“Das Boot” (1981)


Wolfgang Petersen, much his later work doesn’t hold up. Films such as The Never Ending Story were great during my childhood, but not so much anymore. Air Force One, as well as Enemy mine didn’t quite make the cut either. His 1981 film Das Boot however, is his best. I consider it one of the best war films ever made.Using the term ‘war film’ might be somewhat one sided, I consider it a historical thriller. Very dew films have been able to capture the suspense, drama, and humanity this one has.

Das Boot is the story of a German U-boat crew, fighting in the watery hell of the North Atlantic. Much like other German films depicting WWII, such as Stalingrad, a common theme is present. This is the story of the common soldier, becoming disenfranchised with the leadership of the Third Reich. I’ve always felt this was an attempt by German filmmakers, to add some form of humanity to a dark chapter of their’ countries past. This film does a very good job at accomplishing that, by having such a diverse crew aboard ship.

Warriors of the North Atlantic.
Warriors of the North Atlantic.

The crew themselves are unified, yes so very different. Each one speaks with a different kind of dialect, depending from what part of Germany he’s from. Their personalities are night and day, as are their outlooks on the war. Some still believe in the lies they’re fed by the propaganda, and feel victory is attainable. A good amount of the crew however, have grown distrustful of their leadership, and cynical about the war, This establishes the conflict they have with one another, as well as themselves. It’s not just the allied powers they’re locked in a struggle with.

Depicting war on film, has always been done in many ways. Some glorify it, others show the horror and reality of an armed conflict. Das Boot utilizes a unique approach, depicting the savagery, built up with suspense. Unlike other films involving naval warfare, this one includes some very gripping sequences, within the confined space of the U-boat. These scenes give the film a very suspenseful edge. Petersen used a lot of hand held camera shots, and relied on the sounds of  machinery to create a brooding atmosphere. This worked very well in films like Repulsion, and it works here, extremely well. Here the hunters have become the hunted, and terror is very real.

Terror confined
Terror confined

The conclusion of the 3 hour tale, is not one of resolution. It’s a strong anti-war statement, one that can still be appreciated, decades later. Petersen’s magnum opus, released at the height of the cold war, gave the world a reminder of what the realities of conflict were. He also demonstrated the struggles of all humanity involved. Perhaps, it’s a lesson we should be teaching ourselves today.


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