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.