The Plot of the Film "Das Boot"

by Michael Davidson

"Das Boot" is Wolfgang Peterson's classic submarine film from 1981 that was based on the novel by Lothar-Guenther Buchheim. It was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including best director and best adapted screenplay, but won none of them. There are several versions of the film, with more than 60 minutes of footage added during a 1997 theatrical re-release.

Pre-War Party

The film opens in France in 1941. World War II is in full swing and the German forces are occupying French territory. Members of a young German submarine crew are in the midst of a party on the evening before they ship out for duty. Lieutenant Werner is a war correspondent who will accompany the crew on their journey. They will be led by a 30-year-old unnamed captain. The captain is one of the few really experienced men on the crew and is more aware than anyone of the risks they will face.


"Das Boot" is an effective film not just because of its depiction of war but also because of the realism surrounding the time between battles. The crew are stuck in a small tube underwater. They share beds and a single toilet. While they remain relatively festive in the beginning, the tight quarters, lack of privacy and sheer boredom quickly start to wear on their nerves as the U-96 submarine searches for Allied enemies.

The First Battle

The submarine finally stumbles on an Allied destroyer sub and the crew is ordered to battle stations. Crew members discover how vulnerable they really are for the first time as the sub is attacked with depth charges, but the sub is able to escape. A storm keeps the sub underwater for three straight weeks and the crew gets more claustrophobic. All the imagined glamor of submarine duty has been destroyed. Once the storm blows over, the sub is under attack again.

Severe Damage

British forces attack the sub with more depth charges and the captain orders the boat to dive to 800 feet, which results in the sub experiencing pressure far greater than what it was meant to withstand. Metal starts to tighten and buckle as bolts snap and shoot across the cabin like gunshots. The sub sinks several British vessels and the captain is forced to watch through the periscope as British soldiers burn, swim and eventually drown, since the captain has been ordered not to take survivors.


With a damaged submarine and a traumatized crew, everyone looks forward to Christmas vacation. Instead, leave time is canceled and the crew is ordered to break through a British blockade along the Strait of Gibraltar. The sub is spotted quickly and takes massive damage, causing it to sink to the seafloor at a depth of 930 feet. Oxygen is running out and everyone on board expects to be dead within hours. They continue working on the boat and are able to get it to the surface again before air runs out. They are then able to escape back to France but their facilities are attacked by Allied airplanes shortly after arrival, killing most of the crew and sinking the submarine for good. The captain dies in the assault.