Das Boot – Probably the Biggest German Blockbuster of All Time
How did this epic bestseller come to be turned into a movie?

8 October 2017

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Peter Kramer is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. His recent books include The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (2005), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010) and A Clockwork Orange (2011).

In an article somewhat predictably entitled ‘Das Re-Boot’, on 23 June 2016 the Hollywood Reporter presented news about a sequel to Das Boot (The Boat), a tense and claustrophobic World War II combat movie about the final mission and ironic fate of a German submarine: ‘Germany’s Bavaria Film and pay TV group Sky Deutschland announced … that they are producing an eight-part TV series set right after the events of Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 Oscar-nominated classic’, with a $28 million budget and a British as well as a German scriptwriter. Bavaria’s CEO declared: ‘Telling an anti-war story is now more relevant than ever. … Terms like war and terror are everywhere, misleading young men through false ideology.’ The article revealed that Das Boot ‘is one of the most successful German films of all time’, having grossed over $100 million at the worldwide box office, although it was originally conceived as a mini-series for German television.

Before the sequel is going to be broadcast in 2018, it is worth looking back on the fascinating, in places quite convoluted and indeed controversial history of Das Boot, which goes back all the way to 1973, and on the enormity of its success in the 1980s. The original film and television series were based on the semi-autobiographical bestseller of the same title by German author Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Within a few years of its publication in 1973, Buchheim’s book, which its introductory note describes as a novel but ‘not a work of fiction’, had become a modern classic of German war literature. By the early 1980s the novel had been translated into fourteen languages and sold two million copies around the world.

Drawing on the author’s own experiences, the 600 page volume tells the story of one German submarine during the autumn and winter of 1941 in the form of a first person narrative of a young war correspondent joining the crew for its latest mission, which begins with drunken festivities on the night before the submarine’s departure from its French harbour, proceeds with alternating periods of long waiting and dramatic enemy encounters, and ends with the submarine’s destruction during an air raid taking place upon its return to another French harbour. In simple, yet vivid language, mostly casual and occasionally salty, yet also filled with technical jargon as well as some poetic flourishes, the narrator – using the present tense, rather than the more conventional past tense – describes the activities on the submarine in minute detail, focusing his attention on the charismatic figure of the captain, while also including long passages about past events in his own life and about his current state of mind, including reflections, dreams and fantasies, and also about the current state of his body, especially its responses to the terror the narrator frequently experiences.

How did this epic bestseller come to be turned into a movie?

The Making of a Blockbuster Movie

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Film rights for Buchheim’s book were first purchased in the mid-1970s by American producers, who initially worked with Don Siegel and hoped to attract a star of the caliber of Robert Redford or Paul Newman. Throughout the 1970s Americans were heavily involved in a number of high profile projects about German experiences during the Third Reich and World War II (often with some input from German investors, producers, creative or technical personnel). These projects included, most notably, Cabaret (1972), a substantial commercial and critical success (including an Academy Award for the German production designer Rolf Zehetbauer, who went on to work on Das Boot); the war epic A Bridge Too Far (1976), another big hit; and also, of course, the hugely successful and influential television mini-series Holocaust (1978).

In line with this general trend, in 1977 Hollywood veteran John Sturges was scheduled to shoot Das Boot in the Bavaria studios in Munich. From the outset, this adaptation was advertised as the most expensive production ever made in Germany (with a budget of DM 23 million, or $12 million). The project was financed by a German tax shelter company which channeled money of German investors into film productions with the main purpose of generating tax savings – rather than profits – for these investors. The film was to be a co-production between Bavaria and the independent American production company Presman Inc.

However, Bavaria rejected the script submitted by the American writer Ronald M. Cohn, mainly because it was felt that it distorted the original story and relied on anti-German stereotypes. The novel’s author was to write a new script, which meant that principal photography would be delayed until 1978 when John Sturges was no longer available. In addition, Buchheim’s script turned out to be unworkable. The project had in effect fallen apart. Indeed, in 1979, after having poured $7 million into script development and extensive pre-production, the tax shelter company sold Das Boot at a loss to Bavaria.

Bavaria now hired Wolfgang Petersen to write and direct Das Boot, and sold the domestic and foreign theatrical rights for the film to the leading German distributor Neue Constantin for a reported $8 million. In general, the original theatrical release version of Das Boot follows the narrative of Buchheim’s book quite closely. However, due to the enormous length of the novel, the movie has to leave out a lot of detail (dialogue, explanations given by the narrator, work procedures executed by crew members, interactions between them etc.) as well as some of the narrative events. Perhaps most importantly, the submarine’s encounter with a passenger ship towards the end of the novel is omitted. As a consequence of a series of misunderstandings, the submarine’s captain, to the horror of his subordinates, orders a torpedo attack on what he believes to be an enemy vessel; only after the torpedo fails to launch is it revealed that the ship is indeed what it claimed to be all along – a fully packed oceanliner from neutral Spain. To the further horror of the narrator, the captain then declares that, had the torpedo attack succeeded, it would have been necessary to destroy all evidence of their mistake by killing the survivors.

In addition to this crucial omission, the movie departs from the tight focus of the novel on what the narrator can personally observe, and instead often shows events that the character of the war correspondent is not in fact witnessing. In particular, while the novel constantly reminds the reader about the narrator’s status as a visitor who is not fully involved in the activities on the submarine, often emphasising his lack of movement, the movie uses every opportunity to show people running through the ship, mostly by having the camera move alongside or behind or in front of them. And whereas underwater explosions are only ever heard by crew members in the novel, in the movie they are shown, as are murky exterior underwater views of the floating submarine.

Nevertheless, the movie sticks closely to the perspectives and experiences of the submarine crew, never switching, for example, to scenes showing the enemy or the distant German military high command. Indeed, in many ways the movie is more tightly focused on the submarine than the novel. Long passages in the novel, in which the narrator remembers the past, has dreams, indulges fantasies or reflects on his present situation, have no equivalent in the film; there are no flashbacks, dream sequences or voiceover commentary. Still, the character of the war correspondent serves as an anchor and guide for the viewer, insofar as both correspondent and viewer are introduced to the strange world of submariners and submarines at the same time, and the latter initially learns about this world very much through the eyes and ears of the former.

The movie introduces several significant additions to, and modifications of, the basic story of Buchheim’s novel. Loved ones left behind by crew members are emphasised more strongly through dialogue and photographs than they are in the novel (although the novel has a lot to say about the women in the narrator’s life, an element completely absent from the film). A subplot has a young crew member constantly writing letters to his French girl-friend, who is pregnant with his child, but never getting a chance to post them. The movie also depicts the fall and redemption of the chief machinist in a much more dramatically foregrounded fashion than does the novel. In the film, under great pressure the machinist goes crazy and fails to obey orders – as he also does in the novel –, yet later redeems himself by going beyond the call of duty when the submarine needs urgent repairs after a battle, something which is hardly mentioned in the novel. In addition, the film makes more of the fact that, while the crew on the whole seems rather unconcerned about politics, one of the officers is a clean-cut Nazi, who is made fun of by the others. Furthermore, quite unlike the novel, the movie depicts the rather surreal and absurd heroics of the captain, standing outside on the bridge of the submarine and raging against the elements and the enemy.

Politics play only a marginal role in novel and film. When the captain and his officers complain about Nazi propaganda – as communicated to them via speeches broadcast on the radio – or about the measures taken by the German military high command – as relayed to them via radio messages –, it is because of their stupidity and military ineffectiveness rather than their objectionable ideology or their warmongering; similarly, the young Nazi officer is merely a harmless figure of fun. As military professionals, the captain and his officers (excluding, of course, the young Nazi) are only interested in doing their job.

While the aftermath of the successful torpedo attack on British ships confronts the crew with the lethal consequences of their actions and with the harsh, yet sensible judgment of their captain (there is no space for all survivors on board), the film avoids the much more difficult questions raised by the captain’s behaviour during the encounter with the Spanish passenger ship. The novel here thoroughly undermines the up to then not only paternalistic, but occasionally almost godlike stature of the captain, showing him for once to be a thoughtless, ruthless killer. By omitting this crucial scene, the film arguably opts for a much less contradictory and much more positive representation of the German military machine as exemplified by this one submarine than the novel does.

To some extent, then, the movie can be understood as the end result of a process of deletion, modification, dramatic amplification and spectacular enhancement. Yet, setting aside its origins in a novel, how does the film version of Das Boot work on its own terms?

An Unusual Combat Film

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Judging by the standards of so-called classical storytelling, the goal-orientation of the protagonists of Das Boot is not as clearly articulated and as forcefully acted upon as one might expect, and the film’s ending comes rather abruptly. While it is obvious from the outset that the captain wants to do his duty and sink enemy ships, and the war correspondent wants to get an interesting story and exciting pictures, the precise mission of the submarine is somewhat ill-defined and open-ended, and success often remains elusive until, finally, unexpected disaster strikes.

Cruising around the North Atlantic, the crew waits seemingly endlessly for radio commands which will direct it to where the action is or for accidental encounters with the enemy. The first encounter with an enemy destroyer almost leads to the destruction of the submarine spending a long time underwater under constant bombardment, which also happens during the second encounter, the difference being that now the submarine at least gets the chance to launch a few torpedoes which do in fact sink enemy ships. However, as soon as the submarine escapes from two enemy destroyers and returns to the scene of the attack, crew members of the enemy ships are seen dying a miserable death, causing much helpless regret among the Germans.

Then, instead of being rewarded for their achievement with a much needed return to their harbour in France, the crew is sent to Spain and from there to Italy, which, it is soon established, is the equivalent of a suicide mission because the submarine has to pass the narrow and heavily guarded Strait of Gibraltar. Why the boat needs to go to Italy is only vaguely explained, but the impossibility of getting there is made very obvious. After an aerial attack, the submarine is badly damaged and sinks to the bottom of the sea from where it returns to the surface only after a long and desperate period of waiting. It is a great ‘success’ for the crew to have survived all this, but, of course, they have completely failed in their attempt to get to Italy. Instead they return home, without even being asked to try once more to complete their Gibraltar breakthrough. They do receive a hero’s welcome in their French harbour, but immediately get bombed during another aerial attack which destroys the submarine and kills most of the crew, including the captain, who in his final moments watches his ship going under and is in turn closely observed by the horrified war correspondent.

If the overall story is more episodic than rigorously subjected to the pursuit of clearly defined goals, then one might at least expect that either the protagonists or the crew will undergo a substantial transformation. As already mentioned, the novel and the modifications Petersen made in his script provided rich material for the construction of such dramatic arcs. There is the correspondent who is an outsider on the submarine and the young Nazi officer who is made fun of; there also is the diversity of the crew (indicated by different regional accents and dialects) and the occasional expression of conflicts between them. However, the film disappoints generic expectations by refusing to foreground the initial divisions and conflicts on the submarine in order then to show how through shared experiences these divisions and conflicts can be overcome. Neither the correspondent nor the Nazi officer seem to undergo much change in terms of their personalities or their status within the social world of the submarine.

Instead of exploring their psychology or the changing social relations among the crew, the film emphasises the alternation of boring routine activity and dramatic battle action. If the boredom and frustration of having to wait for battle is described as increasingly unbearable for the crew, then the actual battle is shown to be much worse. A key element in the crew’s misery is their utter helplessness and passivity during most phases of a battle, their dependence on the captain’s hopefully correct evaluation of the physical condition of the submarine and his analysis of enemy plans as well as the success of his countermeasures. Apart from waiting and danger, work and dependence, life on the submarine is characterised by exceptionally high levels of physical and also emotional intimacy, with much talk among the crew, right from the start, about food and sex and several emotional outbursts during periods of extreme tension.

If there is progression in this narrative, it consists mainly of the gradual physical deterioration of everyone and everything, especially the increasingly bearded and pale faces of all crew members, their increasingly sunken eyes, shabby clothes and generally ghostly appearance, the filth and disorder spreading on the boat, the extensive damage it receives. In other words, the film depicts a process of gradual physical destruction which quite logically, one might say in retrospect, culminates in the climactic bombardment causing the sinking of the ship and the death of most of the crew.

Indeed, this final destruction is already signaled by a title at the very beginning of the film, which, quoting from the introductory note of the novel, states: ’40,000 German sailors served on U-boats during World War II. 30,000 never returned.’ Hence, rather than being asked to focus on the particular mission of this particular submarine, from the outset viewers are invited to contemplate the terrible odds of its crew. The question driving the story is not so much whether the mission – whatever it may be – will be accomplished, the goal achieved, but when the crew will encounter death, and who might survive. Such fatalism does not sound like a good recipe for box office success, and yet the film became a huge hit.

Critical Controversy and Commercial Success

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The prospects for the theatrical release of Das Boot seemed good, because films about the World War II era had been very successful at the West German box office from 1977 onwards. Several of them – ranging from the German documentary Hitler – Eine Karriere (Hitler, a Career, 1977) and Ingmar Bergman’s German-American co-production Das Schlangenei (The Serpent’s Egg, 1977) to Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979) – made it into the annual lists of the ten highest grossing movies in West Germany.

Indeed, films about the World War II era were the only West German productions in the annual top ten in the late 1970s, the charts having been dominated by Hollywood imports since the beginning of the decade (when their only serious German competition had been sex films). West German productions about the World War II era were also quite successful in export markets, especially the United States. The Tin Drum, for example, earned $4 million at the US box office and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Wolfgang Petersen had not yet had a box office hit, but his three theatrical releases of the 1970s garnered considerable critical attention and won awards. Indeed, a 1978 press release for the American theatrical debut of Petersen’s The Consequence declared presciently: ‘A sensitive and original director with a good commercial sense of making films for larger audiences, Petersen is likely to be the first German director to score an American and international box-office success.’ Initially, Petersen`s hopes for his international breakthrough had been attached to an adaptation of Richard Neeley`s thriller The Plastic Nightmare. With a script by Petersen, this was meant to be a German-American co-production, filmed in English with an international cast. However, instead of proceeding with The Plastic Nightmare, in June 1979 he took over Das Boot. (Petersen would eventually adapt The Plastic Nightmare in 1991 as Tod im Spiegel/Shattered.)

Neue Constantin released Das Boot into over two hundred West German cinemas on 17 September 1981. The distributor’s press book declared: ‘Das Boot is a film about war, a film about people at war. Das Boot tells the story of young men, who are almost children, eager for adventure, seduced by fascist propaganda, enthusiastic about marvellous technology.’ The reference to ‘fascist propaganda’, which does not in fact play much of a role in the characterisation of crew members in the film, shows that the distributor was anxious about the possibility that the film would be criticised for ignoring politics and simply glorifying German soldiers. Along similar lines, Petersen was quoted as saying: ‘Obviously, I did not approach this subject matter without hesitation, but after reading the book I did no longer hesitate. I felt that here I was able to experience most strongly what war really is like.’ Petersen stated that with his film he aimed both to entertain and to educate.

As it turned out, the slightly defensive tone of the press book was mirrored by aggressive critical attacks on the film. Buchheim, who had already been very critical during the film’s production, made numerous harsh comments about the adaptation after its release. Journalists joined his attack, for example Hans Dieter Müller in an article for the Frankfurter Rundschau of 14 November 1981 under the headline: ‘About War at Sea: Why Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s Das Boot is a good anti-war novel and Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation a bad war movie.’ An earlier review (from 17 September 1981) by Volker Baer in Tagesspiegel had summed up the critic’s main concerns as follows: ‘[Das Boot] is a war movie like many others, neither stimulating thought nor helping viewers to form their own opinions. Much of the film is simply too pretty, too smooth even when dealing with destruction, too melodramatic in the face of death.’

The West German press, which had been reporting extensively about the production since the autumn of 1979 (including a cover story in the leading German news magazine Der Spiegel in December 1980), also paid a lot of attention to the sheer scale of the project. Its final budget of DM 25 million was said to be the biggest in German movie history. Invariably, the film was compared to big Hollywood productions, sometimes positively – for example, when journalists celebrated its technical virtuosity and suspenseful action, which was said to be Hollywood’s equal –, but also negatively, when they noted that the film was merely generic rather than the work of an ‘auteur’ (an ‘Autorenfilm’), only superficially realistic and ultimately a melodramatic and perhaps politically dangerous distortion of history.

While the West German press response thus was deeply divided, West German audiences responded very positively to the film, and Das Boot became the sixth biggest hit of 1981 in West Germany. This tragic tale of courageous German soldiers also was a success outside West Germany, especially in the United States where, upon its release by Columbia’s art house division Triumph Films in February 1982, it quickly became the highest grossing German import ever with a box office gross of $12 million.  Paying close attention to the film’s director, on 17 February 1982, Variety reported under the headline ‘Wolfgang Petersen in N.Y. For Launch of His Das Boot’: ‘First going out in a German-language, English-subtitled version, pic will later go into saturation release with an English-dubbed version prepared in London’. In his interview with the trade paper, Petersen emphasised the thoroughly German nature of this production as the very basis of its potential international appeal: ‘In using an all-German cast and crew, our thinking was that perhaps the best commercial way to make a real, original film that can break through in international markets is to produce an authentic, realistically German picture.’

At the same time, Petersen tried to assure prospective viewers that he had not made another German art movie. In his New York Post article ‘Being in the same “Boat” with war’ (of 16 February 1982), Ed Naha quoted Petersen as follows: ‘This isn’t an intellectual movie…. It’s a movie about people made for people… [showing them] how war feels, how horrible and claustrophobic it is’. In response to the criticisms the film had received in West Germany, Petersen also tried to defend the apolitical approach he took in Das Boot. Chris Chase of the New York Times quoted him in his ‘Movies’ column of 19 February 1982: ‘This is the first time anybody’s tried to make a film about normal young soldiers without discussing all the time our guilt…. A lot of people say you can’t show a film like this without speaking about the Nazis. But I wanted to make a small human story’.

By and large, American reviews initially went along with the marketing strategy adopted by Triumph Films and Petersen, describing the film as a ‘rough-and-tumble action picture’ and one of ‘the great war films’, on a par with Hollywood classics from the 1940s and 1950s (Christian Science Monitor and New York Post), the ‘first unsanitized portrait’ of life on a World War II submarine, ‘rich in physical detail’ (Newsweek and Village Voice). What made the film stand out from the great American tradition it was frequently compared to was, of course, its German perspective: ‘the novelty here is getting the inside German view’; ‘[t]his is war from the reverse angle’ (Time and Los Angeles Times).

Almost invariably, however, this ‘novelty’ did eventually cause even the most enthusiastic reviewers to qualify their otherwise highly positive comments with reflections about the film’s politics, or, as some saw it, its avoidance of politics: ‘the film’s problem for some may be an inability to empathize utterly with a German crew during the last clear-cut war’ (Los Angeles Times); ‘you never forget that men like these sank hundreds of ships and killed thousands of men’ (New York); ‘there’s a suspicion of narrative whitewash at work, exonerating its characters from Nazihood…. Petersen encourages us to root for Nazi survival, to effect a suspension of nationalistic sympathy which I’m unprepared to muster’ (Village Voice).

Yet, for most commentators, the film’s action remained compelling, and its efforts to show ‘disillusioned’ German soldiers, while avoiding their ‘glorification’, and also ‘to honor the enemy’ (Newsday, New York Post and New York) were judged to be genuine and honest. Perhaps the surest sign of the film’s acceptance in the United States as a classic war movie in the tradition of Hollywood’s own great achievements in this genre were the six Academy Award nominations Das Boot received, including Best Director and Best Film (rather than Best Foreign-Language Film).

What is more, with a combined domestic and foreign box office take of DM 120 million Das Boot was probably the commercially most successful German movie production of all time (up to this point). Thus, Das Boot was a milestone in Petersen’s career, and also in the development of German popular cinema. The film’s success launched Petersen on a trajectory which, within a few years, turned him into one of Hollywood’s – and thus the world’s – most popular filmmakers, whose trademark was the creation of intense and frequently claustrophobic suspense in films such as In the Line of Fire (1993), Air Force One (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000).

At the same time, Das Boot can be seen as an important transition point between the often politically charged and aesthetically challenging films of the ‘auteurs’ of the New German Cinema (such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders) who achieved considerable critical and, to a much lesser extent, commercial success at home and abroad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the revival of West German popular cinema, which had been threatened with extinction during the 1970s.

Das Boot is an early example of the successful return of West German genre films (notably thrillers and comedies) which made a significant impact at the West German box office across the 1980s. On average two German-made films appeared in the annual top tens during the decade. Das Boot also is one of the most important models for future bestseller adaptations such as The Name of the Rose (1986) – now made in English with an international cast –, which, mostly produced by Bernd Eichinger for Neue Constantin, have since become the consistently most successful products of the German film industry in international markets.

Compared to the New German Cinema, the depoliticisation, as well as the aesthetic mainstreaming and spectacularisation (especially through the excessive use of rapid Steadicam movement), of the action in Das Boot stand out. Yet it is also worth reiterating that, in contrast to the generic traditions of the World War II combat film in Germany and the US, Das Boot is characterised by the relative aimlessness of the submarine’s mission, a strong emphasis on the experience of boredom and passivity among its crew (hence on reaction rather than action), as well as a general lack of character development and the notable absence of a fundamental transformation of the combat unit (moving it from initial disunity to final cohesion). Thus, one could argue that the film retains key aspects of the kind of storytelling that is characteristic of European art cinema. This in turn had a lot to do with the fact that the project was designed so as to work both as a movie and as a television series.

The Making and Broadcasting of a Blockbuster Mini Series

When the tax shelter company which had originally funded the production of Das Boot sold the project to Bavaria in 1979, the studio’s chief executive was Günter Rohrbach, who had only recently been appointed to this position after having worked in West German public service television for seventeen years. During this time, Rohrbach had been the mentor of Wolfgang Petersen. Born in 1941, and trained both in the theatre and at the Berlin film and television academy, Petersen was in fact one of Germany’s leading television directors of the 1970s. Since the beginning of the decade he had made several feature-length episodes of the hugely popular West German police series Tatort, and a range of made-for-TV movies, including the ratings hit Smog (1972), an environmental thriller, and the controversial homosexual drama Die Konsequenz (The Consequence, 1977).

In addition to his theatrical debut from 1973 (the crime film Einer von uns beiden), The Consequence and another of Petersen’s made-for-TV movies received theatrical releases in the late 1970s, encouraging him to switch from television to theatrical movie production, starting, as we have seen, with the adaptation of an American thriller, which he abandoned when Rohrbach gave him the opportunity to take over the most ambitious film project in German history. Petersen brought some of his previous television collaborators along, most notably the actor Jürgen Prochnow, who played the lead in Das Boot.

Rohrbach secured financing for the completion of Das Boot from two public service broadcasters, including his former employer WDR. This was by no means unusual. As a result of changing legislation about subsidies for film production in West Germany, in the 1970s public service broadcasters became the main source of funding for West German theatrical movies which also tended to reach larger audiences during their broadcasts than in movie theatres. The deal Rohrbach made with the broadcasters was unusual only insofar as it envisioned two different products: a five hour television mini-series and a two and a half hour movie, the latter to be given ample time to make an impact at the box office before the broadcast of the former. This deal was probably a consequence of the project’s enormous budget; producing two different versions increased the chances for investors to recoup the budget (and, for the broadcasters, to justify their investment through high ratings).

Petersen had to keep the different demands of the two formats (mini-series versus movie) in mind while writing the script and shooting it. He seems to have opted for a hybrid aesthetic. Compared to regular television drama, the TV version of Das Boot was unusually ‘cinematic’, with a strong emphasis on physical action, explosions, highly kinetic camera work and special effects. At the same time, as noted earlier, compared to traditional combat movies, the theatrical version of Das Boot was unusually episodic (as one would expect from a mini-series), without an overarching goal and without clearly delineated character arcs.

When comparing the movie with the television mini-series, arguably the most notable difference is the fact that the latter echoes the novel’s first person narration by having the correspondent comment, albeit only intermittently, briefly and rather laconically, on the action in a voiceover. It is also of course the case that the much shorter movie simply has to leave out a lot of detail, with the not-so-trivial effect that it is often quite unclear what exactly is happening and why (this is sometimes the case in the TV version as well, but much less frequently). This is not necessarily leading to confusion on the part of viewers, as the overall logic of the action is perfectly clear: The ship is usually in danger, and the captain and his crew have to – and do – come up with a solution.

In addition to shortening individual scenes to the point of near-abstraction, the movie also drops certain scenes contained in the mini-series, including a brief car scene at the very beginning of the film (before the captain and the war correspondent join the festivities in a French bar) and also several scenes on the submarine in which crew members discuss their sexual escapades and fantasies, or express tensions and engage in minor conflicts. As a consequence of these deletions, the movie is focused much more on the officers, whereas the television series pays relatively more attention to the rest of the crew.

Following the huge success of Das Boot in cinemas around the world in 1981 and 1982, the mini-series was first broadcast on television in the UK in October 1984. Although BBC2 showed the original German version with English subtitles, the six parts attracted seven million viewers, reportedly achieving the highest ratings in the history of BBC2, while also being enthusiastically received by British critics. At the end of February and the beginning of March 1985, Das Boot was shown in three parts on German television (on ARD, the equivalent of BBC1), once again achieving record ratings. 50-60% of all German households (that is, up to 24 million people) were tuned in to the mini-series. And critics, who had been divided over the merits of the movie, were now almost unanimous in their praise of the television version.

In addition to its success in Germany and the UK, the mini-series of Das Boot was also widely seen in the US, where it won an Emmy award for best international programme. Indeed, it was later claimed that this mini-series was the biggest international success in all of Germany’s history of television production. When also considering the box office performance of the movie version, it is therefore probably justified to declare Das Boot Germany’s biggest ever blockbuster.

The forthcoming sequel has a lot to live up to.