Director: Wolfgang Peterson
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wenneman
(to be clear, this review is for the 209-minute Director’s Cut released in 1997)
Das Boot is a film I have been aware of for at least fifteen years, but for one reason or another (okay, one reason, the fact that it’s 3.5 hours long) I had never forced myself to sit down and actually watch it. Thank goodness, then for the 1001 Movies Blog Club, and whoever picked this for our Movie of the Week. Not only does checking this one off the list come with a sense of accomplishment only a crazy long foreign epic can provide, but I know now exactly how much I’ve been missing these last fifteen years. I was missing a helluva lot.
In 1942, a German U-boat captain (Prochnow) takes onboard an official Naval Correspondent (Grönemeyer) before setting off for the Battle of the Atlantic against British ships. The correspondent and almost the entirety of the crew are young, enthusiastic, and hopelessly green, a fact the captain complains about to his Chief Engineer (Wenneman). The submarine faces attacks by British destroyers armed with superior technology, but also manages to inflict some damage of its own when it comes across a convoy of enemy ships. But these encounters are few and far between; in the interim, we see the life onboard the unbelievably cramped quarters of a submarine.
I mentioned in my review for The Thin Red Line that I abhor modern war films mostly because the level of realistic violence is almost too much for me to bear without developing traumatizing nightmares. Das Boot is a war film, and it’s certainly a modern war film, released in 1981. But it is nothing like any other modern war film I’ve seen. The violence is at a bare minimum, but this fact does absolutely nothing to lessen Das Boot’s message. When it comes to nihilistic anti-war sentiment, Das Boot packs just as much of an emotional punch as any other war film I can think of, and that’s because the tension and the strife come from psychological battles, not physical wounds. (well, mostly.)
This is mostly achieved from the simple conceit that these men have no place else to go but the submarine; everyone is trapped inside, and the unknown, unseen enemy is always kept a very long distance away. Claustrophobia is a term often bandied about with Das Boot, and deservedly so. The actors are crawling all over because the sets are so cramped, and we, as the audience, get no relief either. Even when the captain goes above deck, Peterson keeps his camera tight on the actors, barely allowing us to see the larger physical scope of the open sea. In the precious few scenes that do not take place on board the submarine, Peterson carefully shows us comparisons by giving us very wide shots full of open spaces; when we are onboard with the men, we get no such views.
These cramped quarters inevitably lead to tricky mind games, and the net result is a film packed to the gills with tension. The first forty five minutes are nothing but a waiting game on the U-boat as the men are forced to sit on their hands and do nothing. This is beyond mentally taxing. Then there is the first encounter, which shakes everyone’s nerves. The film is essentially episodic, and every single portion is fraught with tension; there is barely time to catch breath at the conclusion of each segment before moving on to the next, more harrowing encounter. Yes, Das Boot is long, but with such finely drawn suspense, I’m not complaining.
Based on a true story, everything in Das Boot reeks of veracity that even other “based on a true story” movies lack. Peterson built ridiculously expensive working sets to film on, making sure the specifications of his U-boat were historically accurate. He filmed the shots over a course of one year and in script order, giving his actors strict instructions to remain inside as much as possible to allow for their skin to become pallid and their hair and beards to grow, as befits men trapped onboard a submarine. Originally intended to be an American Hollywood picture, I am thankful that it got shelved and then bought out by Peterson, as I doubt Hollywood couldn’t have kept itself from adding needless embellishment.
This is a German film about Germans in World War II, but right away, it’s significant that there is a distinct lack of Nazism in Das Boot. The men on board the ship are sailors, not Nazis; the captain is openly cynical of the Nazi regime (which, apparently, was historically accurate as well). When the crew encounter a refueling ship about halfway through the story and are treated to a feast of fresh food, the Nazi soldiers in charge of the fete seem ridiculous in their compunction to constantly salute an absent Hitler, and the captain smiles slyly to himself. Only one crew member is clearly designated as Nazi, and that is the First Officer; what’s more, he is roundly and repeatedly chastised by every other crew member for this fact. Interestingly, the First Officer begins to let go of his adherence to Nazi ideas by the final act of the film as he finally stops shaving every day and wearing his proper uniform all the time. He is becoming a sailor, not a Nazi. Modern day Germany, from what I know of it (which isn’t a ton), is rather haunted by its role in World War II; Das Boot seems to be made with this in mind. We are not meant to see these men as Nazis, but as men. Regular men serving their duty in wartime. And yes, when the U-boat is attacked, I was so engrossed in the film, I was actually upset at the British for firing on these men. If that’s not a testimonial to how effective Das Boot is at distancing itself from traditional Hollywood depictions of evil and ruthless Nazis, I don’t know what is. Damn those Brits and their effective navy!
Across the board, the performances of the actors are stellar, but for my money, Das Boot boils down to one man: the captain, played by Jürgen Prochnow, and not played as a Nazi but as a grizzled man of the sea. Prochnow is phenomenally large in a role that requires him to be very quiet and subdued. His captain is an unnaturally intense man who can relate to his men but knows exactly where the line is drawn – and, in an off-the-charts intense scene involving Johann, the crewman who mans the engines, the captain is not afraid to enforce that line. He radiates with an inner power, often making words redundant, as his face is all that’s needed to tell you everything. In fact, in one scene, Prochnow was silent (typical), but moved the muscles in his face the merest fraction of an inch; that one tiny, ridiculously subtle movement told me exactly how the captain had suddenly figured everything out and made his decision. It’s rare that an actor can so completely telegraph his character to the point where both lines and most physical movement become unnecessary. Prochnow is a powerhouse in Das Boot; it’s stupidly easy to understand why he shot to international fame after the release of this movie.
The last thing I’d like to comment on is that the person whose autobiography Das Boot was based on complained, loudly and a lot, about how Peterson took his anti-war story and made a film that glorified war. I am having trouble comprehending why on earth he would say this. Undoubtedly it is because I’ve never been to war myself, but I do not understand how he thinks Das Boot, in any way, makes war seem cool, because it spoke to me quite well about the pointlessness of war. I spent a great deal of time with the men of Das Boot, and never once did I think, “wow, how awesome, get ME on that tiny submarine full of moldy food and pubic lice and the unacceptably high possibility of death!” And that was before the film reached its utterly nihilistic conclusion. In fact, I kept thinking of All Quiet on the Western Front, another famously anti-war film told from the point of view of German soldiers. The utter uselessness of the war machine is painted so well by both of these films.
Das Boot is long, something my gnat-like attention span greatly dislikes, but it’s also taut and suspenseful, something I very much like. What started off feeling like a bit of a chore quickly turned into “JESUS CHRIST WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!?” Das Boot is a devastating and brilliant film, and is definitely one of my favorite war films. Once again, The Book proves to me that although I may generally dislike a certain genre of movies, there are always, ALWAYS, exceptions.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10. Oh, and I’d be remiss to mention that one of my husband’s best friends, a buddy from college, goes by the nickname of “Das Boot.” So for years now, when anyone has said Das Boot, I think of Brian, not German submarines. And yes, the crazy college buddies would start singing the techno theme song when they said his nickname.
And I’ll also add that I am always reticent to give a perfect score to a film that I’ve only just seen for the first time. I like to let it marinate for a few months, and then maybe return to it, reassess, determine how I feel about this, and then bump up the score if it fits. Das Boot is definitely in the running to get said bump in a few months’ time.