Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Thoughts on Das Boot

No, not sf, but a response to a review of Das Boot recently written by my old friend John Bleasdale. John’s thesis is that Das Boot’s male homosociality unconsciously repeats the forms of warrior masculinity and sociality that can be found at the roots of fascism, a politics the film ostensibly disavows. John’s piece begs the question: can a film be made about war that does not glorify it in some sense, and thereby fall into the very thing it criticises?

Jurgen Prochnow as the Captain. Image from:
Das Boot follows a voyage of the submarine U-96 in what is now known as ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’ in 1941 and 1942, the  attempts by the German U-boat ‘packs’ to sink as much Allied shipping as possible to disrupt the convoys travelling across the Atlantic to support Britain’s war effort. Very near the beginning of the film, the Captain (the Kapitan-Leuntnant, ‘Herr Ka-Leun’) of the boat, played by Jurgen Prochnow, suggests that the Allies are winning the battle, if not the war itself, by 1942. Strikingly, the keynote of the entire film itself (over 4 hours at its full ‘Director’s Cut’ length) is that U-96 is no longer the hunter, but the hunted. After searching in vain for Allied shipping for the first half of the film, the second half is dominated by the results of retaliatory attacks by British destroyers upon the submarine, particularly after one ship is torpedoed. 

There are two extraordinary set-piece sequences of U-96 under attack by depth-charges, the men waiting for seemingly-inevitable and horrendous death when the depth-charges crack the hull.  Here, Wolfgang Petersen’s ensemble cast excel in performing responses to the situation. While Prochnow’s stoicism and calm authority does speak a kind of heroism, his response to the engineer Johann’s breakdown – he goes for his pistol and is about to shoot the engineer when crewmates smuggle him to another part of the boat – indicates an unsympathetic hardness, an adherence to an authoritarian code that takes little notice of human weakness under duress that shades Prochnow’s deeply sympathetic characterization. John is right to call the Ka-Leun an ‘honest warrior’, but warrior he is, and his exhilaration when driving the boat towards the Straits of Gibraltar late in the film leaves no doubt that a part of him enjoys the fight. I don’t find this problematic, myself; the film develops enough emotional room that excitement can exist alongside profound disillusionment and even a kind of ethical doubt for many of the crew.

Room, of course, is precisely what the crew do not have. Petersen filmed the majority of the scenes in a mocked-up  U-boat interior, which is used brilliantly to emphasise the sweaty, stinky claustrophobia of living in such a space as well as the extraordinarily kinetic action sequences (‘Alarm!!’), with a mobile camera barrelling down the length of the submarine, following the men who run to the bows to give extra ballast for a dive. The quiet, static shots of waiting for the detonation of the depth-charges are thus given increased intensity by the kineticism inside the boat demonstrated elsewhere in the film. The boat is both a place of tearing energy and of monstrous silence (pierced only by the ‘ping’ of sonar).

The first sequence of U-96 being hunted does not, in a sense, ‘end’. After torpedoing a convoy ship, and being forced to withdraw from the seamen in the water, the ‘bill’ is paid: destroyers pursue the boat for hours. The character who focalises the narrative, the journalist Leuntnant Werner, retreats to his bunk (he has the privilege of not hot-bunking, sleeping in another’s sweat) as the submarine is shaken endlessly by detonations, and the film fades to black. Werner anticipates death, and here, cannot look at it directly; but it is only sleep that comes. We, too, are spared. He awakes to find the boat peaceful, many of his shipmates sleeping. This is only a temporary reprieve, however. After orders directing them to a new base at La Spezia (rather than their Atlantic pens at La Rochelle), the boat tries to ‘break through’ at Gibraltar but a fighter-bomber hits U-96’s bowplanes, and in diving to escape, the boat heads inexorably for the bottom. Herr Ka-Leun’s command of ‘tiefer’ earlier in the film, depth as a means of escape, become the boat’s doom: the hull can only take so much. As the crew realize the inevitability of their own destruction, ‘God threw a shovelful of sand beneath our keel’, and the boat rests upon a rocky outcrop, so far down that the depth-gauge is off the scale. This second sequence compounds the first, but like the first, looks away from the moment of destruction. Instead of Werner’s sleep fading the screen to black, some unseen hand intervenes to spare the boat, and a brilliantly-staged struggle to repair the damage and re-float the submarine ensues. The logic of both sequences, as articulated in Prochnow’s speech at the beginning of the film, is defeat and death for the crew. Although my emotional investment in the narrative and its characters is such that, whenever I watch Das Boot, I want the crew to survive, to overcome the odds and get home, the film stresses, in the re-location to La Spezia, that there is no home to go to; the underlying logic of the film demands that the crew perish at the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar. But, as I noted in my post on Toy Story 3 elsewhere on this blog, this can’t happen, for generic and emotional reasons, and so we have the intervention of a deus ex machine in both films to ‘save’ the group.

The death of the Captain, with Werner in the background.
I’ve always disliked the ending of Das Boot, because its arbitrary destruction of the crew upon their arrival at La Spezia denied the emotional trajectory of their escape from death at the bottom of the Straits, as mechanical a ‘tragedy’ as can be found in many a Robert Altman film. The ending overstates that there are no winners here, no heroism to be had, only the certainty of destruction (with the death of the Captain over-determined by intercutting with the sinking of U-96 at the dockside). Werner survives, but a montage shows the dead bodies of all the other crew members, the Nazi First Lieutenant and the scurrilous Second Lieutenant alike. I don’t agree with John that ‘their sins are paid for and they are redeemed as noble warriors who fell fighting for an unjust cause they never believed in’; I don’t see redemption in their deaths, nor sacrifice to an unjust cause. Because the film cannot grasp the inevitability of the crew’s deaths at sea, it resorts to an over-determined massacre to emphasise its anti-heroic, anti-Nazi message. I’ve always felt it would be better for the crew to have survived, not because that is the emotional arc but because it would force the audience to wonder what is being cheered for here. In a film that is deeply affecting and emotionally sophisticated, I find the ending unsatisfying because it is too simplistic: ‘no heroes’. The most heroic sequence in Das Boot isn’t the torpedo attack, it’s the battle to save the boat at the bottom of the Straits, an everyday ‘heroism’ embodied in the figure of the Chief, worn down to the bone, hollow-eyed, corpse-like. Even the Mexican-German Nazi First Lieutenant, who is, as John says, a straw-man ideologue sniggered at by the rest of the crew, becomes part of the collectivity at this point. The heroism of the mechanic, the worker, is central to Das Boot, not that of the warrior.

Men and machine. Image from:
So, finally, I think, we get to the core of the problem. John’s article suggests that it is homosociality itself, ‘men doing a difficult and dangerous job together’, that is politically dangerous in Das Boot, in that it re-introduces a foundational masculine collectivity that grounds fascism, and in particular the veneration of the soldier and the platoon or phalanx as ideal social unit (which can be found in many places in the writings of the proto-Nazi freikorps militiamen in the early 1920s, for instance). While I acknowledge this argument, I think it would be a mistake to suggest that all forms of masculine sociality in war (and war films) are inherently fascistic. For, one thing Das Boot does not do is to suggest that the sacrifice or suppression of the individual to the collective will is a necessity for survival; the brilliant ensemble cast, the importance of the emotional lives of even minor characters (such as the sailor who has a pregnant French girlfriend left behind in La Rochelle), constantly re-state the emotional connectivity at work in the boat, its heterogeneity rather than totality. There is das boot itself, U-96; but there is also the crew. 

And of course, war stories far antedate the historical facts of Italian fascism or Nazism, and the problematic collectivity of men in war is as part of the Iliad as it is Das Boot. If that comparison seems far-fetched, I think that the centrality of ‘home’ and ‘homecoming’, that the crew have no home (displaced from La Rochelle to La Spezia, from France to Italy, away from Germany itself as well as from family) indicates that Das Boot is a kind of revisited nostoi narrative, in which the age of heroes is long gone and there is no longer any place to call home. Home, and one’s connection to it, has a particular role in German culture signified by the word ‘heimat’, a kind of deep personal and psychological implication in a social/spatial location; for the crew of U-96, this connection has been severed. The sinking of U-96, in a sense their only home (one that can so easily become a coffin) is the emblem of this rupture in ‘heimat’, and thereby in German self-conception of what is ‘home’ in the post-war period. 


  1. They never reach La Spezia. After resurfacing at Gibraltar, the captain abandons his attempt to get through the straits and returns the boat to La Rochelle. This is where the air raid occurs.

  2. The ending is necessary because it serves to emphasise the overall futility of the German cause. The crew may have cheated death at Gibraltar, but overall their mission was a failure, having only sunk a couple of ships and failed to reach La Spezia. The tragic finale doesn't detract from their achievements; as the film progresses we witness their transformation from a collection of idealistic braggarts to a finely honed unit capable of surviving against all odds. It does, however serve to reinforce the film's central point that, by 1941 the War in the Atlantic is unwinnable and there is nothing that the crew can do to change that.

  3. Brilliant and thoughtful posting, as well as the comments; though i don't agree with all you say. Terrific movie to feast on intellectually. Thanks for this.

  4. What a great commentary! I enjoy this film immensely, but like the author, have always hated the ending. I believe this to be one of, if not the, best war film ever made. It is obviously and honestly the best submarine movie ever made. The crew are certainly not portrayed as Nazi archetypes but as regular men doing their duty. The captain spews vitriol at the Nazi leadership, as does his friend Thomson (spelling), in the opening bar scene. We also see the captain never give the Nazi salute and you can see his disdain for the idiots on the boat at Vigo (again, spelling). He does live for the battle, but that is because he has been in the fight for a long time. It has become more of an addiction for him than serving any Nazi cause. The ending is a little improbable and really mean spirited. I don't personally believe these guys needed to "pay for their sins." If this is true, than all of the Allies that killed Axis forces should also have been killed. Like the old adage, "Two wrongs don't make a right." It would have been better to end where the captain is talking about making it back to LaRochelle and wondering if the engines last. At least the audience can then make up their own conclusion, rather than the heavy handed and mean one at the end. Listen, this is a phenomenal film, but I can never give it 5 out of 5, because of that ending. 4.5 is the best I can do with this one, and that is high praise coming from me. It sure as hell demolishes U571 and Crimson Tide in quality and thoughtfulness. Also, if you have never watched, I suggest starting with the Theatrical Cut and if you like it, move on to the Director's Cut; which is fantastic. I don't really want the uncut version, but I heartily enjoy the Director's Cut these days....that ending though.


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