The year is 1941, the height of World War II. In German-occupied France, a youthful submarine crew gathers for a last night of drunken revelry before they will hit the seas. They feast, make love, dance - live it up as if there is no tomorrow. For them, there very well may not be. Though they cannot know this, of the 40,000 Germans who will serve aboard U-boats, a mere 10,000 will return home to their loved ones.
Joining the crew on this mission is Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) an ambitious but very green young war correspondent who hopes to discover the essence of warfare at sea. Little does he know as the sleek, grey tube glides into the open sea, that he will taste the very extremes of human experience - blood-pumping excitement and stultifying boredom, fierce camaraderie and numbing dehumanization, intense fear and wondrous pride, near-death and miraculous survival.
One by one, Werner gets to know his mates. At the helm is The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow), at 30 years old the so-called "old man" of the ship, whose face bears the wise sadness that previous U-boat missions have wrought. The Captain must lead and inspire his men even as he takes on impossible orders. There is also the Chief Engineer (Klaus Wenneman), who at age 27 has the enormous responsibility of keeping the boat, and hence the crew, afloat; and Johan (Erwin Leder), the crew's taciturn mechanic known to his friends as "the Ghost," who tends to the U-boat's engine like a lover day and night.
At first, Werner's days with his new comrades are filled with aimless cruising. They goof off, reminisce about girlfriends and tell dirty jokes to help kill time between watches. But as time wears on, the men grow increasingly pent-up and claustrophobic. The narrow tube they call home is crammed beyond even a memory of privacy. They must even sleep in shifts, two men to a bunk, and share a single toilet.
Now they watch as loaves of bread go stale in the hammocks, as sides of bacon hanging from the pipes take on the stench of diesel oil. Their nerves are pulsating without relief.
Then it comes at last - a destroyer is sighted. The Captain gives the alarm and the U-96 dives. Attack! Depth charges explode. Men tumble, scramble, trip and crash through the narrow gangways and into the metal sides as the boat plummets and a bomb plunges into its gurgling wake. The men now have their first taste of war.
From hence forth, neither the enemy, nor Hitler's command, nor the sea, nor the fates will let up on this young crew. A three-week storm drives the boat underwater and the men to the limits of their endurance. But when they surface, the battle begins anew. The men will be severely tested as they go up against a freighter convoy guarded by destroyers. The crew unleash their sleek, silver torpedoes, then dive to avoid attack - pushing the boat beyond all limits to an astonishing depth of 800 feet, bolts and rivets exploding off the hull from the pressure! The Captain, too, will find himself wrenched as he is forced to leave behind survivors begging for help, responding to a strict order on both sides never to pick up survivors.
Then, just as the U-boat crew think they are headed for some much need Christmas vacation, new orders come through. The boat is commanded to break through the blockade of British destroyers guarding the dangerous striates of Gibraltar - sheer madness!
Morale plummets like the submarine itself. The men know this is an almost certain suicide mission. They no longer feel any patriotic fervor. Their dreams of reunion with loved ones back home feel very far away. But sustained on youthful faith, and their loyalty to the Captain, they go forth. Under cover of darkness, riding the surface, the U-96 heads straight for British patrol lines.
Suddenly, a British destroyer looms out of the mist, and an airplane buzzes the boat from the skies. Bombs hurls the U-96 on its side. Water crashes into the engine room and the boat dives. Out of control, the boat sinks faster and faster, rivets exploding, metal stretching and screeching, until it plows into the rocky bottom, settling in a watery grave, an unheard-of 930 feet below the surface.
There is a crushing silence. The men have just hours of oxygen and almost no hope. But these brothers in war, these ghosts of the sea, dig in with haunting tenacity, hang on to one another with poignant camaraderie, and fight an incredible battle against time and fear to return haunted but still alive from the deadly depths of the sea - only to have fate intervene one last time upon their return to the La Rochelle harbor.
© 1997 Twin Bros. Productions. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.