I was dismayed to note that there exists a Wikipedia section entitled “Falsely negative portrayal of U-boat sailors”. Dammit!, I exclaimed, aloud, cursing that someone, somewhere, had preempted precisely the title of the PhD thesis on which I have been working for years.
It was towards the end of the last century, when I was mentally flailing around seeking a suitable topic for my doctorate, that I happened one day to wander into a theatre, or rather, a “theatre space”. There was no stage as such, but rather a “performative zone”, almost but not quite identical to a dentist’s waiting room, which is where I thought I was going. In this “zone”, several persons were disporting themselves in mysterious ways, some of them physically flailing around much as I was flailing mentally. Perhaps it was that sense of connection which made me pause, and sit, and watch, intently, a performance I might otherwise have dismissed as tomfoolery. The participants cut capers and jumped about and shimmied and threw somersaults and adopted ridiculous postures, and I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but I was sufficiently intrigued that, when it was all over, some hours later, I approached one of the cavorting persons and asked him what it was I had been watching.
“Pant pant pant,” he panted, then added “We are in rehearsals for our adaptation of Wolfgang Peterson’s 1981 epic war film Das Boot, interpreted through the medium of dance.”
I had not seen this film, so I cannot comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I had been struck by the fact that, at certain points, some of the dancers had portrayed their characters quite negatively. One of them scowled a lot. Another seemed a bit weedy. A third had contrived to move his body in the manner of a malevolent beetle. I was sure such behaviour had not been at all common on World War Two submarines. There and then I had an epiphany, and I realised that the falsely negative portrayal of U-boat sailors would be the perfect subject for my doctoral thesis.
I hurried home and set to work. Over the following decade, I put under intense scrutiny each and every portrayal of U-boat sailors I could track down, in films, plays, novels, poems, pop songs, television programmes, operas, operettas, opera bouffes, ballets, even in World War Two Battle Re-enactment Society weekend workshops.
Item : Submariner Second Class Horst Krumbein in The Loathsome U-Boat Sailor, a “monologue for voice and improv jazz ensemble” by Tadaaki Sirinuntananon (1968). Krumbein is depicted as sweaty, myopic, plagued by boils and utterly lacking in social skills.
Item : Submariner First Class Viggo Beckenbauer in The U-Boat Sailor With The Shameful Past, an award-winning drama by radical playwright Geoff Beard (1973). In the opening minutes of the play, we are led to believe that Beckenbauer is a heroic figure. Tall, blond, and impossibly handsome, he strides about the stage while his crewmates gasp and swoon at just how fantastic he is. But then comes the thunderclap, when it is revealed that, back in Düsseldorf before becoming a submariner, he had been convicted of bus fare evasion, forging a dog licence, and half a dozen axe murders. “I joined the navy to forget… to forget,” he pleads in an emotionally wrenching speech, but his crewmates, who it must be said are not subject to falsely negative portrayal by Beard, will have none of it, and they await calm seas and the absence of enemy submarines to surface, and build a pyre on top of the hull, and bind Beckenbauer to a post atop the pyre, and they burn him while dancing in circles, brandishing flaming torches, and chanting.
Item : Captain Hans Gruber in the film Die Hard In A Submarine (2004). To be honest, I ought not pick out the captain as the only negatively portrayed U-boat sailor in this blockbuster, for the entire crew is made up of black-hearted scalliwags and ruffians who take pleasure in stamping their big hefty boots on small scurrying mammals, and similar enormities.
I think that is enough items to be going on with. The point is to demonstrate just how thorough my research had been, the better so you can grasp the degree of dismay I suffered when I thought someone else had not only been ploughing the same academic furrow as I was, but had gone ahead and posted their findings on what our Belgian pals call Het Internet.
Imagine my relief, then, when I actually looked up the Wikipedia entry headed Falsely negative portrayal of U-boat sailors and found that it was merely a 77-word paragraph within the piece about the film U-571 (Jonathan Mostow, 2000). As with Das Boot, I have not seen this film either, in spite of my indefatigable research. Clearly my work is not yet done.