LG Buchheim: the multi-talented and irascible genius behind Das Boot

February 6th 2018 marks the 100th birthday of Lothar-Günther Buchheim, the author of Germany’s most famous war novel, Das Boot. But his talents stretched far further than just writing.

LG Buchheim: the multi-talented and irascible genius behind Das Boot
Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Photo: DPA

War correspondent. Writer. Artist. Art collector. Visionary. Tax dodger. Despot. These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Buchheim, one of the most colourful and enigmatic personalities of Germany’s 20th century cultural life.

Born in Weimar during the last year of the First World War, he was raised by a single mother and was already establishing himself as an artist in the 1930s. When war broke out though, he joined Joseph Goebbels's propaganda department and became a war correspondent.

In an assignment which was to immortalize him, he joined the crew of a U-Boot as they went on the hunt for British convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic. Initially he wrote a short story on his experiences.

After the war, Buchheim went back to his first love, art. He set up his own publishing house, writing on the expressionist movement that had flourished in Germany before the Nazi era. At the same time he brought up paintings by leading Expressionist artists including Kirchner and Nolde. As these artists had been condemned by the Nazis as degenerate, he was able to buy up the art for relatively little money.

Das Boot. Photo: DPA

By the end of the 1980s, when expressionism began to come back into vogue, his collection had become internationally famous and was estimated to have a value of over €100 million.

Buchheim was to become a household name as a writer, though. His 1973 book Das Boot fictionalized his wartime experiences on an U-Boot across 600 pages. It went on to be the best-selling work of fiction in Germany on the Second World War.

The subsequent film adaptation, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, was nominated for an Oscar and stands out as one of the most famous movies in German film history.

READ ALSO: German classic Das Boot to be reborn in new TV show

Anybody who wishes to see Buchheim’s exceptional art collection now can travel to the Museum der Phantasie on the western shore of Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, where an elegant modern museum juts out like a ship onto the water.

But the man with the stubbly beard and eye patch was as well known in Germany for his short temper and eccentric personality as for his artistic legacy.

According to the Süddeustche Zeitung, he would regularly deride people he didn’t like as “gutter rats”, while driving around his small Bavarian village in a Rolls Royce in order to make his neighbours jealous.

He reserved particular scorn for Peterson, who had turned down his script for the Das Boot movie. He accused the director of creating a cross between a “cheap, shallow American action flick” and a “contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II”.

The Buchheim Museum. Photo: DPA

For a man who had amassed a huge wealth through book sales and art, he was also incredibly stingy. When former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder paid him a visit, he was received like all guests at the camping table which served as Buchheim’s dinner table.

To mark the 100th birthday of the great man, his only son Yves has brought out a biography, detailing the highly dubious ways that his father came about his wealth.

Besides insinuating that his father was a Nazi who then switched sides out of expediency after the war, Yves claims that Buchheim hid most of his wealth in Swiss bank accounts and even forged works of art for money.

“My father never paid taxes like other people,” Yves Buchheim told the Donaukurier on Monday.

“He had a few real print blocks made by Otto Müller. I saw him make prints with it twice. That was a real money maker – the prints were then signed with an OM for Otto Müller,” Yves said.

According to Handelsblatt, the artist had furrowed away 14.1 million Swiss francs in Swiss bank accounts by the end of the 1980s.

Despite the controversies, Bucheim's legacy will live on through his art collection, which is well worth a visit. The museum is accessible from Munich via S-Bahn and bus.


7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)