I don´t think I have to introduce the movie (or better, the TV-series) DAS BOOT all too much: The 1980 production of a German U-boat´s voyage into the abyss and back (and again into the abyss) is a cinematic classic and from my own point of view the best German movie to date. Every time I leave or enter the Kiel Fjord I take a long look at a grey steel cylinder jacked on dry land on the Northern end of the Fjord: The U-996 German submarine Type VII-C. The last U-boat of it´s kind.
Last time sailing here on a J/80 with Martin Menzner an idea struck me and now, some weeks later I was so happy to return to the U-boat with Martin May whom I got to know during a celebrity regatta in Croatia last year. Why Martin? Well, he was part of a very, very special crew – playing one of the members of the submarine crew of DAS BOOT.
Meeting Martin May, aka Ensign Ullmann in Hamburg
I pick him up in Hamburg where he lives, ring the bell at his flat and with a bright smile he is standing in the door, welcoming me: “I´ve prepared something for you, my friend.” A box filled with black/white and coloured photographs, some from the scenes but most of them shot by Martin during his time at the set of DAS BOOT in the Eighties. I am excited!
We sit down, have a coffee and talk about what shaped Martin´s live. It´s 38 years since the production of one of Germany´s best movies ever took place, but his memories seem as vivid as if it was yesterday the last “Action!” was announced by director Wolfgang Petersen.
Let´s go, I tell him: We have quite a program ahead. We jump into the car and drive to Kiel where the last remaining type VII-C U-boats of World War 2 is exhibited – and thus the sibling of Martin May´s movie-prop in which he was acting as Ensign Ullmann.
“I joined the club of real sailors pretty late”
NO FRILLS SAILING.com | Lars Reisberg: “Martin, why the seas? Why sailing? If I remember correctly, you originate more from the southern part of Germany, right?”
Martin May: “Yes, I was born in Coburg, that´s the Northern part of Bavaria, called Upper Franconia. That means the seas have been comparatively far away from within my reach in the first decades of my life. But I must say that I have always been attracted by the blue. I started acting pretty early, during my years in High School and in my A-levels-time I was employed as an extra at the public theatre of Coburg. And I acted in my first movie in my home town in 1979. That is how they found me.”
Lars Reisberg: “But where is the connection to the oceans and the seas?”
Martin May: “Well … there is none, I fear. Which is valid for most of the cast by the way. See, DAS BOOT is a movie produced by one of the biggest German movie companies – ironically called “Bavaria” as well as the later founded yacht brand. The Bavarian company is situated in Munich here some eighty per cent of the film was. The casting department of the production had been looking for a whole year in Bavaria, in Germany and in Austria. There by the way they found Erwin Leder who portrayed Johann the Machinist, he is from Vienna. They were searching in theatres, acting schools and in movies. I think no one of the actors had a special connection to the sea, except the guys from Hamburg perhaps – where I live now.”
Lars Reisberg: “I got to know you personally during a celebrity regatta in Croatia last year and as far as I am concerned you have been appearing to me as being a sailing fanatic to say the least: How did you love for sailing yachts did emerge? Is there any connection to the movie of 1980?”
Martin May: “Sure, of course! Before DAS BOOT I had no connection at all, but after the movie lots of the heavy impressions of the almost one year production time had changed something. When I moved to Hamburg in 1994 I felt a strong attraction to those hundreds of small jolly-boats sailing on the inland lake of Hamburg, the Alster. But it wasn´t really until 2014 when I first participated in this VIP-regatta that my love for yacht-sailing turned into a real passion. I just loved it! Then I literally raced through the certifications and gained miles in experience under sails. But if you want, it all began back in the days with DAS BOOT. I am sure, my life – all of the lives of the cast of this important film – would have gone very, very differently.”
“How can you possibly act like you experience fear of death?”
Lars Reisberg: “Now, how and why have you been casted for playing the Ensign Ullmann in DAS BOOT?”
Martin May: “At first I would state the following: Never – ever – in my whole career again, and besides, this is something lots of other cast members of DAS BOOT will support anytime, have I been on a project that came even close to the level of professionality, the love for details, quality of personnel management and upholding of principle of making a good movie than back in the day during the times we worked with Wolfgang Petersen and the crew of DAS BOOT. It´s important to understand this because the level of perfection in this movie was also found in the wonderful, wonderful cast they compiled to play the roles of the 18 main characters and even the extra. The took their time, travelling the country and looking for people. Wolfgang Petersen had a clear vision of who he wanted to play whom. So, anyhow, they seem to have identified me for playing the handsome, sweet Ensign Ullmann. As Wolfgang Petersen once told me: “You are playing the guy who will be beweeped by the German mothers.” And the truth is – it was exactly how it played out.”
Lars Reisberg: “… they just found you?”
Martin May: “In a way, yes! The blokes of the submarine crews of German U-Boats in World War 2 were no older than 18, 19 years, sometimes just 17. So Petersen wanted exact that age. But it is hard to find professional actors of this age so the casters took unconventional measures, like visiting acting school or off-theatres. Well, I already had movie experience because I had been playing in a movie called “The Wonderful Years”, which was a pretty good and well-received film so I guess they somehow had me on the radar.”
Lars Reisberg: “But there were some big names on the cast too.”
Martin May: “Yes, of course, Herbert Groenemeyer was already kind of famous as a singer/songwriter, the submarine commander, Juergen Prochnow was already an awarded and renown actor. But especially for the smaller roles the director wanted some stereotypes. Look at the Second Officer of the Watch, played by Martin Semmelrogge: The guy he is portraying has a lot of Martin´s personality anyway. And that´s the same with so many other people aboard the cast: We didn´t have to play too much of a role, just put ourselves into the submarine.”
Lars Reisberg: “But you had to get some preparation beforehand, hadn´t you?”
Martin May: “Oh, yes, of course. We all were advised better to read the novel by Lothar-Guenther Buchheim, but most of all had read it anyway. Then I remember we did have two veteran submariners as military counsellors at the set for the whole time of the production. We were free to ask them anything we wanted to – if I remember correctly, it was an Officer, First Officer of the Watch I think, and a machinist. All sorts of submarine movies from World War 2 propaganda-stuff to those Hollywood classics like “The Enemy Below” had been screened by us as well. Funny detail here, I remember that the father of a former school-mate of mine used to be a submariner in the World War and I visited him at home once and asked all sorts of things for hours and hours.”
Lars Reisberg: “That was pretty intense?”
Martin May: “Yes, it had to because Wolfgang Petersen issued the motto of the production: “Let´s make the best submarine movie of all times!” And we all wanted to comply. We took it very seriously. There were as well 1:1 conversations with the director who was talking about the character, where he came from and what his background was. He also told us then what he expected from the character and that helped us to fill the name with a story – and then with life. The thing is, the casting had been done so damn meticulously and perfect that I remember leaving the office at the studios and outside, walking down a corridor, first time I met some of my colleagues. And I could point to one and tell: “You will be the Engineer, right?”, or “You are the Navigator?” and yes, they were! Anyway, any training couldn´t prepare me to what I was later supposed to do: How can you possibly act to feel fear for your life?”
Returning aboard the fateful U-Boat
We arrive at the submarine memorial. It´s a cold noon, the parking lot offering space for hundreds of cars is empty. We pay admittance end enter into the submarine. A grim monster of the seas, 70 years back it was mainly these Type VII-C U-boats which raced in Wolfpacks to hunt and shoot allied convoys. We are the only visitors this morning.
Lars Reisberg: “Martin, being back aboard the submarine must provoke some feelings in you. What are you thinking right now, standing in this U-boat?”
Martin May: “It´s a lot of good feelings, I must say, although this is a real boat, not a prop for a movie, although our boat was also mostly made of steel. This was a real weapon from the real war. But mostly I feel nice, many welcome emotions. Seeing this is familiar, although our boat was … kind of more worn out, filled with real food and personal stuff from the crew. This sub is a museum, frozen and somehow sterile.”
Lars Reisberg: “This is your old berth, right?”
Martin May: “Yes, I remember. That´s my berth – vis-a-vis from Lieutenant Werner´s. Here is where I wrote the multitudes of letters to my beloved Francoise … by the way, I really did write some of these by hand! We all had some personal things here to make the berth´s “our own”. I wanted to experience the feeling how it must have felt like to writing all the love letters to my girlfriend. But walking around in here … I somehow feel that our boat was kind of more spacious than this, or is it just my imagination? These walls for example are all painted white – our boat was dark, pure steel, a lot of the mechanical details were originals or made from original plans. And then the smell …”
Lars Reisberg: “… which came from the food, right?”
Martin May: “Yes, absolutely! We´ve had real food hanging from the ceiling – sausages, ham, bread. And they caused this stuff to rot. It´s real mildew you can see in the film. The smell was awful! But it all shaped the movie, it made it so believable. Everything was moulding – even the crew.”
Lars Reisberg: “What does that mean?”
Martin May: “It means that we as well had been a part of the scenery and by this we were also rotting, well, kind of. For example, our contract forbade us to submit our skin to the sun. That meant we have to keep off sunrays for almost a year! The crème faces you see in the movie aren´t the product of make-up artists, it´s real! Same goes for the beards: There was a non-shaving policy. The whole movie comprises a time span of roughly three months. The beards are real.”
Lars Reisberg: “That meant that the shooting of the film was chronological?”
Martin May: “Yes, kind of. We´ve had a “reset”, let´s call it this way, two or three times. So, we started for example with scenes 1, 3, 6, 9, 11 and 23 – reset, get a shave and start again – scenes 2, 5, 7 and so on. So, yes, we were allowed to shave in between, but that was synchronized with the shooting schedule of the movie itself. But imagine you have to live for almost a year without sun on your skin and with 3 months of no decent shave?!”
Lars Reisberg: “How much of Ensign Ullmann remained with Martin May?”
Martin May: “Good question. Not much, I would say. As I mentioned before, I didn´t really had to pretend to be somebody else: I have been casted to be Ensign Ullmann because I actually kind of was Ensign Ullmann. I was 19 years of age that time and I was an amateur. I wasn´t a professional actor, like so many of us, no technique. Everything I did was by internalizing the moment and trying to re-live what the character might have experienced and how he might have behaved in this situation.”
Martin May: “Another very, very important and very rich source for advice for me was Klaus Wennemann, who played the Engineer and sadly died too you 19 years ago. He was a kind of father figure for me and in the pauses between shoots I was asking him all I could and he was so kind to tell me anything I was keen to know. He and the advice of the others made me develop my abilities as an actor, but, to be honest, it took a while in my career to free myself from the roles of romantic younglings, but anyway …”
We leave the boat after spending some thirty minutes walking from the aft to the torpedo-room in the bow. Outside a cold wind is blowing our hair and Martin circles the boat, looking at the distinct, aggressive shape of the once feared submarine which is still the most built sub in human history.
Martin May: “You see, I feel like I still know everything about the valves and the levers and the knobs on this Type VII-C submarine although the production of DAS BOOT dates back some 38 years now – but I have never ever seen a U-boat like this in full shape from the outside!”
Ready to dive!
We kind of admire the gruesome yet fascinating lines of the U-boat but soon decide to flee the area and rescue ourselves to a nice warm Café where I rub my freezing hands on a cup of hot tea.
Lars Reisberg: “Martin, what does DAS BOOT mean to you, now with nearly 40 years of distance?”
Martin May: “Well, the answer is quite clear: It shaped everybody profoundly who had the honour to be part of the crew, no matter of before or behind the lenses. So did it shape me: It meant the best possible start into my career of being an actor. It … really is still even to date the most professional produced, best executed movie production I ever worked with – and I know that many of my colleagues feel this way too. Wolfgang Petersen is the most complete director I ever worked with – we were making a movie for almost one year without a single occasion of yelling, can you imagine that”
Lars Reisberg: “So DAS BOOT opened up opportunities for you?”
Martin May: “Yes, it did. And it still does. See yourself: You approached me because of DAS BOOT and not because of the other really very good things I do and did. Which is okay, because, honestly, DAS BOOT was the best thing I have been working on – nothing really could live up to the level of quality of this project, nothing had this worldwide appreciation. DAS BOOT was nominated for 6 Academy awards! I have been very, very young at that time which was blessing and curse at once. But all in all it was a milestone and I am very, very proud for the fact that I am a part of this venture which so many people are still very interested in today.”
Lars Reisberg: “You do a lot of synchronization projects right now, don´t you?”
Martin May: “Yes, this a passion I discovered some years ago. I do act on screen occasionally, but mostly I do synchro-jobs. I am a dubbing-actor myself lending my voice as well – which is the favourite part – I am director of synchronization projects. In this, I hope, I can re-enact some of the qualities of Wolfgang Petersen for my own projects and for the people I work with, honouring his great work.”
Speaking of legacies: As I finish my second cup of tea and the day with Martin May draws to a conclusion, on my way back home after this great meeting, I as well think of how DAS BOOT maybe influenced my own live. I admire the novel as well as the (original 6-hour TV-version of) DAS BOOT being among the most important German achievements when it comes to movies. The film was baffling me when I was a youngster, 14, 15 years of age and it is still a tradition to watch it once per year minimum. It is so intense, so touching, such a perfect Greek-style saga full of fun, excitement, sadness, action and … thousands of quotations which are a firm part of every single sailing trip I am part of. Without citations of DAS BOOT, sailing wouldn´t be half as fun as it is.
Goodbye, Martin, thank you for that very special day. Mündungsklappen öffnen!
Photo Credits: Pictures of DAS BOOT-production with kind permission of Martin May
You want to visit U-995 U-boat in Laboe? It´s worth a trip to Kiel
You like good maritime movies? Here´s more to read about:
This is a pirate series you will love: “Black Sails!”
Not even rudimentary as good as the book (and not even living up to the story): “The Mercy”
Mixing facts with fiction. Or not? The Horrors of Franklin´s expedition in “The Terror”