Ballad for an Iron Coffin: Wolfgang Petersen’s
‘Das Boot’


By Tim Pelan

You never see the enemy. Like Christopher Nolan’s triptych timeline suspenser Dunkirk, both quarry and hunter/guardians of the Allied Atlantic convoys our unterseeboot protagonists wrestle with, appear only as mechanised instruments of destruction, or chilling sound design: ghostly ships above the waves through the U-Boat periscope; pings on sonar, or the death-rattling booms of depth charges. Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot does more to highlight, whether in its theatrical, television serial or Director’s cut version, the sheer boredom, isolation and sudden, stark terror of warfare, in this case, the Battle of the Atlantic in the winter of 1941, than a dozen dusty tomes could do. As the film’s opening legend states, “40,000 men served on German U-boats during WWII. 30,000 never returned.” The 1981 $18.5 million German-made film is based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 German novel, a semi-autobiographical account of the war correspondent’s time aboard such a vessel. Petersen’s film largely tells its tale through Buchheim’s avatar’s eyes, Herbert Grönemeyer’s naive Lieutenant Werner, and those of Jürgen Prochnow’s weary sea-wolf, the unnamed Captain. Munich’s Bavaria Studios produced the film, at the time Germany’s most expensive and demanding production, shooting over a year in a near pathological quest for authentic exactitude. Although Petersen relished the minutiae of Buchheim’s reportage, pushing for a universal “war is hell” experience, he rejected the author’s long-buried zeal which critics brought up to counter his attempt in his novel to come to grips with the Nazi past—he had served on only one patrol, and his wartime reports were pulp propaganda. German public opinion in the 1970s was torn between honoring their war dead and disparaging them. Addi Schee, president of the Association of German Submariners, praised the novel for its realistic portrayal of a “submarine patrol with all its moods, excitements and dangers.” Another veteran argued the Association had missed the point of the novel entirely, and that tributes to the Fallen marked a failure to deal with German history honestly—Buchheim labeled the submarine an “iron coffin.”

The author attempted to turn his novel into a film in 1977, before Petersen took over, directing his own script. “For the very first time I had the feeling that a book was really saying what war was about; I had always been curious about it because I had never experienced war myself.” Somewhat to the author’s dismay, Petersen, for all the realism he sought to portray, heightened the action and emotional reactions of the crew when it comes. By their own admission too, Bavaria Film Studios stated they had no interest in attracting “World War II vets in their TV slippers.” Das Boot was to conjure in the minds of a younger audience the visceral excitement of such Hollywood fare as Jaws, or the journey upriver into madness of Apocalypse Now. The naval advisor to the film, Hans-Joachim Krug, considered dubiously that:

The generation [that experienced the Third Reich] was educated to rigor, commitment, self-control and suppression of feelings–particularly that of fear. If we had our actors behave according to the historical models which they were portraying… then the [young audience of today] would simply not have understood or even recognized the historically more genuine, stoic bearing up, nor the extent of the strain, horror and dread they actually bore within themselves.


The young, idealistic crew age years over the course of a patrol, from clean-shaven, raucous revelers in a dockside tavern, to the gaunt, haunted and beard be—grimed specters at journey’s end—substitute a whispered “La Rochelle. La Rochelle,” for Kurtz’s “The horror. The horror.” Petersen forbade his actors from getting a summer tan, for fear it would spoil the deathly pallor of a crew submerged for so long. Only their captain and a few veterans know the horrors that await, in a battle whose outcome has already been decided. Prochnow regarded his character not as a hero, “but as a man who has been drawn into the war and who feels guilty because of helping to fight it.” That guilt never more clearly etched across his lined face than when he surfaces and realizes a torpedoed tanker has survivors still aboard, leaping into the icy waters. He knows they have both not the room to pick them up, nor can they stay within range of Royal Navy Destroyers, and so orders his crew to withdraw. His log notes merely that it was “assumed no men were on board.” Roger Ebert noted in his review that “One cannot easily imagine a Hollywood film in which American submariners are shown allowing drowning men to die. The German filmmakers regard their subject dispassionately; it is a record of the way things were.”

Petersen referred to the only existing type IX-C U-boat in existence at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to build his two full-scale replicas, both interior, and exterior. The interior set had no removable walls. Forty-eight men occupied these vessels that during peacetime held only twenty-four–on top of the actors the film crew was squeezed in as well. The exactitude to detail even extended to using the same type of screws in the bulkheads. Famously, Steven Spielberg borrowed the submarine exterior shell for Raiders of the Lost Ark mid-shoot—upon its return, it sank. The director told CraveOnline, “We thought, in the beginning, we might kill ourselves after a few weeks because it’s just such a small place. Then you develop a kind of discipline there that you can do it forever and forever. You get very tired. We spent one year, because of the long version, one year in that set. It’s tiresome but more and more, the more we realized we can do it, we’ll make it, we’re getting amazing footage. Because we shot in sequence, the actors got more and more really into it, into their part. They could’ve done that forever… It was a set but it was a submarine. The feel of it was absolutely real.”

With the longer cuts, dwelling on the boredom and routine of such long periods beneath the waves, Petersen gradually makes us almost forget that these men sail beneath the Nazi banner—singing a raucous version of WWI Tommy favourite “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary,” much to the irritation of the token Nazi believer on board; picking noses and farting in a festering hive of sweaty bodies; switching off disturbing news from home of the Eastern Front—there can be no dwelling on matters beyond the here and now.


U-96 is as much a character as the component human parts of its deadly purpose, from every creaking bulkhead under pressure and rivets popping like bullets, to the rhythmic chop of propellers and its motor. All dialogue was added post-production as the special hand-held camera developed by DoP Jost Vacano for filming within the cramped set would have drowned it out. POV shots hurtling down the narrow passage past store-laden hammocks and weary crew really hammer home the cramped conditions and urgency of undersea combat. When diving, the crew rush to the prow to hasten the descent. Every actor was bilingual in both English and German, recording different versions for different markets, before sub-titled original versions of foreign cinema became more in vogue. The sub was mounted on a gimbal and could be tilted up to 45 degrees, to simulate extreme dives to escape depth charge attack. Sounds of impact were simulated by technicians striking the hull with hammers, Foley technicians adding the booming effects later. Some 5000 period photographs taken by Buchheim, cut from his earlier book U-Boat Krieg, were put up on the studio walls in place of storyboards for invaluable reference.

Linda Maria Koldau, in ‘Sound effects as a defining feature in submarine films,’ writes that Das Boot‘s composer Klaus Doldinger “intentionally integrated the fascinating sound of the ‘ping’ into his musical score, thus linking it inseparably to the soundscape of the submarine. It is this ping that creates a highly emotional effect on the listener: even those who know very little about submarine warfare will know that the unexpected sound of a ping means the worst has happened—the submarine has been detected.”

Das Boot, like Dunkirk, reveals through its technical virtuosity and strict adherence to experiential cinema, as Christopher Nolan puts it, the human predicament at the heart of stark terror in times of war. These are men, not monsters, subject to the vagaries of service and politics as much as anyone, sold a lie of glorious sea-bound adventure.


Regarding the mammoth TV version of Das Boot, a psychologist noted how many German women wept upon viewing the tragic tale: “Ships symbolize the uterus, and the sea is the amniotic fluid.” Summing this up, Michael L Hadley, author of Count Not the Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine, states, “Only the Submarine can dive into it and surface at will. Surrogate mothers were weeping for surrogate sons.”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


What was it about Das Boot that made it special?
First of all, I think for the world to be forced to relate to or even identify with Nazis in a submarine was quite an unusual thing, and the film managed that in the end. In the beginning, when the film was first screened in Los Angeles, it read on the screen, “Of 40,000 German submariners, 30,000 died.” There was a big applause. They thought it was good that they died. At the end of the film, after two and a half hours, they all clapped and there was a standing ovation. The film turned this hostile audience around. That is a quality of the film to show that war is war and young people die for horrible reasons. And of course the film was done in a very realistic way. You really felt that war is hell—especially submarine warfare, where they felt like sardines. The claustrophobia in the film was there. And then there’s the focus we brought on these characters inside, the captain and all these people. Even in the most horrible situation, something beautiful can happen: They were brought really close together. They would die for each other. That is a good lesson that even in the worst, most horrible situation, something beautiful and human can happen. And that goes way beyond being German, American, or English. It’s universal. —Wolfgang Petersen


David Childs talks with Wolfgang Petersen and Jürgen Prochnow about the film Das Boot made in 1981. This interview was recorded at Imperial College London on 24 March 1982.

Open YouTube video


Here’s a rarity: Wolfgang Petersen’s script for Das Boot [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The making of Das Boot.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. Photographed by Karl-Heinz Vogelmann © Bavaria Film, Radiant Film GmbH, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Twin Bros. Productions, Westdeutscher Rundfunk. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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