Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how the filmmakers behind 1981’s ‘Das Boot’ created the impression of a working submarine.
Many anti-war films feel like horror movies. With nary a reanimated corpse or vengeful spirit to be found, some of the most harrowing, butt-clenching cinematic frights come courtesy of anti-war films. Case and point: Das Boot. Directed by the late Wolfgang Petersen and originally released in the fall of 1981, Das Boot follows the German submarine U-96 and its crew of inexperienced mariners as they fight in a war whose victory is very nearly decided. As in Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 German novel of the same name, these men are not cartoonish, mustache-twirling Nazis but ordinary, humanized twenty-somethings caught in the gears of a war machine that could care less if they died at sea.
While a lengthy, expensive, and troubled production frequently threatened to tank Das Boot, the film’s commercial and critical success abroad saved what was a potentially sinking ship. Das Boot was nominated for six Academy Awards, the current record for any German-made film. Partially green-lit and financed as a miniseries, Das Boot also easily (if unfairly) lays claim to the title of “greatest made-for-tv-movie” of all time. Comprised of a cast of unknowns — including welders, students, and auto mechanics sourced from across Germany — Das Boot attempts, as best it can, to obliterate any of naval warfare’s propagandistic glamor. U-96’s crew oscillates from agonizing boredom to abject terror; from overindulgence to gut rot. They spend their days sweating and festering in a steel trap, fearful of the uncaring pang from the radar system signaling another ship has found them.
Das Boot’s strength is in its nuance. We spend hours with these men (nearly five hours, to be exact, if you’re watching the 2004 “Original Uncut Version,” which you should be). And in knowing more about U-96‘s crew, we can’t help but feel compassion for what they’re going through. Crucially, a driving force in selling the audience on this empathy-charged specificity is the true star of the film: the titular boat.
Das Boot’s submarine
U-96 is a tomb; a rusting tin can that rarely has its fleshy cargo’s best interests at heart. She groans, splits, careens, and topples. And somehow, the crew is forced to make a home amidst her innards; to sleep like sardines between piping, potatoes, and pressure gauges.
Das Boot isn’t a single-location film in the true sense. But we’re willing to overlook land-locked bookends for the sake of argument. The creaking vessel is one of the scariest things that’s ever been depicted on-screen. And a big part of that terror has to do with the filmmakers’ ability to make the U-96 feel like a credible vessel. So what? Did they just go out into the sea in a working submarine and shoot the damn thing for real?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
By spending the vast majority of the film’s ridiculous budget on building several U-Boat replicas, one of which was mounted on a giant hydraulic seesaw.
Long story long:
A number of elements had to come together to create the illusion of a seaworthy German U-Boat, including a veritable fleet of miniatures for exterior shots. Both Hans-Joachim Krug (the first officer on U-219) and Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (the real-life captain of the historical U-96) served as historical consultants. The sole-surviving IX-C U-boat at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was also an indispensable resource.
Before the screenplay was even finished, two steel replicas of a Type VIIC boat had already been built in the large wooden hall of Munich’s Bavaria Studios. Together, the 70-meter internal and external re-creations cost 2.5 million Deutschmark (~5.5 million USD today). When Das Boot’s production was shelved (by, among other things, a failed attempt to put an American director at the helm), the replicas were left to rust and decay on the studio lot.
Production began in earnest in the Helgoland archipelago in the North Sea. As art director Götz Weidner explains in the French 2021 making-of documentary, Das Boot Revisited: An Underwater Success Story, the goal was to capture convincing shots of the U-Boat in stormy conditions without harming the larger replicas. Long shots of the crew on deck were accomplished with modified, radio-controlled dolls. An itty-bitty 1/12 (~6 foot) scale model was used for underwater scenes, and an even smaller model (at 1/24 scale) was used for the scenes at the Port of Vigo, Gibraltar, the attack on the convoy, and the burning tanker shots.
Then, there was the manned model. Nearly every day for over a month, Ludwig Huppmann was stuffed inside an 11-meter model submarine. The crew actively sought out rough conditions to simulate open-water storms (“when the fishermen came in to seek shelter, we headed out to film,” recalls Jan-Michael Brandt, the film’s production assistant). While Huppmann steered the vessel (and flushed his vomit down the bilge pump), the mini-submarine was tugged along by a 300-meter tow line, which made Huppman feel like “a stone in a can being shaken.” On at least one occasion, the tow line snagged the ocean floor, plunging the stuntman beneath the surface. “Ludwig, you’ve got the most expensive coffin!” Huppmann recalls being told.
Near the end of production, when the filmmakers had relocated to France to shoot at the abandoned Nazi marina at La Rochelle, a planned open water shoot with a replica went belly up for a number of reasons. First, they had to re-capture the replica from Steven Spielberg, who rented the vessel right from under their noses to film Raiders of the Lost Arc. Then, the supposedly seaworthy U-Boat began to take on water during the shoot. Finally, the vessel broke apart at its moorage later that night. A month-long delay in production and 2 million DEM later, the salvaged replica was cobbled together into the beaten-down monstrosity that rolls into La Rochelle right before the bombs begin to fall. Luckily for the filmmakers, the boat was supposed to look like it’d been chewed up and spat out by the sea.
For interior shots of the submarine, the production used a full-scale steel replica in the largest studio space in continental Europe. The vessel was mounted on top of an enormous platform, which used a hydraulic gimbal to mimic the jostling movements of the sea. As Jan Fedder, who plays Pilgrim, recalls in Das Boot: Revisited, at one point during the shoot, the boat tipped up completely on its end. “Jürgen flew into the edge … If it had fallen, we’d have been crushed by 80 tonnes of steel. We’d have been dead.”
Das Boot’s sound department wasn’t so much a baseball team as a whole dang league — especially when you take the remastered audio for the Director’s Cut into account. And really, it can be argued that the film’s biggest magic trick is an auditory one. (We need to look no further than indie darling Iron Lung to see how far submarine soundscapes can go in creating genuine terror out of mere implication). As Mel Kutbay, one of Das Boot’s foley artists, explains in the 2021 documentary: the horrifying, crushing sound of the submarine plunging deeper and deeper into the ocean to avoid detection was created by pressing a sack of baking powder down on a large tub. It’s good to know that the source of the scariest thing I’ve ever heard is also in my pantry.
Das Boot’s claustrophobic interior shots owe much of their power to the work of cinematographer and chronic Paul Verhoeven collaborator Jost Vacano. As Vacano explains in Das Boot Revisited, his creative goals were restrictive in nature: “the camera has to be squeezed into a tight space. And be limited in space, just like the people who are in there. The camera is not allowed to leave that space at any point. It must physically stay there.” Speaking to CraveOnline, Petersen explains: “we thought, in the beginning, we might kill ourselves after a few weeks because it’s just such a small place [but] because we shot in sequence, the actors got more and more really into it, into their part.”
One of the most remarkable shots in the film is a breathless uncut sprint from one end of the U-Boat to the other. “One of my earliest thoughts was that I wanted one take from the back to the front,” recalls the veteran DP. Vacano’s breakneck hand-held sprint allows the filmmakers to show their work; to highlight the veracity of their sets, devoid of cut-away walls and false ceilings.
Vacano shot primarily on a handheld 35mm camera that he co-designed with ARRI. Their creation was slimmer than a Steadicam and outfitted with gyroscopes for stability, which also made on-set sound recording impossible. Because remote follow-focus hadn’t been invented yet and having a focus puller run alongside the DP in such close quarters was out of the question, the corridor tracking shot initially stumped Vacano. The DP describes his solution in his 2011 acceptance speech to the Society of Camera Operators: “I realized after three/four weeks of shooting inside of that submarine that I got physically so used to the surroundings … I could almost close my eyes and run through the ship because my body would know where to go. And that was finally the solution for this shot … I just grabbed the camera and started running.” Get the camera and run. What? Like it’s hard? “And try to survive,” Vacano adds, helpfully.
Vacano’s less showy work is also an integral part of selling the veracity of the U-96. If you watch the five-hour “Original Uncut Version” (which, again, you should), you’ll be treated to scenes of the crew chewing fat (and moldy bread) and languishing in their stinky glorified tin can. These slower, less frantic scenes make U-96 feel like a real place. And so, later, when Vacano flies down the corridor at a million miles an hour, all the boat’s nooks and crannies carry that much more meaning as the vessel decays and recontextualizes over the film’s runtime. Everything on this hunk of junk serves a purpose, both functionally and emotionally (looking at you, Erwin Leder, a.k.a. the guy who wants to marry the U-boat engine).
The filmmakers further sold the illusion of the mariners being at sea by dumping untold amounts of water on the actors. In the scene where the crew manually daisy-chain buckets of seawater out of the submarine, there was no hidden drainage system waiting in the wings when Petersen called “cut.” They really needed to take all that water out themselves. Storm scenes where the actors were on deck were especially grueling, with one actor (either Bernd Tauber or Jan Fedder, depending on who you ask) breaking two ribs during the “overboard” scene.
In order to further sell their nautical purgatory, the actors in Das Boot were discouraged from being in the sun and instructed to grow their beards out. All the foodstuffs in the submarine, which dangle abundantly in the film’s opening moments, were real and began to rot over the course of production. “Disgusting but very authentic,” recalls Claude-Oliver Rudolph, who plays the burly mechanic Ario, in the 2021 documentary. Prop master Peter Dürst even recalls pouring heaps of cologne into the increasingly foul water in a last-ditch attempt to improve the working conditions. Supposedly it helped.
The precedent for Das Boot
While Das Boot absolutely represents a benchmark in cinematic submarines, it is far from the first attempt at bringing the steel behemoths to the big screen.
A great number of submarine films were released before World War II, including 1915’s A Submarine Pirate, a heist-comedy starring Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother and an uncredited Harold Lloyd. The film is one of the earliest of its kind, featuring both interior sets and exterior shots on an honest-to-god seagoing vessel. At roughly the 20-minute mark, A Submarine Pirate even includes a moving set, which oscillates clunkily to simulate the rock of the sea. The film’s final hectic moments include various shots of the infiltrated vessel taking on water, which blasts out of various holes with a ferocity surely familiar to the Das Boot cast.
The Damned is another noteworthy ancestor. Like Das Boot, René Clément’s 1947 drama takes place in the dwindling hours of World War II. The film sees us aboard a submarine that has been commandeered by wealthy Nazis and French sympathizers who plan to get out of dodge before Berlin burns. A French doctor (Henri Vidal) is kidnapped to attend to a sick woman with various love interests aboard the vessel. As the war comes to a close and U-boats are ordered to surrender, the madmen in charge of the renegade ship refuse to admit defeat, forcing their passengers to remain aboard.
Clément’s film is an exceptional and early depiction of the interior of a wartime submarine. The film is also notable for its tracking shots which, as with Das Boot, traverse the length of the U-boat in a fashion remarkably similar to Jost Vacano (albeit with decidedly more temperance).
What ultimately sets Das Boot apart from its peers is a matter of intent (fuelled, it must be said, by the $18.5 million budget — the biggest in German history at the time). Petersen and company were ruthlessly, arguably even masochistically, committed to being as authentic as possible; to convey the literal and psychological pressures these particular men were under. Like most feats of movie magic, Das Boot‘s submarine is the culmination of many hands, minds, and pocketbooks. And the result is one of the most terrifying movie monsters ever made.