Das Boot – Director’s Cut (The Boat)

Germany (1981) Dir. Wolfgang Petersen

October 1941 and the German army is suffering huge losses on the Battle of the Atlantic against the British Navy. In its latest campaign, the U96 welcomes Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) to the crew as war correspondent, recording the banalities, hardships and tragedies that arise from such battles.

Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated war epic has been released in many versions since its 150 minute debut in 1981, from various cinema and video cuts to a TV series, with this 200 minute Director’s Cut from 1997 being the most recent. It is widely considered one of the great war films reaffirming the hellacious cost war brings to mankind, creating a tense story of conflict which doubles as an human interest story, exploring the effects on the people fighting the war as much as the war itself.

Despite little overall success in the water, the crew of the German submarine U-96 are fairly gung ho about their latest mission, while the grizzled Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) struggles to hide his cynicism, a result of many voyages he has undertaken and his frustration with the lack of coherent leadership from his superiors, holding equal disdain for both Churchill and Hitler. Despite this the captain retains his professionalism throughout as do the rest of the crew, as their tempers fray, lives are threatened and morals compromised on this treacherous journey.

The crew are made up of disparate personalities, all of whom are essentially loyal to the Fuhrer and the cause, but express this is their own ways. Remarkably there is only one ardent Nazi onboard, the first lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch) who remains in uniform on all occasions and is utterly fastidious in everything he does, making him an easy target for the rest of the crew who don’t stand on such ceremony. The regular assortment of jokers, playboys and those with families and girlfriends waiting for them are all stuck together inside this giant aquamarine vessel which threatens on numerous occasions to be a metal tomb for them all. Petersen does a great job creating an atmosphere of sweaty claustrophobia and tension inside the mock ups of a U-boat interior, and not an open set, for maximum authenticity. Adding to this effect is the superb handheld Arriflex camerawork from Jost Vacano, who chases after the actors though the slight passageways and restrictive doorways, capturing every movement when the alarm is sounded and everyone is needed in position.

With war usually being an event filled exercise, for the U-boat crew this is actually the opposite with many a lull in activity as they trudge along beneath the waves. It is not long before the ennui sets in and the crew are forced to make their own amusement as another opportunity to enter into combat is denied them on a geographical technicality. As a result the crew often take advantage of a situation that allows them to stick their heads on deck and take in the sea air, even if it means a face full of sea water. But when the alarms go off after spotting a British destroyer they leap into action with relish, only to be hit by depth charges and forced underwater to avoid radar detection. Despite a pyrrhic victory when two British tankers are finally sunk, the retaliation strikes take their toll on both crew and submarine.

Petersen’s story is about the horrors of war and not about taking sides. The idea Petersen puts them across is that it is not the people that is the enemy but the situation of war itself. Since the Germans were our mortal enemies during this conflict, we should see them as antagonists and welcome any hardship and tragedy that befalls them. But we don’t. We sympathise with them and understand them; we support them and fear for them – 3 hrs and 20 minutes is a long time after all. Certainly there are a few lulls as to be expected with such a long running time and limited locations, but Petersen manages to keep the viewer enrapt by the personalities, the drama and the strong performances  of the excellent cast, that one barely notices the physical restrictions of the U-boat’s interior. Externally we are treated to some fine battles that are kept simple yet are as effective visually as anything CGI assisted in today’s cinema.

There is a lot to be said about Das Boot but I’ll leave that to others who can talk more eloquently and knowledgeably on the subject, but for this reviewer, for a film that arrives with such renown and a storied legacy, it is one of those that, while not for everybody, certainly lives up to its reputation. As epic war films go, they don’t get more epic than this.

4 thoughts on “Das Boot – Director’s Cut (The Boat)

  1. Dad Boot is one of my favorite war movies. It was especially accurate in showing how downright boring a submarine patrol is until a contact is made. The stretch of the movie where they are being depth charged and trying to escape was also done to perfection: the only thing they couldn’t show was how a submarine’s hull flexes with each near miss.

    That was a great review!


    1. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      The sense of dread as the sub was filing up with water and the fire were burning was palpable and very well handled. And of course there was the kicker of an ending, a final reminder of how cruel life can be.


  2. Reg here,
    Brilliant review of one of the greatest War movies ever, MIB, and without mentioning the fateful ironic twist….
    Hollywood ‘s ASC magazine did a background story on the making of Das Boot when it was in production and the interiors were done in a life size reconstruction built an a huge tilting sound stage in Munich (apparently no U-Boat interiors exist!) In the early stages of trying to follow one of the “DIVE DIVE DIVE” orders, Cameraman Vacano suffered multiple knocks and bangs on elbows head,knees and even crashed down trying to go through those bulkhead openings.
    Nine months later, wearing American football style protection, he could go from end to end, at pace, handling the Arri like a Steadicam , resulting in the breathtaking series of dashes that were the visual sensation of the film’s release.

    If Das Boot has given you a taste,, try Heimat a black and white German TV series which possibly gave Spielberg a germ of an idea for Schindler’s List.

    Keep it up!


    1. Thanks for the kind words and the extra info, Reg!

      Yes, the camerawork was a genuine highlight of the film which is why I made a point of mentioning it. It certainly added to the drama during those call to arms scenes. Modern subs are apparently much larger inside these days so I imagine a cameraman filming something similar now would have an easier time than Vacano did! 😛


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