A Lesson On Unhappy Endings, Featuring Das Boot

Das Boot is one of my all-time favorite films, a movie so well put together that the first few times I watched the Director’s Cut, I watched it from the second half only (the disk was turned the wrong way) and thought I’d seen the whole thing. And that’s not to say seeing the first half didn’t drastically improve the film–it’s just that good!

So, uh, if you’re desperate to avoid spoilers for a German film from 1982,  now’s your time to flee this article and go watch it. You good?

Wait one.

Das Boot ends with one of the most magnificently depressing endings in cinema. After going to hell and back, U-96’s crew arrives at the pens they’ve been assigned to. Somehow, miraculously, they’ve survived depth charges and strafing runs, seemingly doomed at the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar only to rise again, a saltwater phoenix clasping an Iron Cross in its talons. The Kaleun, that grizzled madman, has seen them through after all! A band plays plays U-96 into her berth with the Erzherzog Albrecht Marsch, a peppy piece indeed.

Against all odds, they’ve arrived. Against all odds, they’re sa–

The Royal Air Force respectfully disagrees with this anticipated happy ending, and has elected to put bombs in its place.

If you don’t know how the rest goes: nearly every character you’ve come to know and care for over the course of the film dies. Leutnant Werner, the young journalist embedded with the boat’s crew, manages to reach the sub pens and take cover with a handful of the survivors. When the bombs stop falling and the last strafing run has passed, he staggers out to look for survivors. He finds only the dead, including dozens of  the crew.

This song’s first few seconds play over shots of the fallen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Hez5JisYLQ

Leutnant Werner comes upon the Kaleun at last, supporting himself at the edge of the pier. In her berth, U-96 sinks beneath the waves one last time. Finally, even the sub’s beaten helm vanishes. We see that the Kaleun is bleeding from a shot in the heart, and he topples just as U-96 disappears entirely and the song’s strings pick up.

The credits roll. If you’ve watched the movie before, you may remember you were bawling your eyes out by this point; I certainly was. I also briefly hated combat pilots as an entire class of human being, though only for a few moments. Everything U-96’s crew fought for, wiped away just when I thought they’d earned a break.

…fucking pilots…

If Das Boot proves anything, it’s that our desires for a happy ending often get in the way of telling the best stories we can. For those of you who write stories of your own: there may come a time to write your own U-96. And if you’re going to do that, I highly recommend taking some notes from Wolfgang Petersen.

Firstly, not every story you write should have an unhappy ending. In fact, most won’t lend themselves to it. But there will come a time, if you’re writing enough of them, when you realize: this time they don’t make it out. This time the lovers never hold each other again. This time it really is the last stand. This time, we can’t save the Earth. This time, it was always going to end this way.

Let me echo that last one: “It was always going to end this way.” Das Boot is the epitome of that story. The more you know about the War in the Atlantic, the more you realize U-96’s crew is always doomed. From the start of the film, you know that 30,000 of the 40,000 crew members in the U-Bootwaffe were lost at sea. This is the thesis statement of the entire film: there was never any hope, and you’re just embracing its spectre while you can.

Even if they survived to dock the old boat in the pens, there would be another mission. There will be more destroyers, and more planes, and ever fewer U-Boats. These men were marked for death; at least this way, above the surface and disembarked, a handful can survive.

Yes, you read that right. This is not the most depressing version of this story. In fact, the longer U-96 perseveres, the bitterer the end when it comes. As it is, they perish while Germany is riding high–the year is 1941! The invasion of Russia’s just gotten underway, Europe is Nazi territory all the way through, and most of the anti-submarine systems which will obliterate the U-boats by 1943 don’t exist yet.

Obviously in global terms these aren’t good things, but we’re talking about the crew of U-96. As it stands, these extremely human sailors die still believing their struggle served a purpose. It’s more merciful for them this way: they never find out the truth.

It was never possible for these characters, in this story, to have a happy ending. That’s one of the main reasons it works so well.

For at least the last hundred years or so, many writers have been reluctant to throw out unhappy or even ambiguous endings. I’m not going to try and tell you this is new, but it is especially prevalent in sci fi or fantasy stories. Now, realistic fiction has a serious problem with putting forward way too many “life is meaningless, arghlblarghl hapless everymen equal great literature” stories. “Sad” does not equal good.

…except when it perfectly fits the story. See, in Fantasy and SciFi, we’re stuffed to the gills with heroes who want to sell us these heavy moral themes about sacrifice and altruism. Ever notice how it’s usually their altruism, others’ sacrifice?

Guys: just once per book, when you have named characters that you really like in a dire battle, ask yourself–are these people in a position where it makes the most sense for them to die? The answer’s yes? Cool! I guess they’re dead, aren’t they? No, stop pouting, they’re dead, let ’em go. Does it feel like you just took a sledgehammer to the gut? Excellent! That’s just powerful writing.

Are you adding a character death where it doesn’t make any sense based purely on who you think will hurt the audience most? That’s cheap and you’ll deserve the flak you get. When you feel you’ve written yourself into a corner and death is the inevitable outcome, though… maybe don’t fight it?

This doesn’t just mean death, so don’t worry that you’ll do this once and be condemned to have MCs dying right and left. If you never write a protagonist that dies, that might be a problem. Anyway, the things a character goes through will change them, and those consequences aren’t always pretty.

Hey: did you know that being surrounded by war and death constantly isn’t great for the human psyche? At least, not ordinary humans. Bam, right there: two different long-term consequences to a violent life. Option One: the lingering emotional and psychological effects of the warrior’s life, the regret and remorse which so few soldiers escape. Option Two: it turns out your character, to all appearances a functioning, sane human, loves war. They thrive on it.

How does someone come back from a revelation like that?

When it comes time to wrap up each story, these are the kinds of things you should consider. Sometimes a single sentence or even a brief character expression (definitely not pulling this from my own book, no sirree!) can change the context of a happy ending. Not everything has to be brooding and ominous, but if your characters come with a body-count comprised of real people instead of generic-brand monsters, that has to leave a mark.

There’s a long-term practical hook to unhappy endings, too. Consider:
“Everything was wonderful, and would always be wonderful from that day forward.”
“Everything seemed wonderful.”

That second sentence is a lot more interesting, isn’t it? It’s half the length but infinitely more potent. A happy ending has closure so absolute it becomes surreal–nothing in reality ever wraps up that neatly.

Whether you want to use that or not depends on your story. You may go your entire writing career without using any of the advice I’ve just offered. So long as you’re ignoring it because you don’t need it, and not because you haven’t thought about it, my work here is done.

…until next time.

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