Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge
By Alan Bacchus
A landmark in international cinema, a Hollywood-style war film created outside the US and Britain, and a heroic German film about Nazis, Das Boot was conceived primarily as an action film with a message. Wolfgang Peterson’s strong directorial style and deft abilities to juggle intimate moments of character with intense action are the reasons this film caught the attention of Hollywood producers, received a stateside theatrical release, was nominated for several Oscars (including Best Director) and became a success.
Some spotty production deficiencies aside, Das Boot still looks and sounds great. It’s an intense war film, which arguably tops all submarine films produced by Hollywood over the years.
The new Sony Pictures Blu-ray release features both the original theatrical cut (149 minutes) and the 1997-released director’s cut (209 minutes). I chose to watch and review the film based on the theatrical edition, which is usually the version to stick with. The shorter running time results in a more intense experience, one that’s meant for the big screen and is the reason why the film garnered the amount of attention it did back in its day. At 209 minutes Das Boot is still a fine film, but it requires a much more significant investment of time for the same emotional reaction.
Peterson puts us in the viewpoint of Lt. Werner, a war correspondent assigned to cover the missions of U-96 in October 1941, specifically its charismatic Captain (Jürgen Prochnow). The opening scenes in the German nightclub before the crew is shipped out for battle are key to establishing Peterson’s stand on Nazism. Watch the sullen reactions of Prochnow and his other crew mates to the drunken Nazi oaf mocking Churchill. Here we see the crew as soldiers caught up in the winds of war, not genocidal Nazi tyrants. With the audience on the side of Peterson’s characters, it’s not difficult to invest in their survival.
Once in the boat and on their journey, it’s a taut thrill ride. Peterson moves us quickly from one set piece to another. The thrill of victories in the Atlantic using their ingenuity to take down a number of Allied ships and the third act setbacks, which result in the flooring of the boat at over 200 ft, provide a miraculously energetic finale. The crew virtually rises from the dead and returns home in one piece.
Peterson takes time to show us the horrors of battle and the deep concern his characters have for their opposing combatants. At one point, after the first Allied ship is destroyed, we see the soldiers on fire leaping into the ocean with no rescue in sight. The German crew witnesses this, and given their apparent unease, Peterson once again reminds us these are working class soldiers – ordinary men like you and me.
The celebrated production values still look astonishing, specifically Jost Vacano’s superlative camera moves through the tight belly of the sub. Somehow, Peterson is able to push his camera through the tightest of spaces in long takes and through the tiny portal holes between sections of the boat as his characters run from end to end. These unbroken camera moves effectively ratchet up the intensity and the claustrophobia of their confined environment. At the same time, I'd be remiss if I didn't cringe at some of the lacklustre exterior process shots and some of Klaus Doldinger’s synthesized score. But then again, it was 1981, and just about every movie sounded like this.
The tragic and ironic denouement, which has the U-Boat and crew attacked from the air during the reverie of their return, is a curious way to end the film. But it’s wholly necessary to keep the film in the context of history and punish the soldiers, however unjustly, for the future and past crimes of their country. For this and all the other reasons cited above, Das Boot will always be a great film.
Das Boot is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.