(1981) rated: R
Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
Written by: Wolfgang Petersen based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge, Bernd Tauber, Erwin Leder, Martin May
Note: This review applies to the 216 minute director's cut
"When the hunters become the hunted"
During WWII, German submarines wreaked havoc on English shipping. Eventually, the English began to provide escorts for their convoys and the German U-Boats began taking heavy losses. Of nearly 40,000 German submariners, only 10,000 survived the war. Das Boot (translated literally as "The Boat") is the story of a routine mission of one U-boat and its crew, which has been joined by a German journalist.
Das Boot is an intense, gripping motion picture that is universally hailed as the best submarine movie of all time, if not the best war movie of all time. The special effects and action sequences, while superbly planned and executed, don't define the film, but, rather, complement the fantastic performances, a great script, and excellent direction.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Das Boot is the simplicity of its premise. There is nothing fantastical about it. It follows a routine U-Boat mission. The fate of the war does not rest on this mission. There are no spies on board; no saboteurs to catch. The makers of Das Boot realized that the grueling experience of even a routine mission can be exceptionally compelling. What allows them to pull it off? I think it is because this is a story about human beings and their struggle to do their job and, yet, maintain their humanity amidst the dehumanizing aspects of war.
The captain, played deftly by Jürgen Prochnow, is an experienced and steady, yet compassionate, officer who has earned the respect of his crew. He's intelligent, but not brilliant; he can and does make mistakes. Interestingly enough, this doesn't in any way diminish his commanding presence. He is, after all, a human being. He's not a Nazi, as the movie makes clear in an early scene in which he criticises Goering and even Hitler himself.
The character development present in the film is concise, but not thorough. Its clear that those in the crew have histories, hopes, and aspirations, but it is not done with the detail of an exhaustive character study. However, we know enough to be emotionally invested in the characters and that serves to greatly enhance the impact of the action sequences. These are German characters experiencing a uniquely German period of history, and yet, we can relate to them because they are also just human beings trying to do their job while staying sane and coping with long term stress and fatigue. By depicting the tedium and almost unbearable tension of their daily lives, Das Boot manages to be about human beings and not politics. It also avoids the temptation to demonize one side of the war by portraying them as "good" and "evil" or "right" and "wrong". War is hell, and you do what you do to survive.
We see the story through the eyes of a German war correspondent, and his character proves to be useful in that he provides an excuse for the captain to explain things that would normally be left unsaid. It allows us, the viewers, to gain some insight into what it is like to be aboard a submarine. One other thing I found interesting about this character is that, although he isn't popular with the crew at first, he's never a hindrance and never gets in the way of the crew. He's an observer, just like us.
The action sequences in Das Boot are superbly executed. Again, what makes these sequences so compelling isn't simply special effects, its our emotional investment with the characters coupled with some exceptional filmmaking that keeps us on the edge of our seats. The claustrophobic space of an authentically recreated submarine allows little room for the filmmakers to manouver, yet they somehow manage to work within their confines and create genuinely harrowing sequences.
The director, Wolfgang Peterson, and the cinematographer, Jost Vacano share the credit for making these scenes so riveting. Vacano created a modified steadicam so that he could throw the camera from one end of the boat to the other, effectively conveying the chaos of the attacks and the claustrophobic nature of the U-Boat. Peterson's direction is also excellent. Since most of the film takes place in the cramped confines of a submarine, it is mostly made up of close-ups and two-shots, further underscoring the claustrophobic atmosphere.
There are two standout sequences. One where the sub successfully launches an attack on an English convoy, then attempts to evade a long and thorough counterattack. Another sequence shows the boat making its way through the treacherous straits of Gibraltar. Both sequences are well crafted, intense and involving.
Also worth mentioning is the exceptional sound design, which only serves to further wrack your nerves during the already intense action scenes. The ship groans from the strain of water pressure, reverberates from the explosion of depth charges, and when they go deeper than its rated depth, rivets pop out like bullets.
There have been several good, quality submarine movies, but none even begins to really approach Das Boot's impact. This film wrenches all the drama and suspense it can out of its premise, and it does so damn near perfectly. I would even go so far as to call it one of the best films ever made.
The Real U-96:
Das Boot was based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim's novel of the same name. The novel follows a single mission of U-96, the U-Boat where Buchheim served as a war correspondent (and thus, there is a war correspondent in the film). His experiences there, along with all the photos he took, were the basis for several novels, short stories, and photo-essays.
"Buchheim was ordered aboard as an official artist to send back renderings of the German Navy in action for propaganda purposes." He was allowed to use a camera, and nearly 5,000 of his pictures survived the war and provided an invaluable tool for the filmmakers who wanted to make sure their models of the U-Boat were accurate.
Much of Buchheim's work is controversial because, particularly in his photo essays, he writes very disapprovingly about U-boats. In fact, some have even written books in an attempt to refute Buchheim, such as Karl-Friedrich Merten's Wir U-Bootfahrer sagen: "Nein! So war das nicht!" (translated as: We U-boat men say: "No, it wasn't so!").
- After an initial German theatrical run, the film was expanded into a a 6 hour mini-series which aired in Germany. It was later released in American theaters as a 145 minute film which garnered 6 Academy Award nominations (then unheard of for a foreign film). In 1997, the film was re-released as a "Director's Cut" with nearly 70 minutes of additional footage.
- Das Boot was widely criticized in Germany for portraying World War II Germans sympathetically, and the film's producers were worried about how American audiences, a former enemy nation, would react. During the first screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival, audiences cheered the opening caption saying 30,000 of 40,000 German submariners were lost in the war, thus confirming the producers' fears. However, when the film ended, the audience gave the film a standing ovation in appreciation of the artistry of the filmmakers. The film went on to be successful in America.
- In an attempt to accurately portray the claustrophobic conditions of a U-boat, director Wolfgang Petersen insisted on filming within the actual confines of the ship (rather than remove the ship's outer hull).
- The cast was deliberately kept indoors during filming in order to look as pale as a real submarine crew would while at sea. The actors also went through weeks of intensive training in order to learn how to move quickly and expertly through the narrow confines of the vessel.
- While filming a storm scene, one of the actors accidentally slipped and fell off of the boat, injuring himself. One of the other actors instantly shouted "man overboard" and Peterson decided to keep this scene in the film, rewriting one part so that the injured actor spent the rest of the movie in bed.
- Most of the actors spoke both German and English, so when they made the dubbed version, each actor was able to reprise their respective roles and speak their own lines.
- Production for this movie originally began in 1976. Several American directors were considered, with Robert Redford in the lead role. However, disagreements forced the project back on the shelf.
- The film cost nearly $15 million, with most of the cost going towards making accurate models of a German U-Boat. And it paid off, as the models used in the film are essentially authentic facsimiles of a World War II U-Boat. It was the most expensive film in German history (and, to my knowledge, it still is).
- Francois Truffaut once said that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because films tend to make war look exciting. Does this statement hold true in the light of Das Boot?
- What are the advantages or disadvantages of making the submarine German? What would be different if the film portrayed the events of an American submarine, instead of a German one?
- Does the film effectively portray the German crew as sympathetic characters?
If you liked this movie, you might also like:
"A lengthy critique of Das Boot and how it was received upon its initial release in Germany can be found in Michael L. Hadley's Count Not The Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985."