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Das Boot ("The Boat"; ) is a 1981 feature film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, adapted from a novel of the same name by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Hans-Joachim Krug, former first officer on U-219, served as a consultant, as did Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the captain of the real U-96.

The film is the story of a single mission of one World War II U-boat, 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 story is based on an amalgamation of the exploits of the real U-96, a Type VIIC-class U-boat commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, one of Germany's top U-boat "tonnage aces" during the war.

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." Petersen heightened suspense by very rarely showing any external views of the submarine unless it is running on the surface and relying on sounds to convey action outside the boat, thus showing the audience only the claustrophobic interior the crew would see.

The original 1981 version cost DM 32 million to make. The director's meticulous attention to detail resulted in a historically accurate film that was a critical and financial success, grossing over $80 million ($190.2 million in 2009 prices) worldwide between its two releases in 1981 and 1997. 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, except for Metropolis.


The story is told from the viewpoint of Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), who has been assigned as a war correspondent on the German Submarine U-96 in October 1941. In the opening scene he joins its Captain (Jürgen Prochnow), Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann), and the drunken crew in a French nightclub. Thomsen (Otto Sander), another crew's captain, gives a crude drunken speech in which he mocks Adolf Hitler in celebration of his Ritterkreuz award.

The next morning, they sail out of the harbor to cheering crowds and a playing band. Werner is given a full tour of the boat and becomes acquainted with the tight quarters and the rest of the crew. As time passes, he observes ideological differences between the fresh crew members and the hardened veterans, particularly the Captain, who is embittered and cynical about the war. The new members, 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 a near-by enemy convoy. They soon locate a British destroyer but are bombarded with depth charges while preparing to attack. The explosions are deafening but the boat narrowly escapes with only light damage and they resurface safely a few hours later.

The next three weeks are spent enduring a relentless storm. Morale drops after what seems like an endless series of misfortunes, but the crew is cheered temporarily when they randomly meet Thomsen's boat. Shortly after the storm ends, the boat encounters a British convoy and quickly launches four torpedoes, successfully sinking two ships. However, they are spotted by a destroyer and must dive below the submarine's rated limits to escape. The entire crew falls silent to minimize noise and avoid detection, and are constantly depth-charged. The Chief Mechanic has a mental breakdown and must be restrained. The boat sustains heavy damage but is eventually able to safely resurface in darkness. An enemy tanker remains afloat and on fire, so they torpedo the ship and watch as surviving British sailors desperately leap overboard, swimming towards them. Following orders not to take prisoners, the Captain gives the command to back the ship away. They head back to La Rochellemarker with a nearly exhausted fuel supply.

The worn-out U-boat crew look forward to returning home to La Rochelle in time for Christmas, but the ship is ordered to La Speziamarker, Italymarker, which means passing through the Strait of Gibraltarmarker — an area firmly controlled by the Royal Navy. Resistant to let Werner and the "LI" (engineer) perish, the Captain requests for them to be taken ashore. They make a secret night rendezvous at the harbor of Vigomarker, in neutral Spain with an interned German liner that clandestinely provides U-boats with fuel, torpedoes, and other supplies. The filthy officers seem out of place on the opulent luxury liner, but are warmly greeted by enthusiastic Nazi officers who are eager to hear their exploits. The Captain learns from secret agents on the supply ship that his request that Werner and the "LI" be sent back to Germany has been denied.

The crew finishes resupplying and departs for Italy. As they carefully approach Gibraltar, and will be ready to dive in 10 minutes, 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 she is forced to dive. When attempting to level off, the boat does not respond and continues to sink until, just before crushing, it lands on a sea shelf. The crew must now make numerous repairs before running out of oxygen. After over sixteen hours, they are able to surface by blowing out their ballast of water, and limp home under the cover of darkness to La Rochelle.

The crew is pale and weary upon returning to La Rochelle on Christmas Eve. Shortly after the wounded navigator is taken ashore to a waiting ambulance, Allied planes strafe the facilities. Werner and some others take refuge in the secure U-boat bunker, though most of the men are wounded. After the raid, Werner exits the bunker and discovers the lifeless bodies of four crew members. He then finds the Captain, with multiple bullet wounds and bleeding from the mouth, watching the U-boat sink at the dock. The Captain collapses after the boat disappears under the water, and a horrified Werner rushes to his side.


The U-96 officers.
From l. to r.: the 2WO (Semmelrogge), the Captain (Prochnow), Navigator Kriechbaum (Tauber), the 1WO (Bengsch), Lt.
Werner (Grönemeyer), "Little" Benjamin (Hoffmann), Cadet Ullmann (May), and Pilgrim (Fedder).
  • Jürgen Prochnow as Captain (Kapitänleutnant / Kaleu / Der Alte): A 30-year-old battle-hardened sea veteran, who complains to Werner that most of his crew are boys. Despite being openly anti-Nazi, 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.
  • Herbert Grönemeyer as Lieutenant (Leutnant) Werner, War Correspondent: The naive, but honest narrator. Werner is mocked for his lack of U-boat experience. Grönemeyer was a popular German singer before the film and still is.
  • Klaus Wennemann as Chief Engineer (Leitender Ingenieur or LI): 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. Wennemann later became lead in a successful German detective series, Der Fahnder (the Investigator) before his death in 2000 from lung cancer.
  • Hubertus Bengsch as 1st Lieutenant/ 1st Watch Officer (IWO): A young, by-the-book officer, an ardent Nazi and a staunch believer in victory. He has a condescending attitude and is the only crewman who makes the effort to maintain his proper uniform. Raised in some wealth in Mexico by his step-parents who owned a plantation. His German fiancée died in a British carpet bombing raid. He spends his days writing his thoughts on military training and leadership for the High Command. Bengsch later became a successful dubbing artist, providing (amongst others) the German voice of Richard Gere.
  • Martin Semmelrogge as 1st Lieutenant / 2nd Watch Officer (IIWO): A vulgar, comedic officer. One of his duties is to decode messages from base, using the Enigma code machine. The film started Semmelrogge's successful German film career.
  • Bernd Tauber as Chief Helmsman (Obersteuermann) Kriechbaum: The navigator and IIIWO (3rd Watch Officer). Always slightly sceptical of the Captain, and shows no enthusiasm during the voyage, or any anger when a convoy is too far away to be attacked. Kriechbaum has four sons, with another on the way. He is wounded in the airplane attack at Gibraltar. Following the film, Tauber became a successful actor; one of his roles was the first HIV-positive character in West Germany television on Lindenstraße.
  • Erwin Leder as Chief Mechanic (Obermaschinist) Johann: He is obsessed with a near-fetish love for the U96's engines. Suffers a 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 with an Austrianmarker accent. Leder appeared in the Gothic vampire film Underworld.
Johann (Leder) and the LI (Wennemann) inspecting the engine.
  • Martin May as Cadet (Fähnrich) 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 even offers to deliver Ullmann's stack of love letters when he hears Werner may be leaving the submarine.
  • Heinz Hoenig as Petty Officer (Maat) Hinrich: The radioman, sonar controller and ship's combat medic. He is in many ways the third most important crewman, since he gauges speed and direction of targets and enemy destroyers. Hinrich is one of the few officers that the Captain is able to relate to. Hoenig later became one of the most sought-after character faces in German films.
  • Uwe Ochsenknecht as Chief Bosun (Bootsmann) Lamprecht: The severe chief who shows Werner around the U-96, and supervises the firing and reloading of the torpedo tubes. He only once gets upset after hearing on the radio that the football team the crew supports are losing a match, and they will "Never make the final now". He speaks with a Hessenmarker accent. The film started Ochsenknecht's successful German film career.
  • 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 Petty Officer (Maat) Pilgrim: Another sailor (watch officer and diving planes operator), gets almost swept off the submarine, breaks several ribs and is hospitalised for a while. Speaks with a Hamburgmarker accent. Fedder later became lead in a successful light-hearted German police series, Großstadtrevier.
  • Ralf Richter as Petty Officer (Maat) Frenssen: Pilgrim's best friend. Pilgrim and Frenssen love to trade dirty jokes and stories. He speaks with a Ruhr Area accent.
  • Joachim Bernhard as Theologian (Bibelforscher): A religious sailor who is constantly reading the Bible. He is punched by Frenssen when the submarine is trapped at the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar for praying rather than repairing the boat. Bernhard is the brother of Semmelrogge and has not acted since the early 1990s.
  • Oliver Stritzel as Schwalle: The blond sailor who speaks with a Berlinmarker accent.
  • Jean-Claude Hoffmann as "Little" Benjamin: A red haired sailor who serves as a diving planes operator and watch officer.
  • Lutz Schnell as Dufte: The sailor who gets jeered at because he is getting married, and for a possible false airplane sighting. Schnell's later career was dominated by voice-over work.
  • Otto Sander as Kapitänleutnant Phillip 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 Adolf Hitler on the stage of a French nightclub. Sometime after U-96 departs, Thomsen is deployed once again and the two submarines meet randomly in the middle of the Atlantic Oceanmarker. After failing to make contact later, the Captain is forced to report to HQ that Thomsen is missing. Otto Sander is one of Germany's most prolific character actors, including the angel Cassiel in Wings of Desire alongside Bruno Ganz.
  • Günter Lamprecht as Captain of the Weser: An enthusiastic Nazi officer aboard the resupply ship Weser. He mistakes the 1WO for the Captain as they enter the ship's elegant dining room, and 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". Lamprecht went on to have a successful career in German cinema and television, including a supporting role in Comedian Harmonists alongside Otto Sander.
  • Sky du Mont (uncredited) as Officer Aboard the Weser: An officer aboard the Weser whom the 2WO amuses with a comical demonstration of depth charging. du Mont narrates the German dub of Thomas and Friends and appeared in the film Night Crossing, about an infamous escape from East Germany, as well as Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

The film features characters who speak German with regional dialects. Director Wolfgang Petersen states in his DVD audio commentary that young men from throughout Germany and Austria were recruited for the film, as he wanted faces and accents that would accurately reflect the diversity of the Third Reich, circa 1941. All of the main actors speak English as well as German, 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. While several actors went on to even greater success, Wolfgang Petersen established himself as a long-standing fixture as a Hollywoodmarker director and producer.


Production of Das Boot took two years (1979–1981). Most of the filming was done in one year; to make the appearance of the actors as realistic as possible, scenes were filmed in sequence over the course of the year. This ensured natural growth of beards and hair, increasing skin pallor, and signs of strain on the actors, who had, just like real U-boat men, spent many months in a cramped, unhealthy atmosphere.

Production for this film originally began in 1976. Several American directors were considered, and the Kaleu (Kapitänleutnant) was to be played by Robert Redford. Disagreements sprang up among various parties and the project was shelved. Another Hollywood production was attempted with other American directors in mind, this time with the Kaleu to be portrayed by Paul Newman. This effort primarily failed due to technical concerns, for example, how to film the close encounter of the two German submarines at sea during a storm.

The final scene of the captain collapsing gives the impression that he dies from injuries, which was the director's intention. However, the real captain actually survived and visited the submarine set and met with Jürgen Prochnow during filming.

Sets and models

Several different sets were used. Two full-size mock-ups of a Type VIIC boat were built, one representing the portion above water for use in outdoor scenes, and the other a cylindrical tube on a motion mount for the interior scenes. The mock-ups were built according to U-boat plans from Chicagomarker's Museum of Science and Industrymarker.

The outdoor mock-up was basically a shell propelled with a small engine, and stationed in La Rochelle, France and has a history of its own. One morning the production crew walked out to where they kept it afloat and found it missing. Someone had forgotten to inform the crew that an American filmmaker had rented the mock-up for his own film shooting in the area. This filmmaker was Steven Spielberg and the film he was shooting was Raiders of the Lost Ark. A few weeks later, during production, the mock-up cracked in a storm and sank, was recovered and patched to stand in for the final scenes. Contrary to what some may believe, the full-sized mock-up was used during the Gibraltar surface scenes; the bomber plane (a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber) and rockets were real while the British ships were models.

A mock-up of a conning tower was placed in a water tank at the Bavaria Studiosmarker in Munichmarker for outdoor scenes not requiring a full view of the boat's exterior. When filming on the outdoor mockup or the conning tower, jets of cold water were hosed over the actors to simulate the breaking ocean waves. During the filming there is a scene where actor Jan Fedder (Pilgrim) falls off the bridge while the U-boat is surfaced and lands in the front and breaks several ribs. This scene was not scripted and during the take one of the actors exclaims "Mann über Bord!" in order to draw attention to Fedder. Petersen, who at first did not realise this was an accident said "Good idea, Jan. We'll do that one more time!". However, since Fedder was genuinely injured and had to be hospitalised, this was the only take available and eventually Petersen kept this scene in the film. In this scene, the pained expression on Fedder's face is authentic and not acted. Petersen also had to rewrite Fedder's character for a portion of the film so that the character was portrayed as bedridden. For his scenes later in the film Fedder had to be brought to and from set from the hospital since he suffered a concussion while filming his accident scene. Fedder eventually recovered enough and Pilgrim is seen on his feet from the scene when the U-96 abandons the British sailors. A half-sized full hull operating model was used for underwater shots and some surface running shots, in particular the meeting in stormy seas with another U-boat. The tank was also used for the shots of British sailors jumping from their ship; a small portion of the tanker hull was constructed for these shots.

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 took 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").

Special camera

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 reinvention of the Steadicam on a smaller scale, so that it could be carried throughout the interior of the mock-up. Vacano wore full-body padding to minimise injury as he ran and the mock-up was rocked and shaken. The gyroscopes used to stabilize his rig were very noisy, and most of the film had to be dubbed as the location sound was unusable.

Throughout the filming, the actors were forbidden to go out into the sunlight, to create the pallor of men who seldom saw the sun during their missions. The actors went through intensive training to learn how to move quickly through the narrow confines of the vessel.


Several versions of the film and video releases have been made: The first version to be released was the theatrical 150-minute (2½-hour) cut, released to theatres in Germanymarker in 1981, and in the United Statesmarker in 1982. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Writing).

The film was partly financed by the German television broadcasters WDR and the SDR, and much more footage had been shot for the film than was shown in the theatrical version. A version of three 100 minute episodes was transmitted on BBC Two in the United Kingdommarker in October 1984, and in Germany and Austria the following year. In 1988 a version comprising six 50 minute epsides was screened. These episodes had additional cutback scenes summarising past episodes.

Petersen then oversaw the editing of six hours of film, from which was distilled Das Boot: The Director's Cut, 209 minutes long (3 hours, 29 minutes), released in 1997, which combines the action sequences seen in the feature-length version with character development scenes contained in the mini-series. This release also provides better sound and video quality. Petersen originally had planned to release this version in 1981, which for commercial reasons was not possible. The Director's Cut was released to cinemas in Germany on December 11 and on April 4, 1997 in the U.S.

The uncut miniseries version, running 293 minutes (four hours, 53 minutes), was released to DVD on June 1, 2004, as Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version with enhanced video and audio quality. It omits the cutback scenes of the 1988 television broadcast and is therefore shorter. In addition to the "Director's Cut" DVD, a Superbit version, with fewer additional DVD features but a higher bit-rate (superior quality), has been released by Columbia Pictures.


The film drew high critical acclaim and is seen as one of the greatest of all German films, along with Nosferatu by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, Der blaue Engel with Marlene Dietrich and Das Leben der Anderen by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It is regarded as at the forefront among the subgenre of submarine films.

In late 2007, there was an exhibition about the film Das Boot, as well as about the real U-Boat U96, at the Haus der Geschichte (House of German History) in Bonn. Over 100,000 people visited the exhibition during its four-month run.


The film was unusual in its North American promotion, since it was referred to both in German as Das Boot, and in English as The Boat. The lack of drama in the translated title eventually led to its being marginalized, with Das Boot becoming the normal title for the film. For a time, it was called Das Boot (The Boat).

Historical accuracy

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"), with the rest of the officers 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. At that stage in the war, morale was declining and this 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. Moreover, none of the British fighter-bombers of late 1941 to early 1942 had the range to bomb La Rochelle from bases in the U.K.; however, it is possible the fighters were carrier-based and not land based. While Saint-Nazairemarker was the base used in the novel, the film was changed to La Rochelle because its appearance had not changed to such a large degree in the years since World War II.

Buchheim himself was a U-boat correspondent. He has stated that the following film scenes are unrealistic:
  • In the film, an unidentified member of the crew throws an oil-stained towel into Lt. Werner's face. As a Lieutenant, Werner would have commanded special respect and in reality, the culprit would have been court-martialed and received a hefty sentence.
  • After surviving a bombing, the crew celebrate loudly in their bunks, even with a sailor dressing up as a woman in a red-lit room.
  • The crew behaves far too loudly during patrols; the celebrations after getting a torpedo hit were described as unprofessional.

Criticism by novel author Buchheim

Even though overwhelmed by the literally perfect technological accuracy of the film's set-design and port construction buildings, novel author Lothar-Günter 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, as well as the hysterical over-acting of the cast 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 that would have amounted in full to a complete 6-hour epic, however Petersen turned him down because at the time the producers were aiming for a 90-minute feature for international release. Ironically, today's Director's Cut of Das Boot amounts to over 200 minutes, and the complete TV version of the film to roughly 5 hours long.

Buchheim attacked specifically what he called Petersen's sacrificing of both realism and suspense in dialogue, narration and photography just 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 very likely being crushed by water pressure, while Petersen has several bolts loosening in various scenes).

Uttering deep concerns about the end result, Buchheim felt that unlike his clearly anti-war novel the adaptation was "another re-glorification and re-mystification" of German WWII U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism, and 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, written by composer Klaus Doldinger, took on a life of its own after German rave producer Alex Christensen created a remixed techno version under the title U96 in 1991. The song "Das Boot" later became an international hit.

Three very prominent songs of the film were not included in the official soundtrack:"J'attendrai" sung by Rina Ketty, the Erzherzog-Albrecht-Marsch and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" performed by the Red Army Chorus.

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