“Das Boot” – Wolfgang Petersen’s Cinematic Success

Das Boot


Title: “Das Boot”

Release Date: 1981

Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Cast: Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Bernd Tauber





“Das Boot” is one of Wolfgang Petersen’s greatest works, which brought him international fame and huge success in Hollywood. The picture became the most popular foreign film in the US. It captivated audiences and critics with its imaginative convention of a war thriller about the adventures of a submarine and interesting portraits of characters facing the next challenges. However, this well-made film is completely silent on a key historical context for its reception: the young German soldiers were not innocent victims of the evil Allies, as Petersen shows.

“Das Boot” – Petersen conquers Hollywood

Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” entered theaters in 1981. Made in Germany, the film took both European and American audiences by storm. The picture received six Oscar nominations, and the American Society of Cinematographers awarded Jost Vacano for his incredible cinematography. “Das Boot” was included in the list of “100 films that are milestones in cinematography in terms of the art of cinematography.” Vacano’s subsequent career was impressive – he worked on “RoboCo (1987), “Total Recall” (1990) and “Showgilrs” (1995).

“Das Boot” depicts the thrilling adventures of one of Germany’s U-Boats, which fought in Atlantic waters during World War II. Petersen made the film along Hollywood lines, shooting a gripping thriller about a crew of almost superhuman heroes overcoming a succession of extremely difficult circumstances.

The boat’s German sailors, led by Captain Heinrich Lehmann, nicknamed “Old,” set out on a course across the Atlantic Ocean. The U-boat is tasked with patrolling the waters, but also gets into battles. When it encounters enemy convoys on its course, it attacks and sinks Allied ships. At the same time, the submarine has to flee from pursuing destroyers and is bombed more than once. The real challenge, however, is the need to follow orders to sail through the Allied-controlled Strait of Gibraltar. Despite the captain’s clever plan, the German ship is sunk and lands at a critical depth in the Mediterranean.

Das Boot movie review

However, the crew does not give up and with superhuman efforts of mind, will and physical sacrifice repairs the U-Boat, surfaces the ship and then arrives at La-Rochelle, France. However, just after landfall, just before a ceremony honoring the courage of German soldiers, the Allies bomb the harbor and most of the sailors, led by the captain, are killed.

“Das Boot” – an indomitable commander and his loyal men

Petersen’s “Das Boot” captivates not only with its brilliantly constructed plot, but also with the profiles of its characters. At the forefront is the character of the indomitable captain, whose role was very well played by Jurgen Prochnow. He is a charismatic commander, for whom sailors will follow in fire. Far from being a servant type, on the contrary, the Old One presents rather iniquitous views. He distances himself from the cult of the Führer, which he observes with irony but also a certain amount of concern in the young members of his crew. Instead of cheering German songs, he serves the sailors English songs, does not underestimate the enemy and mocks Nazi propaganda parodying Winston Churchill.

It is this character of the film “Das Boot” that most “defends” Petersen’s war vision. Some scenes suggest that the captain sees the absurdity of the whole expedition. For example, in a conversation with a correspondent (Herbert Gronemeyer) who has enlisted on the boat to report on the heroism of German soldiers, he bitterly describes the mission as a “children’s crusade.” Nevertheless, this is only a faint suggestion, as the universal layer of the initiation story is more apparent. What we have here is a story of male adolescence, a telling symbol of which is the growing of beards by all members of the crew. It is a sign of inner transformation and marked by experience in battle. The beard and sloppy attire also distinguish “real” soldiers from those who merely feign valor – like the German officers stationed on the shores of Spain wallowing in luxury.

“Das Boot” – Petersen’s mastery of form

Especially noteworthy is the masterful cinematography in the movie “Das Boot”. To a large extent, it is the work of the cinematographer here that builds the atmosphere of the work. We see and almost feel the claustrophobic space of the cramped U-Boat. Together with the captain, we anxiously watch through the periscope the sea waters in search of the enemy. The camera performs a kind of flip with the sailors, who move at a dizzying pace during the alarm to the front of the ship to accelerate the submergence. Klaus Doldinger’s music also plays a significant role; its leitmotif has permanently entered pop culture and often appears in various remixes.

Das Boot 1981 film analysis

The long screening, combined with evocative shots and the rhythmic change of light – red during the alarm and white during the calm cruise – almost make us feel like members of the crew, which is gradually gaining experience and routine. Moreover, the movie “Das Boot”, which lasts 216 minutes in the director’s version, is even meant to physically tire the viewer. The filmgoer at the end of the screening, like the crew, dreams of leaving the stuffy interior of the boat. Even more so, the unexpected finale, when the heroes expect to be rewarded for their bravery, is supposed to make a strong impression on the viewer and exerts…

The movie “Das Boot” – a relativization of German guilt

Petersen’s “Das Boot”, for all its formal excellence, leaves much to be desired in its problematic layer. Yes, it shows the universal horror of the war, but with complete silence it quashes the essence of the greatest conflict in history. The film is preceded by a specific statement “of the 40,000 U-boat sailors, 30,000 did not return.” We are supposed to conclude from this that the losses on the German side were enormous, and that the deaths of young German boys, shown in the picture’s finale, were the senseless sacrifice of the evil Allies. Such a conclusion, however, is an abuse, for it blurs the line between the real invaders usurping the world and the victims and defenders of freedom. The courage and martial artistry, for which we would like to admire the heroes, do not at all wash away the stigma of guilt.


“Kino końca wieku”, pod red. T. Lubelskiego, I. Sowińskiej i R. Syski, Kraków 2019.