I like a drama that lets you know where it’s coming from early on and in the first frame of Wolfgang Petersen‘s epic World War II naval drama Das Boot you learn that of the 40,000 Germans who ventured into U-boats in defence of the Third Reich, 30,000 didn’t return and it wasn’t because they all went AWOL and shacked up with some Hawaiian chick. Nicht meine freunde¹ a boarding pass for the German U-boat in the 1940s was like buying 1.3 million tickets every week in the death lottery. Sooner or later, you were going to get plugged and Das Boot follows men in possession of that knowledge as they twat about the Atlantic fighting a losing war as fucked as any man ever were. Hungry, exposed, living in squalor and in perpetual fear of their lives, it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs on board Das Boot (U-96 to its friends). Nonetheless, a manic black humour prevails among all the sweating and farting, much the same as a barracks room anywhere in the Second World War.
Sooner or later, you were going to get plugged and Das Boot follows men in possession of that knowledge as they twat about the Atlantic fighting a losing war as fucked as any man ever were.
You might think you’d never sympathise with filthy murdering Krauts out to drown British boys to death but, you know, you really do. The enforced intimacy of the setting makes you feel part of the crew and having travelled with them through the filth, the boredom and the terror you’re dying for them to get a British convoy of ships to attack and when they finally do you’re all “Attack! Achtung! Heil! Juden raus!”
Having travelled with them through the filth, the boredom and the terror you’re dying for them to get a British convoy of ships to attack and when they finally do you’re all “Attack! Achtung! Heil! Juden raus!”
Chill with that, though. Captain-Lieutenant Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) is our hero. Civilised, intelligent and a born leader he barely bothers to conceal his contempt for the stupid Fuhrer’s stupid Atlantic campaign. It’s Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) who is our narrator though. Brought on board to as a war correspondent, Werner gives a highly personal account of the men, the tedium, the eye-popping pressure everyone is under. And man alive do they ever go through it?
It might be First Officer (Hubertus Bengsch), an uptight piece of shit who came all the way from Mexico believing it was his duty as a German to protect the Fatherland and barbecue some Jews. Or it might be Second Officer (Martin Semmelrogge) – a perpetual joker who seems determined to meet death with a smile on his face and a poor taste joke on his lips. First Officer grows ever more rigid as circumstances worsen, Second Officer can only take the piss. These two stand at either end of a continuum of responses to the madness. There’s no right or wrong response – it’s just a way to get through each shitty day.
A storm lasts for three solid weeks; the ship is battered senseless by depth charges; there’s even an outbreak of crabs (not that anyone is getting laid here – sweaty men and pubic louse are the only bed companions). Life on board the good ship Das Boot is claustrophobic, tense and nothing happens bar characters unravelling in extremis. When action does come it is explosive, violent and brief. You become accustomed to the noises, jargon and rhythm of submarine life. It’s one of those stories that needs telling – the unglamorous, squalid, submerged underbelly of naval warfare. Above all else it makes you grateful that smellovision remains merely the figment of a diseased mind.
The verdict: Das ist gut.
Marks out of 10: 8
¹Fuck you. You are nichten Aerial Telly’s “freundes”