Das Boot

Author: Lothar-Günther Buchheim
Publisher: Cassell (Current English language edition)
Year: 1973
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

Books that were adapted into movies are a sub-genre (bad puns already!) all their own. More interesting are books that were so overshadowed by the popularity of the film version that people are absolutely shocked to learn that a book even existed at all. The famous German war novel Das Boot, written by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and published in 1973, is an excellent example of this phenomenon. A huge hit when it was originally published, Das Boot whipped up a storm of controversy among surviving U-boat veterans, who either supported Buchheim's image of the U-boat force as a whole, or were practically demanding that he be hung for his revisionist interpretation.

Lothar-Günther Buchheim (who died last year, leaving behind an art collection worth at least $300 million) was a member of a Kriegsmarine propaganda unit (a "Sonderführer," if you prefer the original term) during the Second World War, writing as a war correspondent on his experiences aboard minesweepers and destroyers. In Autumn of 1941, he joined the crew of U-96, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, for a single patrol in the North Atlantic. The patrol was fairly "routine" - the boat traveled to its designated area, went back and forth for a few weeks, got trapped in a huge storm, ran into a British convoy, and sank a couple ships. As they were returning to France, U-96 received new orders to break through the Straight of Gibraltar and travel to the new submarine base at La Spezia in Italy. For all their trouble, a radar-equipped British plane surprised U-96 in the dark in the Straight, severely damaging the boat. After being trapped on the bottom for some time, U-96 made it back to France on a wing and a prayer.

Buchheim's Das Boot follows the same sequence of events pretty closely, with elements from another one of Buchheim's later patrols added in for good measure, along with certain events that were dramatized for storytelling reasons. The reason for the mass controversy surrounding its publication can probably be summed up thusly: Buchheim wasn't a true submariner, and many survivors viewed him as an unwanted surface navy interloper, unprepared for the rigors of submarine life, who was nothing more than a crybaby who looked down upon the common submariner as oversexed filth from his lofty perch. Also, they took particular offense to his descriptions of sailors breaking down during combat - screaming, sobbing, and having to be hit with flashlights took keep order during depth charge attacks. These criticisms certainly aren't unwarranted, even though I have a hard time imaging that U-boat crewmen were really stoic and fearless to the last man.

One element of Das Boot that's difficult to criticize, however, is its relentlessly vivid and realistic depiction of what it's like to be locked away in a stinky metal tube for weeks on end, with a good chance of being suddenly drowned. Das Boot is certainly the roughest, most grueling, and most claustrophobic submarine novel ever written. Not much is actually left to the reader's imagination; you can almost smell the horrid stench rising up from the bilge, feel the condensation running down the bulkheads, envision the mold slowly overtaking the food hanging from the ceiling, and grow numb from the endless hammering of the diesels. Buchheim uses flowery language to evoke the weather, whether it's a beautiful sunset on a calm blue sea to a raging Atlantic storm that tosses the boat around like a pendulum and reduces the world to an endless gray nothing.

He also focuses on an element that will put off many readers: the sheer boredom of spending weeks at sea without seeing any action. There are two long chapters - Frigging Around I and Frigging Around II - occupying nearly 100 pages, that depict the maddeningly repetitive nature of patrol duty and the grinding dullness of inaction. UA, as the boat is called in the book, receives radio messages that inform them of allied convoys well out of range, the crew talk about sex, tempers flare and morale starts to slump, and the weather gets progressively worse. It's a realistic depiction of what would have "happened" onboard a WWII submarine when nothing was actually happening, but the reader had better be prepared for a real slog.

Others will find Buchheim's heavy existentialism irritating. The novel is written from the vaguely first-person perspective of an unnamed war correspondent, presumably based on himself, and the reader experiences everything he does - and only the events that he does. When Buchheim isn't being wordy, as he is in his descriptions of the weather, he writes in extremely short, terse sentences that belie a certain nervousness or disgust at the present situation. He also tends to go off on some odd tangents, most of them relating to the narrator's suspicion that his French girlfriend is actually a member of the resistance, or his unpleasant time in naval boot camp. The existentialist writing style works wonderfully for the most part, but there are parts of Das Boot that can easily be passed off as padding.

Das Boot is a rough, grueling, and bleak read, and by the time the ending rolls around, you're more likely to be exhausted than to truly care about what happens. If the film version left you feeling numb, the book will doubly so. Taken from the perspective of the mid-70s, Buchheim's story embodies a vivid disgust over his home country's wartime past, something that had been brewing since 1945 but exploded in the years following this book's publication. As a condemnation of the ludicrousness of war and the generalized insanity of the Third Reich and its propaganda, it probably has few equals in the realm of fiction. It's not an easy read by any stretch, and it's certainly a little overlong, but it's one of the finest submarine novels ever written and a classic of naval literature.

Since I have to mention the movie at some point, the uncut 5-hour Das Boot is one of the most faithful film adaptations of a novel I've ever seen. They even got the mannerisms of the characters down pat, and included tiny details like the boat's rope dog mascot, the scar on the Chief's left cheek, the tiny plant growing in the radio shack, and the photo of Admiral Dönitz hanging in the officer's mess, that were only mentioned in passing in the book. There are also a lot of great character moments that were left out of the Director's Cut, most of which are taken almost word-for-word from the novel.

 

 


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