WDR and the SDR, and much more footage had been shot 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 flashback scenes summarising past episodes.
Petersen then supervised the editing of six hours of film, from which was distilled Das Boot: The Director's Cut, 209 minutes (3 hours, 29 minutes) long. Released to cinemas worldwide in 1997, this cut combines the action sequences seen in the feature-length version with character development scenes contained in the mini-series. In addition, the audio and video quality was improved from that previously available. Petersen had originally planned to release this version in 1981, but for commercial reasons it was not possible. In 1998 it was released on DVD as a single-disc edition including an audio commentary by Petersen, lead actor Jürgen Prochnow and director's cut producer Ortwin Freyermuth; a 6-minute making-of featurette; and in most territories, the theatrical trailer. In 2003 it was also released as a "Superbit" edition with no extra features, but a superior quality higher bit-rate and the film spread across two discs.
An uncut miniseries version, running 293 minutes (four hours, 53 minutes), was released to DVD in 2004, as Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version, also with enhanced audio and video quality. It omits the episode opening flashback scenes of the 1988 television broadcast so is slightly shorter.
From 2010 onwards, the 208-minute "Director's Cut", along with various new extras, was released internationally on Blu-ray. The American 2-disc Collector's Set also uniquely included the original 149-minute theatrical cut, which is otherwise unreleased on DVD or Blu-ray.
In 2014 the original miniseries, aka "The Original Uncut Version", was released on Blu-ray in Germany with optional English audio and subtitles.
For both the "Director's Cut" and "The Original Uncut Version", new English language dubs were recorded featuring most of the original cast, who were bilingual. These dubs are included on all DVD and Blu-ray releases.1981 unreleased version (209 minutes)
1981 original theatrical cut (150 minutes)
1984, 1988 BBC miniseries (300 minutes)
1997 "Director's Cut" (208 minutes)
2004 "The Original Uncut Version" (293 minutes) – miniseries minus episode-opening flashback scenes
Though not an immediate financial success, the film received highly positive reviews and was nominated for six Academy Awards, two of which (for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) went to Petersen himself; he was also nominated for a BAFTA Award and DGA Award. Today, the film 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." The film also has a score of 86 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 15 critics indicating "universal acclaim". 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.
At the 55th Academy Awards, Das Boot was nominated for six awards, including Best Director. 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.
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 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 293 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" 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" and a "contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II".
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" later became an international hit.
The official soundtrack 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.