Revisiting Das Boot

I grew up knowing I had ancestors who came from Germany. What’s more, my uncle married a German woman. I wanted to be a scientist and I knew about a number of German scientists such as Kepler, Einstein, and Heisenberg just to name a few. So when it came to pick a language from my limited high school offerings, I chose German. My high school only offered two years of the language, so when I exhausted those, I was encouraged to take classes at Cal State San Bernardino. During this time, one of the most famous German films was released: Das Boot. The professor of my college German class offered us extra credit if we went to see the movie in German. Several of us went as a group. As with many at the time, I found the movie amazing, stunning, and sad at the end.

My aunt was excited that I had gone to watch a feature-length German film. She contacted one of her relatives in Germany and had them buy a hardcover copy of the original novel and send it to the US. She gave it to me as a Christmas present. It’s still one of my treasured possessions. I’m sorry to say I have not taken the time to wade through and read the whole thing, but I was delighted when I recently picked it up and discovered my German is still good enough to follow the gist of the story.

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” This can be tricky for science fiction writers. That said, we should pull from our experience to make what we imagine as believable as possible. One of the reasons Das Boot was fascinating to me was how real it made serving in a cramped, enclosed ship. Much as I loved the Star Trek-like future of grand, beautiful starships, I couldn’t help but think the reality of military space ships would look more like the U-96 in Das Boot than Captain Picard’s spacious Enterprise. When I started writing the stories that would become the foundation of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, I made space vessels cramped and claustrophobic with crews who got on each others’ nerves.

Back in the days when I first saw the movie Das Boot, I’d heard rumors of a longer version than the one we saw in the United States. It turns out this was a 5-hour cut broadcast over five nights on British television in 1984. This cut (more or less) was eventually released in the United States as “The Original Uncut Version” shown above. I bought it a few years ago, then promptly moved to a new house where it disappeared under a stack of other videos. I finally found it again and watched the five-hour cut.

I have to say, I was impressed. The longer cut didn’t drag at all. What it gave us were more character moments. The 1980s American theatrical release focused on the captain, the chief engineer, and the war correspondent. The longer release gives us a chance to know the first officer, the third officer, the navigator and the radio operator much better. The crew began to feel even more like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one at times.

I’ve come to realize that space travel would be unsustainable if spaceships were as small and crowded as a World War II-era U-boat, but still, thinking about how they ate, the jobs they were assigned to, the “human” touches that made the sub a little more livable than sterile are all things that help me think about how to design space vessels in my writing. If you want to see how I’ve brought that into play, a good place to start is book one of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. You can learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Firebrandts-Legacy.html

6 comments on “Revisiting Das Boot

  1. I really enjoyed *Das Boot*; I’ve seen it twice, the first time with English subtitles (the second time I saw it, it was called *The Boat* and had English-speaking actors doing the dialog). I believe it still holds the record for most American Academy Award nominations for a German film (just checked–Wikipedia does say that).

    I think it’s the first film I saw that seemed to show what life in a submarine would really be like–or so I imagine. I’ve been inside a real submarine, but never actually traveled in one (if you don’t count Disneyland).

    As for how much room would future spaceships/starships have, I think that’s largely a guess. By comparison, the International Space Station has significantly more room per crew member than a submarine, but less than the original *Star Trek* Enterprise.

    • The dub of Das Boot was interesting because many of the original German actors actually dubbed the English track. Unfortunately, it was significantly cut to be closer to the standard 2-hour run time of American films.

      You’re right that it would be a guess about how much room there would be in future spaceships, but the job of a writer is to make an intelligent guess then justify it. Factors that go into that would include the use of the spaceship, the funding available, and how long it has to be deployed. Also, how much can be automated versus how much requires a human to do a job.

  2. sftrails says:

    I’m not sure about 5 hours but I loved the German version that I saw [with subtitles] better than a dubbed English version that was over edited. I love submarine movies. As for spaceships, one big difference is U Boats weren’t meant for really long missions. People would go insane if they had to live like that for years at a time, me thinks.

    • How crowded you make space ship really depends on how long the space ship will be out, and that depends on the technology you assume is available. Yes, if a spaceship is out for years, you need to give the people more room. If they do short patrols, then they might be in a more compact space. A lot also depends on how “disposable” the government considers the spaceship. A fighting ship may be more disposable — more like how the Nazis treated U-boats — than an exploration ship. So yes, all things to consider when you think about world building in science fiction.

  3. I love Das Boot and want to see this 5 hour cut now. Great read. I have reviewed this film myself, it’s brilliant.

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