“When ‘Das Boot’ was first released in the United States, its running time was 145 minutes, and it won huge audiences and no less that six Oscar nominations-unheard of for a foreign film.” The genius of Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” is that to Americans it is considered a foreign film indeed; not only in the sense that the film is from Germany, but because the film offers a unique perspective of World War Two, the German perspective. This point of view allows American audiences to walk away from theaters and be impacted by themes which are common in the cinematic industry. However, because the film is the story of a German submarine, the effect is different than anything American audiences have previously experienced. One of these themes is failure. “Das Boot” presents German forces as being able to overcome failure in a victorious manner, while the Allies are shown to be a rather unsuccessful military force.
The Captain of the U-boat serves as a symbol for German warfare. He is first introduced in his full uniform, immediately it is known this man is a figure of authority. In the film’s chaotic opening scene, he is one of the few sober soldiers at the bar, illustrating that he is in control at all times. While many are frightened when he pushes the boat twice beyond the recommended depth to test its sturdiness, no one challenges his decision. He is stern, powerful, and respected. As Roger Ebert writes about a scene later in the film: “He’s capable of shouting ‘I demand proper reports!’ even as the boat seems to be breaking up.” On several occasions while under attack from depth charges, only the veteran Captain’s knowledge is the only thing which keeps the sailors of U-96 from the grave. Because the Captain serves as a human link to Germany’s war effort, his characterization shows Germany’s relative success in the war. When the Captain is triumphant, so too is Germany.
Under no circumstances can the men onboard the U-96 fail. They are literally trapped in the boat, and all mistakes quickly lead to the same fatal end. Whether the Captain mistakenly surfaces and has the periscope spotted by an enemy ship, or Johan abandons his post in the engine room, the consequence each time is disastrous. Every sailor on the boat depends on one another to perform his duties satisfactorily.
An Analysis of Das Boot
What is it that makes the film, “Das Boot”, stand out in the plethora of war movies? Why was this film, with subtitles and about German World War 2 soldiers, popular enough in America to earn six Academy Award nominations? One possible answer is the characters.
Like so many other epics, the sensation of viewing pleasure goes beyond the intense plot and into the intricacy and intimacy of the building blocks of every story: the characters. Director Wolfgang Petersen’s mastery is in bringing the viewer into that unfortunate submarine, makes everyone a participant in the horror as one of the characters, creating the feeling of no escape. Then, once Petersen has the viewer “in” the submarine, he presents us with a duality in character type; there are men determined to salvage the mission and thwart disaster, as well as others who are helpless in helping their comrades, doomed to be insufficient and bothersome. Once Petersen has portrayed this conflict, it is easy to see how the level of tension is so high in the submarine.
The film begins with the submarine crew drunk and jovial, attempting to enjoy their final moments before their departure. Knowing that the odds of returning alive are minimal, the men appear to throwing their intuition to the stars as they frolic foolishly and even tastelessly. Petersen is presenting the viewer with a group of rowdy boys full of life and indifferent to their future, in stark contrast with the men who arrive at the Mediterranean port later in the film. At this moment, all the men are equals, ready to confront the sea and serve their country.
While in the submarine, the nature of these men changes. No longer are they a homogeneous group; rather a number of…
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… thing he does like his attentiveness to Hitler’s speeches, his meticulous eating habits, and promenading in his Nazi attire, all annoy the crew. His very presence is a distraction to a crew that needs total focus. Although he appears as diligent as the others, his style is different, his attitude is too unnecessary, and his demeanor is too inappropriate for the submarine.
This duality is a large component of the tension that resides in the boat. Peterson seems to be making a contrast he to encourage the already mounting tension. Combine this with the life-death aspect of the mission and incredible stress is inevitable. It is a ship mostly full of ardorous men, but the few who don’t fit are harpoons in the ship’s side. Pederson’s film is quite intense and it has to be said that this duality in character portrayal enhances this aspect of the movie.