Das Boot: How the war classic went horror

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Das Boot stands out as one of the most important films in the history of German cinema, forging a new path for the war film worldwide. What had before been a contemplative genre, discussing topics of German guilt (either by confronting the audience or by placing the blame on a third party, satisfying both audience and filmmakers), had suddenly become blockbuster. Das Boot was essentially Germany’s first home-made Hollywood film and indeed the film’s director, Wolfgang Petersen, was operating in the U.S. shortly after the film’s release. This hugely successful film, both domestically and internationally, required a new cinematic style in order to rake in box office receipts in the huge numbers that it achieved: it needed to entertain.

The idea of a film being ‘entertaining’ is possibly the least controversial or surprising remark but this mass-audience spectacle required an altogether new form of entertainment, particularly given its success outside of Germany – even in the USA.  For an American audience, discussion of German post-war guilt wasn’t going to fill seats as sympathy levels weren’t particularly high in a country still very much in-tune with their World War II memories. And yet this sceptical audience – reported to have cheered at the opening message: ‘Of 40,000 German sailors, 30,000 never return’ – was won over into caring for the German crew of this submarine thanks solely to the gripping quality of the film. In short, they were entertained into submission. And how? Through fear.

Tension is rife in Das Boot and this is no more clearly felt than in the scenes where the submarine’s capacity to dive is tested (to its limits). We are informed that the ship is approved to successfully be able to dive 90 metres and yet within 10 minutes of the crew setting out we hear it painfully creak down to 160 metres. This two minute long scene, silent bar the noise of the boat suffering under the pressure of the sea, focuses on Leutnant Werner, a war correspondent not well-versed in the operation of submarines. The audience is given an immediate subject with whom to empathise and his pained expression, alongside a face drenched in sweat, are both shared by the audience. By providing the audience with a character as unfamiliar with the situation as they are, the film has a visual representation of how scared the film-goer should feel.

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A fearful Leutnant Werner

Of course, the tension in this scene lets up gently as the sub climbs back to the surface. But there are other scenes where this is not the case, and the classic horror convention of the ‘jump-scare’ is employed. Whilst hiding from enemy destroyers, the ship must be as quiet and still as possible, providing the perfect opportunity for a missile hit to scare the audience by jolting the crew into action in a loud and unexpected way.

Later in the film comes a scene which could be straight out of any classic horror film. Johann, the Chief Mechanic, also referred to as ‘The Ghost’, suffering from a temporary mental breakdown, emerges from the engine room in silhouette, abandoning his battle station. The extreme close-ups of his face, and the reaction shots from the crew, are full of fear – one of the most reliable crew members is temporarily insane, which for the rest of the crew does not bode well. This short scene uses many horror conventions, such as the use of silhouette to tease the reveal of a ‘monster’, the use of harsh torch-light to make a figure more grotesque, and (particularly appropriate to this highly psychological film) the fearful reactions of the crew, with whom the audience empathises.

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Johann emerges from the darkness

Das Boot was a huge influence on the commercial cinema of ‘90s pre-unification, but its reach was international in scope. To accomplish this worldwide success, the filmmakers tapped into the universal emotion of fear as a galvanizing tool, linking the audience emotionally to the German sailors of the film. But crucially, these horror conventions help to make Das Boot a great film. What is on paper 3 and ½ hours of men in a submarine becomes a gripping action film, helped in no small part by its extremely tense moments. Although its psychological horror may be more nuanced than the tendency for gory violence as a shock-tactic in modern war films, the effect that it has had on the genre to date is incontestable.

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Johann, in torchlight, trying to escape the submarine