Ship of No Return: The Last Voyage of the Gustloff (Die Gustloff) (2008)

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Released 18-Feb-2009

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Docudrama Featurette-Documentary : Last Voyage of the Gustloff (49.09)
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2008
Running Time 230:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Joseph Vilsmaier

Madman Entertainment
Starring Kai Wiesinger
Valerie Niehaus
Heiner Lauterbach
Dana Vávrová
Michael Mendl
Karl Markovics
Francis Fulton-Smith
Nicolas Solar Lozier
Detlev Buck
Ulrike Kriener
Gerald Alexander Held
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI ? Music Christian Heyne

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None German Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

   Ship of No Return:The Last Voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a two-part German mini series. It was made for television in 2008 and broadcast in this region some months ago.

This film would not have been made were it not for the simple fact that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 remains the greatest single maritime disaster. In a little over an hour up to 9400 people (depending upon which set of figures you believe) lost their lives in the cold Baltic Sea.

Perhaps the reason why it has taken so long for this story to be told in a commercially released DVD is that there are few upsides or bright spots to the Wilhelm Gustloff story. Desperate people filled a ship to the limit and were sitting ducks for soviet submarines prowling the Baltic sealanes. As an extra this DVD includes a documentary on the Wilhelm Gustloff story which includes interviews with some of the few living survivors as well as the men on the Russian side who were involved in the sinking.

Ship of No Return:The Last Voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a fictional story based loosely on the real events. It features a huge cast and a three hour running time to match the enormity of the story.

There are probably two stories which emerge out of the disaster. One is the human story of the refugees, who had already survived strafing by Soviet fighter planes and the coldest winter for many years, striving to reach the Northern Port of Gotenhafen. With the Soviets rapidly advancing on the town it was for many a last chance at escape to board one of the ships berthed in Gotenhafen for the trip to Kiel. Once in the refugee chaos of Gotenhafen it was a matter of life or death to actually get on to the ship.

The second story is the military one. This is a story involving tactical blunders and serious personality differences which saw the ship fall victim to its hunters. The director, Joseph Vilsmaier working from a script by Reiner Berg decides to combine the two stories in a "Hollywood" fashion.

One must always view with caution a film in which a nation casts its own eye over a war time incident. The story of the Gustloff has had its own controversy over the years with some arguing that the sinking was a war crime by the Soviet Navy. In fact, the mini-series plays a fairly open hand complete with "good Germans" as well as the fierce, arrogant, philandering SS.

So, as to the story.

Helmut Kehding (Kai Wiesinger) is a merchant seaman who is brought on as the captain of the Gustloff for his detailed knowledge of the Baltic shipping lines. Arriving on board he finds that not only is he to share control of the ship with a host of other captains - from the military side- but he must share the ship with his estranged brother. The two don't get on because the brother feels that Helmut lacks courage (he having served the Fuhrer on the ocean battlefront) and he is now tied up with counter-espionage and secret machinations.

Helmut finds his love Erika Galetschky (Valerie Niehaus) working at port as an auxiliary and the two declare their love amongst the crumbling city. When the chance comes to sneak Erika onto the Gustloff , under the nose of her "bad Nazi" superior, the furtive lovers take it.

Meanwhile Erika's cousin, a radio operator on the Gustloff, appears to be up to no good.

On the civilian side of the equation Erika and Helmut help some poor families including a young pregnant girl to get on the ship. The youngest son sneaks on too notwithstanding that , at 16, he is expected to remain behind to serve the motherland. All these elements and characters come together in a sometimes thrilling melodrama of love on the high seas, sort of like "Titanic with Nazis".

At the conclusion of the three hour film, the overriding impression is one of a tragic waste of human life rather than a calculated campaign by the Soviets to take the lives of the innocents including many women and children. Even so, such a sentiment on the Russian side would not have been unusual. In a frank admission in the documentary which accompanies the film a Soviet fighter pilot expressed the mood of his compatriots (and perhaps explains why war will never end) when he says that he was determined to kill any German regardless of age, sex or military involvement simply as revenge for the terrible punishment meted out by the Germans on his own people.

Ship of No Return:The Last Voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff doesn't smack of intricate research and slavish adherence to the known truth. It is first and foremost a drama with the sinking a high point.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


 According to IMDB Ship of No Return:The Last Voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff was shot on a blend of 16mm and 35mm film although at times it looked to me as though it was all done on high definition digital video. It comes to DVD at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is 16x9 enhanced.

Much as I applaud the endeavour of Madman in bringing this niche title to DVD I question the decision to place the whole 3 hours plus a 50 minute documentary onto a single DVD 9. The result is regular compression issues, most easily seen when the ship is passing through fog or sinking below the waves. It is a pity for the visual quality is otherwise not too bad. The budget limitations of TV can clearly be seen in the variable nature of the CGI and the hallways of extras made to pass for 10,000 passengers. However, given those limitations the film makes good use of colour and the picture is sharp enough to pass muster.

The subtitles are clear and easy to read.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The sound for Ship of No Return:The Last Voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff is German Dolby Digital 2.0 running at a high 448Kb/s.

. The result is a show that plays well enough on the small screen but perhaps lacks the punch which would have been provided by a decently encoded surround track.

The dialogue can be heard clearly and appears to be in audio sync.

The music by Christian Heyne is a fine blend of the sorrowful and the dramatic.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Last Voyage of the Gustloff -Documentary

The only extra on the DVD is a 50 minute documentary on the real story of the Gustloff. Even there the "true story" is difficult to discern as the Germans wanted to sink the story as fast as the ship itself and few survivors remain who have accurate recollections of what occurred. The documentary uses excerpts from the film to illustrate the known facts.

A fascinating extra.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

  This DVD is all Regions


    Words can't describe the enormity of the human loss when the Gustloff was sent to it's watery grave. The film does a good job of making a plausible version of events and is pretty entertaining throughout.

The sound and vision are somewhat compromised by the decision to crowd up one DVD but fans of the show might no be too concerned.

The sole extra is a good piece of work.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Friday, April 17, 2009
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayPioneer PDP-5000EX. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR605
SpeakersJBL 5.1 Surround and Subwoofer

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