National Attitudes toward World War II as Exemplified in Operation Petticoat and Das Boot
The war film has been a popular American genre during the twentieth century — and of these films, those depicting the Second World War have been by far the most prolific and successful. The spectacle of large battles and the celebration of heroic acts have an alluring quality that has inspired the production of epic films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957), The Guns of Navarone (Thompson, 1961), The Longest Day (Annakin et al., 1962), and The Great Escape (Sturges, 1963). An important factor in these films’ appeal is that the (American) audience is meant to sympathize with the (Allied) winning side. Indeed, national attitudes towards wars — and war in general — are affected by the outcomes of such conflicts. Two excellent examples of differing attitudes toward World War II are Blake Edwards’s American comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) and Wolfgang Petersen’s German drama Das Boot (1981). Both films take place on military submarines, but the depictions of the two undersea voyages could scarcely be more different. While Edwards shows life aboard the U.S.S. Sea Tiger as easygoing, dynamic, and occasionally thrilling, Petersen depicts the experience of crewing U-96 as exhausting, bleak, and often deadly.
Stylistic differences between the two films
Before the attitudes espoused by the two films can be properly discussed, an analysis of the films’ stylistic elements is necessary. Factors such as lighting, acting, costumes, camera placement, and the use of space within shots are all vital to both films’ tones and moods, and the most prevalent aspects of both productions’ mise-en-scène are the sets representing the interiors of the film’s respective submarines.
The vast majority of Das Boot is set within the U-96 submarine, and the set’s appearance contributes greatly to the film’s overall tone. With dingy metal walls, wooden cupboards, and very close quarters, the set conveys a strong sense of claustrophobia. The actors have very little headroom (they must often hunch), and there is no sense of privacy at all. The set is darkly lit, giving the impression that it might be lit entirely with practical lamps. This is almost certainly not the case, but the production lighting is underplayed so as to appear natural in the dark submarine. This further heightens the sense of close proximity felt by the crew members.
As a result of the confinement in the U-96 set, the majority of shots within the submarine range from medium to close-up. This adds to the sense of claustrophobia already inherent in the set itself, while also leading the audience to focus on the actors’ unshaven faces and grim expressions. In addition, the close range of the shots gives the impression that each shot could conceivably be filmed in an actual submarine. When the handheld camera follows members of the crew through different sections of the submarine, there is a pause in movement as the camera operator worms his way through the small openings in the watertight bulkheads, further emphasizing the close quarters in which the crew must live, as well as adding to the set’s realism. The handheld camerawork also adds to the urgent tone of many scenes.
In contrast to the dark and grim atmosphere of Das Boot’s U-96, the U.S.S. Sea Tiger set is bright and gleaming — despite the fact that the submarine is supposedly running mostly on scavenged parts and jury-rigged machinery. There is not much feeling of confinement; the actors have room to stand comfortably, and they usually have a comfortable space in which to move around each other. The lack of space in the main corridor is sometimes emphasized, but this is for comedic effect, and not to enhance realism. The lighting is bright and bland (a noticeable trend in Edwards’s color films), thereby drawing attention to its non-diegetic sources. Such well-lit scenes would most likely be impossible inside an actual submarine; large lighting assemblies would only be feasible in sets with removable walls.
The camerawork in Operation Petticoat lends itself to further exposing the artifice of the Sea Tiger set. While the film has its share of medium shots and close-ups, there are no more of these than one might find in any given film. This film’s shots are motivated almost entirely by Edwards’s intention to direct the audience’s attention, with very little restraint imposed on them by the confines of the set. As with the interior lighting, a good deal of the shots within officers’ cabins very likely could not have been achieved in an actual submarine. In addition, the shots in the Sea Tiger are almost all static, featuring unobtrusive pans and tilts which do not affect the tone of the film.
The appearance of the respective submarines’ crewmembers also contributes to each film’s tone. In Das Boot, the men begin their journey both clean-shaven and clean-clothed. As the film and the voyage progress, the crewmen rapidly grow bushy beards and moustaches, and their clothes quickly become worn and filthy. Clearly these men have neither the time nor the inclination to keep tidy and shave.
A few characters in Operation Petticoat also exhibit facial hair (most notably Chief Machinist’s Mate Tostin, played by Arthur O’Connell), but this simply serves the purpose of giving the audiences archetypal cues regarding specific characters. Occasionally a crewmember such as Ensign Stovall (Richard Sargent) will be seen with five o’clock shadow, but such “stubble” is rather obviously created by the film’s makeup crew. On the whole, the Sea Tiger’s crewmembers remain clean-shaven throughout the film. Their uniforms remain clean and intact throughout the entire film — with the exception of Tostin’s, which is appropriately greasy. Even the nurse’s uniforms, which Lieutenant Holden (Tony Curtis) describes as “all messed up,” do not appear particularly damaged or dirty.
War as the enemy
The ultimate goal of Das Boot’s mise-en-scène is realism. Petersen strives to depict the voyage of U-96 in as convincing a manner as possible for the purpose of showing the audience the boredom, fear, melancholy, determination, and nobility of the crewmembers and to persuade the audience to sympathize with them. This is what sets Das Boot apart from other war films both in American and Germany: it strives to make the audience sympathize with German sailors fighting in World War II — and it succeeds. According to Brad Prager, U-96’s “Close quarters are not simply symptomatic of an attempt at historical accuracy; they are also a means of underscoring the camaraderie between the men necessary for the logic of the film” (244). Petersen shows the men spending time together during the long lulls in their voyage, bonding with one another and sharing details of their lives beyond the war. We learn through their actions that none of the crewmembers (with one exception early in the film) are particularly supportive of the Third Reich: “The men are ultimately more loyal to one another than to the high command who betrays them” (Prager 244). By giving us glimpses into the personal lives of the men aboard U-96, Petersen presents them as very human individuals with lives beyond the war. They are shown as victims of conscription in a war that they may not even believe in.
By isolating the crewmembers from the world above, Petersen is able to depict them as innocent men sent on an insane mission against an insurmountable foe. Prager explains that “the dark depths to which the submarine plunges effectively erase the signs and marks of historical context, signs and marks of fascism and anti-Semitism that would have been more pronounced had the film taken place on the surface” (244). By almost entirely eliminating the political context, Petersen manages to tell a story of war’s distilled nature without referring to its causes (Prager 244). War itself is not glorified — in fact it becomes the enemy — but the soldier is lauded simply for his refusal to give up.
This view of the German soldier was radically different from that in any postwar film made in either America or Germany up to that point. American World War II films quickly made the German soldier into a greedy, sadistic stereotype (Prager 240). Meanwhile, German films such as The Murderers Are among Us (Staudte, 1946) condemned Nazi soldiers for blindly following orders to murder innocents. In 1961, Alexander Kluge’s short Brutality in Stone further condemned Nazism while asserting a connection between the politics and the architecture of the Third Reich. It was only in German literature that the Nazi soldier became an idealist, betrayed by Hitler, who “fights for his comrades” (Wagener, qtd. in Prager 240). This view finally reached the screen in Das Boot, though any idealistic views the men hold are quickly worn down during their time aboard U-96.
War as an inconvenience
In Operation Petticoat, everything is pretense. The submarine is supposedly seriously crippled, yet the only indications of this are some silly sound effects and a few puffs of smoke. The characters are in danger from enemy planes and ships, but no one is ever seriously injured. Throughout the course of the film, the audience never really perceives the characters as being in danger, despite an onslaught of depth charges from a destroyer and several air raids on ports where the Sea Tiger is docked. During one of these air raids, the crewman known as “The Prophet” (George Dunn) is caught on deck and fired upon. Miraculously, he remains untouched while everything around him is blown to smithereens. Scenes like this prove to the audience that the characters are kept perpetually out of harm’s way and cannot be touched by the war.
Approximately forty minutes into Operation Petticoat, Lieutenant Commander Sherman (Cary Grant) mockingly asks Holden, “This war must be rather inconvenient for you — eh, Mr. Holden?” Sherman’s question is intended to point out Holden’s disregard for military rules and his predilection for shirking duties, but it draws attention to an important and interesting issue: the entire film treats World War II as an inconvenience — as nothing more than a plot device to serve as a backdrop for the comedic action of the film’s storyline. Such a film would never have been made in Germany — and certainly not in the 1950s.
Edwards’ trivialization of World War II illustrates the American attitude of superiority which was prevalent in the United States for many years following the war. Unlike later war comedies which attempt to comment on the nature of war, such as Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964) and MASH (Altman, 1970), Operation Petticoat makes no such point. The fact that Edwards was permitted to make this film demonstrates that the idea of using the Second World War as an excuse for some comedic hijinks was well-met by the studio executives at the time, and that audiences were expected to receive the film similarly. No attempt whatsoever is made to humanize the Japanese enemies that the Sea Tiger crew occasionally tangles with — in fact, not a single Japanese character is shown on screen. The only evidence of the Japanese presence is through their fighter planes, ships, and a truck which is inadvertently blown up in a comedic scene. This contrasts severely with Das Boot’s attempt to recognize the humanity of British sailors whose ship has been sunk. Petersen’s film recognizes that the soldiers on both sides of the war are in the same boat (so to speak). The depiction of the enemy in Operation Petticoat, simply demonstrates the popular American view at the time of the Japanese as relentless, faceless enemies of The American Way.
Das Boot’s international appeal
Given the strongly differing attitudes towards World War II held by the United States and Germany, what was it that made Das Boot so successful in both countries? As stated earlier, the German soldier had been reduced to a stereotypical greedy sadist in American popular culture (Prager 240). How could American audiences reconcile this with Das Boot’s treatment of German soldiers as heroes? According to Prager, “The soldiers in the film are identified not as the aggressors, but as having been the victims of external forces” (Prager 246-47). How could American audiences sit still as they were asked to sympathize with characters whose apparent heroism hinges on an argument strikingly similar to the Nuremberg Defense?
The answer lies in the cultural shift which occurred in America during the time between the production of Operation Petticoat and that of Das Boot. By the time the latter film was released in 1981, American audiences were familiar with the concept of the soldier as victim:
Hollywood films have busily constructed the Vietnam veteran as a casualty of war. […] What is unusual and particularly transcultural about Das Boot is that it functioned analogously to those American popular films, yet it was made in Germany. American audiences were infrequently exposed to the disavowal of soldiers’ responsibility in the case of foreign troops, and still less often in the case of fighting Germans. (Prager 239-40).
American audiences were not immediately receptive to this role reversal, however. Peterson recalls from the film’s United States premiere that, as the film’s opening titles explained that thirty thousand of forty thousand German sailors died at sea, the audience energetically applauded (qtd. in Prager 243). Nevertheless, by the film’s end, the audience had made a complete turnaround: “At the end, I was greeted on stage by thunderous applause and I discussed the film with viewers. Without exaggeration, Das Boot made a triumphal march through America” (Petersen, qtd. in Prager 243). Indeed, the film went on to become “the highest grossing German film ever” in the United States (Krämer 233).
Das Boot’s popularity in America served as an indicator of the waning resentment toward the German World War II soldier. In 1985, four years later, President Reagan claimed that many conscripted German soldiers “were victims, just as surely as the victims in concentration camps” (qtd. in Prager238). While this statement stirred controversy, it also demonstrated that forgiveness was a growing trend in the political climate of the 1980s: “[Das Boot] came to prominence in the same historical moment in which forgiveness for military activity was acceptable or even au courant. The soldiers in Das Boot appear simply as grunts in the trenches, who […] don’t bear any responsibility for that war’s atrocities” (Prager 240). This depiction of the sailors primarily as human beings rather than Germans gives Das Boot its widespread appeal.
The key difference between Das Boot and Operation Petticoat is that the former employs emphasis on realism to construct a life-affirming message, while the latter merely constructs pretenses for the purpose of empty entertainment. This difference results in a limitation on Operation Petticoat’s appeal; such a film could only conceivably be enjoyed by audiences who identify with the Allied Powers and trivialize both the Axis Powers and — on some level — World War II itself. Das Boot, as a result of its universal themes of heroism against overwhelming odds, can be enjoyed by anyone.
Das Boot. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen and Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Perf. Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, and Klaus Wennemann. Columbia Pictures, 1981. VHS.
Brutality in Stone. Dir. Alexander Kluge and Peter Schamoni. Perf. Hans Clarin and Christian Marschall. Alexander Kluge Filmproduktion, 1961. DVD.
Krämer, Peter. “Hollywood in Germany / Germany in Hollywood.” The German Cinema Book. Ed. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, and Deniz Göktürk. London: BFI, 2002. 227-237. Print.
The Murderers Are among Us. Dir. Wolfgang Staudte. Screenplay by Wolfgang Staudte. Perf. Ernst Wilhelm Borchert, Hildegard Knef, and Arno Paulsen. Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, 1946. DVD.
Operation Petticoat. Dir. Blake Edwards. Screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin. Perf. Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, and Joan O’Brien. Universal International, 1959. DVD.
Prager, Brad. “Beleaugered under the Sea: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot as a German Hollywood Film.” Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective. Ed. Randall Hale and Margaret McCarthy. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2003. 237-58. Print.