Friday, September 16, 2011

"Das Boot": Moral Relativism, Macho Grunge, Boredom, and Disgust

Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made

Jurgen Prochnow, Das Boot's handsome, "openly anti-Nazi" captain. 

So the other night, I overcame thirty years of resistance and putting-it-off and finally sat down with the tooth-gritted intention of watching "Das Boot," Wolfgang Peterson's 1981 U-boat movie.

"Das Boot" is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

I have never wanted to see it but have long felt that I should. I should see it because I'm a film fan and these movies that are universally acclaimed as among the greatest films ever made are our homework.

Really – we punish each other when we have not done our homework. Karen, one of my film fan friends, every time she sees me, and I mean EVERY TIME, and we see each other every couple of weeks, in the middle of our conversation, will stop, assume a school teachery look, squint her eyes, point her finger, and ask, "Have you seen it yet?"

"No," I say. Depending on my mood, I say this truculently, defiantly, coyly, ashamed. The "it" in question is "The Godfather," another one of those films universally acclaimed as among the greatest films ever made, a movie I refuse to watch, because, a Jersey girl, I have had face-to-face encounters with Mafiosi, and they are NOTHING like the glamorized Hollywood / HBO productions you people who love "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos" fantasize that they are. Mafiosi are ugly, unromantic, scum.

So, back to the f---ing Nazi film.

I should, of course, see "Das Boot" not just because I'm a film fan and "Das Boot" is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made. I should see "Das Boot" because I published
Bieganski, a book addressing popular cultures images of Poles, Jews, Germans – and Nazis. These images play a role in how the Holocaust is understood. Who is guilty? Who could have committed these horrible crimes? And why?

I sat through hours of repulsive trash to write that book. The Nazi propaganda film "The Eternal Jew" is a hate crime – not just against humanity, but against cinema itself – that no sentient being should ever have to endure. American author
Raymond Federman's take on Poles is not much easier to stomach.

So, yeah, I should watch "Das Boot."

I remember when it first came out. I was living in New York City and I had a lot of friends, some of them mainstream, some of them fringe-dwellers. All very interesting. It was a really hardcore fringe-dwelling cabby who most fervently recommended "Das Boot" to me. He also wanted me to see Nazi propaganda films he had gone out of his way to obtain from some underground source. "If you just watch these movies, you'll see that what you learned in school about Nazism was not all true."

Uh huh. Yeah, I think I'll pass.

Whatever Wolfgang Peterson's intentions, I have never been able to get over that association – between my weirdo cab driver friend who insisted that the Nazis were really not all that bad, and that their really cool, well-made movies was proof of that, and his affection for "Das Boot."

So, teeth in full grit position, I sat down and tried to watch "Das Boot."

I immediately realized, from the opening scene, that everything I had long feared about "Das Boot" was right there on the screen for me to see.

Nazi soldiers and sailors were just regular Joes like you and me.

And they suffered! And we, the Allies, made them suffer! And we should feel sorry for them!

Insert firebombing of Dresden here. And all those other big, bad things the big, bad Allies did: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, displacement of Germans after World War Two.



From its opening scenes, heck, even before it starts, "Das Boot" hammers that message into the viewer: Nazi sailors were just regular Joes like you and me. And they suffered, too!

A script appears onscreen before the film starts: Hitler sent out 40,000 sailors on U-boats. Fewer then 10,000 returned.

You are supposed to feel really sad. Really sad for these poor, poor Nazi sailors.

Me? "Ten thousand too many," I snort. Are there any left? Tell me where. I'll torpedo the bastard right now.

In the opening shots, the onscreen Nazis are not goose-stepping, invading Poland, torturing Jews or sieg heil-ing. They are singing songs, pulling hi-jinks, drinking beer, getting rowdy, and then, in a high spirited prank, urinating on the car carrying their commanding officer.

Just a bunch of regular Joes! Just like you and me!

Nazis just wanna have fun!

Hey, wait a second, the viewer asks. Was this really what Nazism was all about? Young colts having a good time and then some disembodied, mean force sends them out on U-boats to die? Wasn't there that little matter of … An election, in which 38 % of Germans voted for Hitler? Mass rallies, in which thousands of Germans stood at rapt attention for Hitler? Piles of archived love letters, from men and women, pledging immortal fealty to Hitler? Endless war crimes, committed by uncounted Germans, who gratuitously tortured Jews, Poles, Slovaks, Russian POWs, homosexuals … ???

Oh, yes. The film addresses that, also in the opening moments. There is a party. A beautiful woman is singing. Men are sexually harassing her. In "Das Boot," that sexual harassment of a pretty girl is a good thing. It shows that these men are – Regular Joes! Just like you and me! They just want to have fun with this pretty girl!

A man swaggers into the party. The camera follows him. He gets up on a stage. And he mocks Hitler!

See? See? I told you, these Germans are just like you and me! They didn't like Hitler, either! SO DON'T JUDGE THE GERMANS you big, bad, judgmental person! It was just this one guy, Hitler, who was really bad. Everyone else just wanted to have fun, and then they "were sent" – please note passive voice; they did not go willingly – they "were sent" out on U-boats to be killed! In their tens of thousands! By Americans, like you!

There's a similar scene aboard the U-boat, once it sets out to sea. The ruggedly handsome captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow, is, as Wikipedia puts it (it's not just me imagining all this) "openly anti-Nazi."

Handsome U-boat commander Jurgen Prochnow vehemently expresses anti-Nazi views, and protests the Nazi government sending innocent young boys out to die on U-boats. Oh, it's so poignant.

Okay, okay, the viewer thinks. Maybe these Germans were really not so bad. But were these innocent young boys on U-boats just … dying? Weren't they also … Killing? I mean, how else did U-boats get the nicknames, "grey wolves" and "wolf pack"?

The movie addresses that, too. The U-boat is shown sinking an "enemy" ship. (American? English? Populated with teenage farmboys from Arkansas who never left home before being drafted, who were sent out to defend the lives and liberty of people they never met?)

Sailors from the "enemy" ship are shown burning alive, pleading for help, jumping into the North Atlantic, and drowning.

And the regular Joes on the U-boat watch in compassion. They blame the enemy, the Americans or the Brits, for not sending rescue craft.

Really. REALLY. Compassionate Nazis watch innocent victims of their worldwide horror and feel sad because of these men's horrible deaths and blame that on Americans.

Now that's moral relativism for ya.

What else makes "Das Boot" worthy to be universally acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made?

Well, as I was watching it, I was really wishing that my old professor,
Alan Dundes, were still alive. Prof. Dundes published a book, "Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder," that argues that German culture shows evidence of anal fixation. There is, Dundes argues, simply many mentions of poop, farts, pee, and heinies in German songs, jokes, proverbs, etc. And there are a lot of poop, farts, pee, and heinies in "Das Boot." My aesthetic life was not enhanced by watching a naked German buttocks fill my screen. Not the first time or any time after that.

All these references to the nether regions of the human body have one intention, seamless with the intent of the rest of the film: See? The Germans were just regular guys like you and me. We have heinies; they have heinies. Here is photographic evidence! We all want to have fun with our heinies!

Wolfgang Peterson should read Alan Dundes. Dundes argues, in "Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder," that there is such a thing as German national character. That it manifests in all these heinie references. And at Auschwitz. But I digress.

Full disclosure: I never made it through "Das Boot." The film was so amateurish in its obvious propaganda that I just couldn't get past not so much my own offense, but my boredom. I'll watch a compelling, offensive movie, but never a boring, offensive movie. Indeed, the negative reviews of "Das Boot" at the International Movie Database mention boredom as the reason the reviewer gave the film a low score. I watched about half an hour, and then watched fan-posted clips on "Youtube," including one immodestly titled "best movie scene ever." (Not.)

The highest-rated reviews for "Das Boot" at the International Movie Database agree: "Das Boot" is a great film because it makes you root for, sympathize with, and pity Nazis. Quotes from four actual reviews; many more reviews expressing the exact same sentiments could be quoted:

"What impresses me the most about the film, as the title makes apparent, is that it's a German made film about a German U-boat. Patriotism for my own country would tend to make me hate the crew on this ship by definition (especially if portrayed as typical mindless killing machine Nazis), but these characters are so well developed and played like human-beings facing difficult decisions that I find myself sympathizing with these guys."

"This is a very rare portrayal of battle through the eyes of our enemy and will actually have you cheering for the 'bad guys'"

"You sympathize with the crew, and FEEL their plight as they struggle, cramped in a rickety U-boat against the odds…to make you feel like you are trapped in an underwater coffin with nothing to do, nowhere to go"

"To see a film that showed 'the enemy' as human beings, with hopes, fears and dreams… As i grew up i began to understand more about the second world war and was able to make up my own mind as to whether the 'evil Nazis' were all that the cinema portrayed them to be."

And there you have it. The word "evil" in quotes. Because the Nazis really weren't all that evil. Moral relativism.

There was a great deal of evil during World War Two. Who is responsible? Read "Bieganski" for clues.


  1. I recently watched Das Boot with my father. As a student of German I enjoy watching movies through German as an educational aid.
    On first watch I admittedly found the movie boring, and didn't watch the whole way through.

    However my desire to not leave a thing half finished got the better of me and I re-watched the entire movie. Twice.

    I'm very glad I did. The movie was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including one for Best Director and I can see why. The director displayed great attention for details on every aspect of the submarine and deserves recognition for that.

    Even though it is filmed from a German perspective I did not feel a pervasive sense of Nazism throughout the movie, unlike you seemed to. I found it did nothing to try and defend Nazism or uphold any Nazi propaganda. The director made this abundantly clear to me when he had them play "It's a long way to Tipperary" a British WW1 song (originally sung by Irish regiments).

    The song was not a typical war-like song to inspire heroism but rather called for a quick return home. The Captain first did it to annoy the young 1st Watch Officer who is the only ardent Nazi of the group and who is portrayed in a generally disagreeable light.

    When you refer to them as "Regular Joes" I assume you mean human beings because above all that's what this movie wants to portray to us. Human beings were killed on both sides, we have many movies about the Allied perspective but few from the Axis powers. There is trepidation over daring to acknowledge that people died on both sides in appalling numbers.

    To dismiss the Firebombing of Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a "Boo Hoo" is quite baffling to me. These were dreadful events that killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and cannot be dismissed with a simple: "they started it so they deserve what they get" attitude. There is still debate over whether these acts constitute war crimes.

    The German soldiers were following orders just like the Allies, who decimated Dresden and dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U-boat was following orders to not take prisoners when it left those men to drowned. Also the Captain says that Allied ships had 6 hours to save any people left on the ship. The destroyer which bombarded them didn't save anyone after attacking the U-boat.

    In conclusion I don't feel this was a propaganda film but more a display of the affect of war on a group of people.

    I hope I have expressed my disagreement clearly and politely.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

      I think you misunderstood me ... and I'm not sure you will return here to read what I say ... so I'll just leave it at that. If you do return and would like to hear more, let me know. Thank you.

  2. I appreciate your run down on this movie, but I really disagree. Like you, it took me many years to watch this film. I hated it on first watch. Not because of any perceived nazi propaganda but because the Director's Cut is kind of dull. The 3.5 hour cut makes the torture go on way too long for my taste. I think the 2.5 hour theatrical cut is perfect as is.

    Now I have watched it two or three times, just the theatrical cut, not the Director's Cut mind you. I think this film does deserve the praise that other fine films such as 2001 A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane have received over the past few decades. It really does portray war for what it is, ugly, awful, without remorse and without reason at times.

    I really do not believe it was made in support of German fascist society, or to portray the German soldiers as superior in any way to the Allies. These really were soldiers fighting for Germany and following orders. It is full of anti-nazi speeches as well. And conversely it gives positive statements about the Allies and mainly Churchill.

    I used to believe Saving Private Ryan was the best war film of all time, but I was clearly wrong. SPR was Spielberg again singing the praises of the US and how great of soldiers the US had or has. But all he has ever done is demonize the average German soldier. Just watch the Indiana Jones films for more evidence of this. Every German soldier is a buffoon, just like all USSR soldiers are crazy idiots like in the crystal skull movie. Give props where props are due. Just look up the excellent 3 part series on Youtube about how Saving Private Ryan promotes war crimes, by Collative Learning and you will learn quite a lot about issues in SPR. So comparing SPR to Das Boot or last years excellent and true Hacksaw Ridge shows what has quality and what is really trying to pose as a war film with massive amounts of propaganda underneath.

    We should never, ever forget the crimes of the nazi regime. We should also never ever forget the crimes the US committed on innocents during WWII, and in the Vietnam War. Hell, a bunch of innocents were killed in the ill fated Iraqi war of 2003, mainly by the US and turds like Blackwater. I see war as nihilism acted out in the real world. Quoting a good, but not great submarine movie from 1995, Denzel Washington's XO gives a poignant and true quote about war: "I think the true enemy is war itself." Couldn't have said it better myself.

    Last thought on Das Boot. It might not be up to the technical level of 2001 A Space Odyssey, but it is very well shot and the battle scenes are the most intense of any submarine movie ever. The recreation of a U-boat set was amazing, and I really did feel for the crew, as a fellow human being. You could clearly see that many had a conscience when they came upon the sinking ship. The only one who did not have emotion was the captain. He was utterly destroyed inside and hollow, vacuous. Despite this he tried to get his chief of the boat off to go and see to his wife and it did seem like he cared about his fellow soldiers. The ending. Can't spoil it if you haven't watched the whole movie.

    As for evil in WWII......No side was innocent. The British Empire was one evil SOB and deserved to die like it did. The Russians under Joseph Stalin....lot of evil done to minorities and Jews and political dissenters. Germany, yep, evil in the higher ranks. Japan. Same, evil in the higher ranks. America..............massive bombings and of course the A-Bombs were evil, plain and simple. Nobody comes out of WWII with a clean conscience. I would kindly suggest you try and watch Das Boot again, all the way through.

    Thanks for reading if you made it this far and sorry it was long.


    1. Matt thank you for your thoughtful post. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. :-)


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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