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‘Das Boot’ Changed Director, Actor’s Lives

22 Jun, 2011 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Das Boot

Seminal submarine war movie, which celebrates 30th anniversary, launched careers of director Wolfgang Petersen and actor Jürgen Prochnow

Coming to America to promote Das Boot in 1981, unknown director Wolfgang Petersen was apprehensive of the film’s reception, which largely was negative in Germany, feeling it would be dismissed as just another Nazi war movie.

His fears were confirmed initially after the opening credits rolled and a historical footnote describing how only 10,000 of 40,000 German submariners during the war came back alive was met with huge applause from the audience.

“We didn’t feel very good about that,” Petersen joked, adding that by the end of the film there was a standing ovation that seemed to “never end.”

Peterson and actor Jürgen Prochnow June 21 were on hand for a screening of Peterson’s four-hour director’s cut at the Los Angeles Film Festival to promote the two-disc collector’s set Blu-ray release July 5 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The $35.99 boxed set also features the original Oscar-nominated theatrical release and more than three hours of bonus material, including Petersen’s commentary; a video tour of the actual U-boat 96 used in the film; featurettes “Wolfgang Petersen: Back to the Boat,” “Going Deeper: Maria’s Take and The Perfect Boat — The Director’s Cut” and “The Battle of the Atlantic (1983)”; and behind-the-scenes footage.

Prochnow, then a 40-year-old stage actor, drew praise in his role as Capt. Lt. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, a disillusioned U-boat commander whose disgust with the German military brass and the war was only superseded by concern for his sailors.

Petersen said initial efforts to make the film in the ’70s included the Bavarian studio partnering with separate U.S. studios, directors and actors. He said John Sturges was first attached to direct along with Robert Redford in the lead role. A later effort included director Don Siegel and Paul Newman.

These failed attempts just frustrated Petersen, who at the time was making "tiny" German TV shows at the studio.

“It’s a German story, [based on] a German book. We are Germans here; why can’t we do this? Americans come here, spend a lot of money and don’t do it,” he said.

When the Bavarian studio agreed to self-finance the project with Petersen to direct, there still were studio doubts about casting Prochnow, who always was Petersen’s No. 1 choice.

“It took months and months, but in the end it was still Jürgen who was the commander, and he still is today.”

Prochnow said that despite Germany’s historical influence in cinema and Hollywood, Das Boot “came out of the blue” in terms of global impact on the country’s film industry.

“A movie like this was not produced in Germany,” Prochnow said, alluding to the budget (the sub alone cost 1 million German Marks) and scope of the production, which took a year to film and another to edit.

“I think I spent at least three years on that movie,” he said. “It was a huge surprise. I never expected anything like that. It changed my life, in a good way.”

He said that after the film’s release he got a U.S. agent and “very good” offers from directors. Movie roles include Beverly Hills Cop 2, The English Patient, The Da Vinci Code, "24,"  and most recently, "Michael Mann Retrospective — The Keep" for HBO.

“It was amazing, a really amazing experience,” Prochnow added.

Petersen said if he were filming Boot today, he would use CGI for exterior shots, including storm and battle sequences.

“After The Perfect Storm, I know how to do that,” he said with a laugh.

The director, whose other notable credits include Troy, Air Force One, In the Line of Fire and Shattered, said he wouldn’t change any of the submarine interior shots, including the landmark single-camera interior running shots widely emulated in later films The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide and U-571. Unlike current CGI technology that allows directors to alter actual physical landscapes and people, the critical Das Boot harbor scenes depicting the La Rochelle submarine bunker in occupied France required moving all non-period boats, signage and buildings out.

“You wouldn’t do that today,” Petersen said.


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