In a green part of Munich lies the Bavaria Filmstadt, a studio complex that was, and is, home to production designers Götz Weidner and Rolf Zehetbauer’s original sets for the landmark 1981 World War 2 submarine drama Das Boot.
Based on the wartime remembrances of Lothar-Günther Buchheim Das Boot was a 6 part TV drama (and 3 hour edited theatrical version) detailing the excitement and tedium of a German submarine crew as they engage the Allied navies in the battle for the Atlantic.
Which is the best version is endlessly debated but either way, the attention to detail in the fully enclosed set build added a sense of realism that, combined with Jost Vacano’s cinematography, elevated the narrative to near-documentary level.
The studios offer a public visit option, whereupon one is free to wander the studio complex to the various attractions, each of which, it must be said, has a certain shambolic, weather-worn quality. In a quiet non-descript corner lies a very long, suspiciously submarine sized black tent, which would be easily missable were it not for the permanent display of some of the models used plus the 1:1 scale exterior of the conning tower plus some interpretation placards.
For other visitors, this obviously wasn’t much of a draw as the area was empty, but for me I found myself getting somewhat nervous at the proposition of walking through something that I knew so well and which have achieved something of an iconic status in film culture.
I don’t want to say too much as the pictures speak for themselves but what I will do is add some context beyond the visual. Walking into the tent, the first thing that hits you, like a monkey wrench around the face, is the smell. Like a real sub, the set has that authentic mix of metal and engine oil, no doubt from the amount of real components that found their way into the build, to satisfy Petersen’s instruction to the production designer ‘authentic down to the last screw’, whether it is or not I can’t comment as I am not an expert and neither was I able to secure a commentary from either of the men involved (although I have tried).
Most things looked period apart from some of the smaller details such as electrical junction boxes and knobs and switches – which somehow looked too modern but of course, perhaps some original pieces got lost at the end of filming and have had to be replaced. Likewise, the faces for some of the dials looked very much like paper print-outs.
As I walked through the superstructure, hopping through the hatches in the same way as I know from the film, I was hit with the peculiar feeling of literally stepping into a film frame. I felt the fire on the bridge sequence around me, the only evidence now being some scorch marks on some of the equipment around where the fire effects devices must have been mounted.
Another strange moment was looking up the ladder into the conning tower but not seeing a hatch to the outside, rather a shorter tower than I expected with a bit of fabric roofing over the hole. Likewise in the bedrooms, where one would expect to see steel and rivets behind the bedside cabinets was only canvas and strips of daylight.
On screen, something that almost is a character is the engine, kept running at all costs by the chief mechanic Johann, that in many ways determines the fate of the crew. On screen the realism was complete as the sound design accompanied the visual element to sell it as a hulking XXX tons worth of MAN engine block but as I gave the blocks a firm rap of the knuckles, they did not answer with the dull thud of solid metal but rather the echoey resonance of slightly flexible resin.
In closing, a visit to the set is a fascinating experience and a testament to the craftsmanship of the set building skill.