The Film


In 1981, DAS BOOT was the most expensive and most elaborate film ever to be produced in Germany, taking two years to complete and employing a crew of 250 people, finally costing 30 million DM (which corresponds today to about 40 million dollars). It also devoured about 300,000 metres of film. The film is based on the recollections of war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim who was the first person to write about the life aboard a submarine. To be able to bring these treacherous experiences to a wide audience, Wolfgang Petersen decided to place his emphasis from the outset on the greatest possible realism. The director wanted to confront his audience with the everyday life of sailors who had to surrender every element of their private lives and accept a visibly awkward claustrophobic state within the confines of the U 96, whilst constantly fearful of an attack by an enemy destroyer.

To achieve the reality he desired, the crew around Wolfgang Petersen had to build not only a submarine, but also consider how to film within this narrow tube. The plans for a Type VII C submarine were found in Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and were presented to a submarine constructor who had not received an order for this particular model since 1945. He constructed two full-sized models, including interior furnishings, one for the indoor filming in the studio, the other, a seaworthy model, for filming on location in La Rochelle. In addition, another three smaller models were built. One of them, which was twelve metres long, seaworthy, and even able to dive, was steered by engineers using remote control. Both of the others - six metres and three metres long – were used for the underwater scenes and trick photography. But Petersen wanted the submarines to not only look good, but they also had to work. So he commissioned the construction of a five-metre-high swing machine on which the "inner life" of the submarine dummy was mounted. This imitated the effects of the immense waves on the ocean surface as well as the huge deep-sea pressure so perfectly that it soon received the dubious honour of being named "The Whipler". It did not take long before the crew had to deal with the first victims of sea-sickness on set. Even the chief engineer of the real U 96 stated his respect and called this technological wonderwork "alarmingly real".

Petersen also wanted to show life on board in an authentic way, and in its original dimensions. Hence, cameraman Jost Vacano was confronted with the huge challenge of working without rails and adjustable walls. Finally, a specially constructed Arriflex-hand camera – a precursor of today's Steadicam – was prepared for him, and he was able to achieve superb results. Ortwin Freyermuth is full of admiration: "These camera movements make the film seem very modern indeed. These days, this type of filming is standard, but at that time it was a real innovation.“

Conditions during shooting were not ideal. The cameraman had to wear a helmet, as well as protective pads on his elbows, knees and shins. And it wasn't any easier for the actors. During the 12-month shoot, some of them suffered claustrophobic neuroses in the agonisingly narrow confines of the submarine. Even worse: "The Whipler" gave them a hard time, as did the shoot at La Rochelle, at which many became seasick - not to forget the tons of water which poured forth during the storm sequences.

Even the engineers were not spared from unpleasant surprises. Once the connection between "The Whipler" and the submarine loosened itself, and the U 96 crashed to ground. Fortunately, there was no substantial damage. Then, months later, a disaster occurred which frightens Wolfgang Petersen to this day: "At La Rochelle, a wonderful, seventy-metre-long submarine was anchored which we used for the outdoor scenes,“ remembers the director. "Steven Spielberg, who was shooting "Raiders of the Lost Ark" nearby asked me to lend him our submarine for a few scenes. I said, of course, with pleasure. However, when we got it back, the hull suddenly broke in half and the submarine sank. I still joke with Steven about the fact that he probably lost a few bolts…“ And a little more seriously he continues: "This was probably the darkest chapter of the production. We had lost our biggest star – the submarine – and for a time it looked as if the project might be over. We stopped shooting, and went looking for the parts we had lost along the coast, and unbelievably managed to find some of the parts and repair the submarine. This enabled us to carry on filming.“

Petersen's inclination to the greatest possible precision meant that he delved into the tiniest detail. Supervised by production designer and Oscar prize-winner Rolf Zehetbauer, as well as Art Director Götz Weidner, every tiny detail was faithfully copied inside the submarine. Every nail and every switch radiated authenticity. The torpedoes were constructed by hand, following illustrations found in war manuals. Even the food that the crew were supplied with was prepared in such a way that it looked unappetizing. And the clothes were copied exactly, right down to the shoelaces. It was precisely this perfectionism which caught the imagination of the film's audience. Although most viewers did not really know how precisely everything corresponded with reality aboard a submarine, they left the darkness of the theatre with the feeling of having been present at an authentic experience.