Known for its extreme subject matter, length and budget, Das Boot was one of the key second world war films to have its narrative told from a German perspective. The epic story of the crew of a large U-boat plunging to uncertain depths in the Atlantic Ocean is accentuated by a chilling, brooding soundtrack of symphonic and electronic elements.
Klaus Doldinger (leader of the German fusion group Passport) was responsible for the movie’s score, of which the famous title cut has been sped-up, slowed down and generally played around with since 1982. Its melody is epic, memorable, and yet infectiously sad. It is a theme for all sides, a piece of music that manages to convey everything everybody involved in the war stood for, even when their goals conflicted, as is the case amongst the Nazi, anti-Nazi and indifferent crew members on board Das Boot.
What I like about this soundtrack, though, is its strength and efficiency, which in itself matches that of the German navy during the 1940s. Instrumentally, harmonically and melodically, Doldinger has very little to play with. His musical tools for this project were (suitably) limited and minimalistic, something that was necessary for a film that takes place in a tiny space, with the same group of people, at the bottom of the sea, for several months.
The music isn’t boring, but it is psychologically draining in its repetitiveness, which is sometimes literal. The key points match up with the dramatic conflicts that occur throughout the movie, where the lack of timbral and harmonic variation is made up for by some extreme changes in dynamics. Again, this only echoes the experiences of the characters, for whom weeks of deep ocean mumbles and sporadic sonar bleeps are suddenly interrupted by roaring fires, bursting pipes and the explosions of enemy torpedoes.
Such is the imbalance that is so perfectly captured by this score, and particularly capitalised on with the use of pounding percussion. Simple rhythms bleed out of bass drums and timpani in both the moments of tension and release. The military snares are similarly versatile, utilising their wide dynamic range far more than their rhythmic capabilities to match the horrendous ebb and flow of WWII submarine life.
I can only say that Das Boot would not be the movie it is without its underscore, or its theme tune. Devoid of fancy melodic tricks and exotic instruments, this is a solid, grey soundtrack purpose-built to carry the extreme emotional and physical turmoil that went on in “the boat”.