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American submarine movies have been around since the silent days. The sets required to produce one are so limited that any studio that could muster adequate effects for the cutaways to the action outside, could make one reasonably cheaply. Visuals of submarines underwater are so generic that as late as the '80s, the same 1943 Warners tank shots of torpedoes bubbling their way under the water were still being re-used. There have been some rather good submarine movies made - Run Silent, Run Deep and The Enemy Below come to mind. But for dramatic intensity and claustrophobic realism, none can hold a periscope to the German film, Das Boot.
Originally released in the U.S. in an excellently dubbed theatrical version 1 Das Boot was taken as a superior war film that really made one feel how cramped and uncomfortable it would be to ship out on one of those old "pig boats." It led to an impressive international career for director Wolfgang Petersen.
This is the fourth Das Boot release for Columbia and perhaps the first time that the original theatrical version has been presented on disc. A later DVD restored the entire five-hour German miniseries version to DVD. Das Boot plays so well in any form that it somehow never seems long. This 2-disc Blu-ray release gives the viewer a choice of two versions and a number of extras.
The story begins in 1941, just as things are getting tough for the German U-boat service. With the once-feared wolfpacks reduced to 12 lone submarines, Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) sets out once more to hunt allied shipping. Now it's a different story. German air support and intelligence is weak and British destroyers seem to be everywhere, and no longer making mistakes. By sheer willpower, good seamanship and superhuman effort, the Captain and his crew manage to avoid constant attack and make it to secret harbor in Portugal. But they are given impossible orders -- how can they slip through the Gibraltar defenses to get to their port in the South of France, with the allied Navy in such firm control?
Wolfgang Petersen's concentrated story of the forty or so crewmembers of a U-boat sees the war from the viewpoint of the wolfpack hunters - German sailors in subs built solely to sink relief supplies to Great Britain. Reviled since their attack on the Lusitania in WW1, they've always been pictured in American war films as vicious sadists, chortling and Heiling Hitler as they dispatched innocent maritime victims to the bottom of the Atlantic. In Das Boot we see the U-Boat fleet in decline. Only a year before, Allied shipping was being sunk wholesale; now a pitiful few U-boats struggle to make a dent in the unending Allied convoys.
The action is more than credible. The waiting and the frustration of having no target give way to panic when the enemy comes out of nowhere to seize the advantage. This is a far cry from clean-shaven Cary Grant surfacing in Tokyo bay to blithely sink everything in sight. Prochnow's crewmen spend most of their time living in their own stink and sweat, braving storms that toss the sub around like a toy and wondering who is hunting who.
The Bavaria studios' special effects are superb. They were still using large miniatures at that time, but the artistry of the angles chosen, and the water and front-projection effects are excellent. There's a wildness to the water that excites the men, and the angles of the sub surfacing and cruising are very impressive, making the standard effects in older Fox films like Hell and High Water look like over-lit toys in a wading pool. The later benchmark for sub pictures The Hunt for Red October uses CGI imagery to excess. Optimized images show the camera chasing torpedoes underwater along with impossible views of cartoony vessels. The miniature second-unit in Das Boot shoots its models with artistry and realism.
For the first time the claustrophobia of a sub interior was properly communicated. No more four-foot-wide passageways and spacious control rooms: if someone wants to move in this boat, somebody else has to get out of the way. For camera-trick freaks there are some breathtaking POV shots chasing sailors down the length of the ship at breakneck speed, diving through portholes and bulkheads barely big enough for a man to pass. They're both thrilling and technically impressive.
Director Petersen's taut screenplay elevates the so-called Hawksian professional group to a higher plane of reality. Each man has left a life back on shore, and no joyous mythical fraternal military camaraderie provides compensation. The opening debauch of drunken seamen and officers "letting off steam" steers the story toward Paul Verhoeven territory. The idle chatter of the bored sailors is filled with casual obscenities and gross humor. It doesn't make them less admirable, however, when we see them function as a fighting unit. The captain calls them green but the dedication of these men is complete, and it's not just because they're all in the same boat, to coin a phrase. Prochnow's captain is a leader and his men follow him out of pride and love. The Chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann) is in a constant state of depression, worrying about his wife back home. The war correspondent is terrified to see his illusions of gallantry and unstoppable German might crushed. A poor slob of a kid wonders how his secret French fianceé back in port, when she has his baby, is going to explain things to her anti-German countrymen.
From the POV of war movie precedent the most interesting character is the first officer, a Nazi ideologue. He hasn't been put there to spy on the others, as was the party officer in Red October; he's a loyal crew member who just happens to be a Nazi fundamentalist. When he hears the drunken Captain Thomsen (Otto Sander, of Wim Wenders' Angels movies) criticize Hitler, you can see the blood drain from his face and his eyes start to narrow. Later on, his impeccable manners and personal grooming make him stick out from his comrades, and even the Captain makes fun of him. But he doesn't go all to pieces. Quite to the contrary he proves a stand-up guy when the chips are down - being a Nazi doesn't make him non-functional. Not that you'd want to listen to an hour of his opinions, however.
Das Boot has its share of slow, grueling scenes of waiting and terrible bombardments with depth charges, etc. We come to share the crew's feelings about their sub. When the Chief engineer fights poison gas and electrical short circuits to get the sub running again, we're reminded of our fathers' generation who fought that war and how they related to the technology of the day - mechanics all. Petersen reserves a special sentiment for Johann (Erwin Leder), the engine room mechanic who has a constant look of unintelligence about him, and who panics when things go wrong. When he later saves the day with a miraculous technical fix, we witness an atonement and a healing of the Captain-crew relationship. It's really inspiring, and the equal of similar gambits in Howard Hawks movies.(spoiler)
The Captain's luck comes back to enable them to somehow sneak back to their base in Southern France. But just as the film is coming to a sense of rest, a grim fate closes in to remind us of how many seamen lost their lives in these death-ships. Perhaps if the command hadn't scheduled a showy welcome home for the newsreels the ship wouldn't have docked outside in the sunshine, instead of under the concrete protection of the Sub pen. Either way, the end is brutal and definitive. Prochnow "sinks" along with his boat, almost like Joel McCrea at the end of Ride the High Country.
After this spectacular downer of an ending, pacifists will applaud Das Boot for demonstrating the fact that valor and heroism are as much a part of the losing, "wrong" side as they are of the righteous victors. Unthinking war buffs will just relish the drama and violence of it all. If the author's intention was to make us appreciate the unique horror of serving in a wartime submarine, they've succeeded.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Das Boot contains both the Director's cut (209 minutes) and the original Theatrical Cut (149 minutes) of Wolfgang Petersen's grand war epic. Jost Vacano's superb cinematography looks fantastic in HD, and the added detail embellishes those amazing sub interiors as well as the visually adept special effects. The improvement to the audio tracks are impressive as well, as we learn to attune our ears to the various sounds of the submarine, especially when the ship is under attack.
The Director's cut carries an earlier commentary by Peterson, Jürgen Prochnow and another filmmaker ... they seem to be having a good time joking about their hit picture but also dig into a number of technical aspects we hadn't considered. The show's realism is based upon maintaining the claustrophobia inside the sub -- the camera angles are almost always restricted to what could be gotten in that tight of a space. I didn't realize until hearing the commentary that the final scene, when they are stuck on the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar, removes a 'wild wall' so we can see the entire crew growing ecstatic as they watch the depth meter begin to climb. Petersen also shows us how one submarine in a concrete sub pen (the real thing) was muliplied to represent three or four different ships. He also explains how Steven Spielberg "borrowed" the set and the sub for his Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Besides an older behind-the-scenes docu, the Theatrical Cut contains an excellent featurette on the battle of the Atlantic, a new multi-part docu on the making of the show and a new profile of director Petersen, all very slickly produced. Petersen explains how his preferred Director's Cut came about only in the 1990s; he originally had to produce the theatrical and TV versions simultaneously. Audio is provided in both German and English 5.1 DTS-HD MA and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are of course in English but also in a wide range of other languages.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Das Boot rates:
1. I remember having a discussion with an employer who said, if the dubbing was that good, why did I want to hear it in German and read all those subtitles? Sorry, but the whole point of foreign history, foreigners, and foreign points of view, is that they don't speak English.
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T'was Ever Thus.