During World War II, rapacious U-boats were wolf packs snapping at England's supply lines. In this claustrophobic, tense, and dramatically gripping West German film, we are stuffed along with over 50 men into the innards of U-96, a submarine no wider than a school bus. There is only one toilet for the crew of this floating coffin. The bunks are triple tiered; food molds quickly, and fresh water is scarce.
The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) is an intense individualist who has little respect for Hitler and even less for the upper class Nazis who spend the war in the lap of luxury while he and his colleagues sweat it out on hopeless missions. After scoring a hit on some British ships, U-96 dives toward safety. But the Allied destroyers' radar systems penetrate the dark sea. Depth charges slam into U-96; the men become jumping beans.
Petersen's film is about the past but its political message is contemporary. All war is hell, and the powerless soldiers and sailors are but pawns on the board, waiting to be sacrificed to the king and the knights. To relax, the Germans sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." But in the surprising and catastrophic finale, they are victimized by chance. Whirl reigns yesterday and today.