Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Note: this is an adaptation of an
earlier review of the Superbit collection DVD of the same
title, with added comments pertaining to this extended version release.
American submarine movies have been around since the silent days, and they've always had a great
appeal for producers. The sets 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 80's, the same 1943 Warners tank shots of torpedoes
bubbling their way across the water were still being re-used. There have been some rather good
submarine movies made - Run Silent, Run Deep (out from MGM) and The Enemy Below (out
from Fox) 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
that 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 career for director Wolfgang
This is the third Das Boot release for Columbia. The original theatrical version isn't on DVD; both discs
were the "director's cut" that added in almost 65 minutes of
content not seen in America. Now they've returned to restore the entire five-hour German miniseries version to DVD.
Das Boot plays so well in any form that it somehow never seems long, and this
version is just more of a good thing. The original DVD was a flipper with extras and the second a Superbit
encoding. This third release again spreads the show across two discs.
With the once-feared wolfpacks reduced to 12 lone U-boats, 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 how can they
break through Gibraltar to get to their port in the South of France, with the allied Navy in such
Americans expect certain things from their war movies. Even when the historical facts are reasonably
accurate they want to know who the good guys and the bad guys are. It doesn't matter whether
the bad guys are the enemy or our own side. It's always easy to sell the idea that good soldiers are
betrayed by corrupt generals and politicians, and there are "anti-war" classics that are just as
guilty of peddling combat thrills as the cheapest propaganda of the past.
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. 2
In Das Boot we see what remains of the U-Boat fleet after the course of the war turned against
Germany. Only a year before, Allied shipping was being sunk wholesale; now a pitiful 12 U-boats are
trying to make a dent in unending convoys protected by a well-organized screen of destroyers and
The action is more than credible - the waiting, the frustration of having no target and then the panic
when the enemy comes out of nowhere to get 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 spends 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, largely uses CGI imagery to the usual excess - optimized images with
the camera chasing torpedoes underwater abound, along with impossible views of cartoony vessels. The
miniature second-unit in Das Boot shoots its models with artistry and taste.
For the first time the claustrophobia of a sub interior was properly communicated. No more
passageways and spacious control rooms: if someone wants to move in this boat, it means somebody
else has to get out of the way. For camera-trick freaks there are some breathtaking POV shots
chasing sailors down 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.
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 there's no joyous mythical fraternal
military camaraderie providing 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 they function so well
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
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 fiancee 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, the ex-Hitler
youth 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's a stand-up guy when the chips are down - being a Nazi doesn't make
him non-functional. Not that you'd want to sit down and 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. It's remarkable how we get 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. 3
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 better than the majority of similar gambits in Howard
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, with Prochnow sinking 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
winners. Unthinking war buffs will just relish the drama & 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
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Das Boot: The Miniseries goes back to the source to present the full show as it was
prepared for German television. When broadcast it was 300 minutes long, in six 50-minute episodes. By editing
the episodes together and skipping the extra title and credit sequences, it's 7 minutes shorter. The entire miniseries
must have been originally produced with an alternate English soundtrack ... if that was done in 1981, it makes Wolfgang
Petersen a very forward-looking director.
The previous Superbit disc looks better, as this version has slightly more dirt here and there. But the visual quality is
nigh-on the same. What the fans will want to see is the extra 90 minutes of content (144 if all you've seen is the
theatrical release - it's twice as long). Instead of many entire scenes being cut, many more are extended. There's a
lot more detail about life aboard the boat, and some longer dialogue scenes. More personal details are added, as when
we briefly see the French girlfriend who we only hear about in the shorter versions. Das Boot: The Miniseries
will thrill previous fans of the film.
The special extra is a featurette called The Making of Das Boot. It's the same good item that
was an extra on the first Das Boot DVD release.
The Miniseries did actually play on Los Angeles cable television in the early 80s, on the famous "Z" channel now being
remembered in a new documentary. I remember a friend taping all six episodes when a single blank VHS tape still cost
over twelve dollars each. It got expensive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Das Boot, the original uncut version rates:
Supplements: featurette The Making of Das Boot
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2004
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, Bub.
2. It's strange how our old propaganda films posited the enemy
submariners as murdering swine, while characterizing our (larger and even deadlier) WW2
submarine fleet as heroic daredevils accomplishing the impossible against high odds.
3. My dad was first and foremost an airplane mechanic and he hated cars,
but when one broke down he could make it run practically with a dirty look - he was amazing with a
set of tools. Those skills were so ingrained, they were part of his subconscious; he couldn't
teach me any of it.
4. An historically corrective note from HB, 4.7.03:
To start with your main point: I haven't
seen that many war films, just the few I have in my collection, so I can't
make the comparison you've made. But perhaps one reason is that the Silent
Service was indeed just that. The secrecy surrounding submarine operations
kept them out of the press and the public eye. Screenwriters could fill the
void with anything they could imagine and there was no generic knowledge
of the truth to contradict what they put on screen.
There is, however, a small grain of truth in distinguishing U Boat vs. U.S.
submarine warfare practices. By the time in which Das Boot is set
it was standard government practice for German submariners to turn their
deck guns on anything alive in the water. It's one thing that the film fudges
on in the scene with the burning oil tanker. There was no such U.S. policy,
although it did happen in at least one case. Dudley "Mush" Morton, skipper
of the Wahoo, did it on a patrol near New Guinea in 1943. It shocked a lot
of people within the ranks, but had no effect on his career.
However, you're dead wrong to characterize our WW2 submarine fleet as "even
deadlier" than Hitler's and you have your time frames confused in the review.
The film is set in the Fall of 1941 long before the "course of the war [had]
turned against Germany." (Check out the title card at the beginning of the
film.) In 1942 US subs sank 180 Japanese ships for a total of 725,000 Gross
Register Tons whereas Germany's U boats sank 1,160 Allied ships for over
6,000,000 GRT. When the Captain talks about the British making fewer mistakes,
he's not talking about the U.S. Tenth Fleet operations which nullified the
German fleet through coordinated land-sea-air attacks. That came much later.
We can only guess at what he's referring to. I don't think they had radar
on their ships as yet, but the British had recently acquired an Enigma Machine
and were, therefore, able to decode the messages that we see being sent and
received on the Boat. So perhaps the British have just begun to anticipate
U Boat attacks better.
As for the superiority of our submarine fleet, that's hogwash. Yes, in the
end our subs performed brilliantly. In terms of manpower, they represented
less that 2% of our naval strength but they were responsible for more than
half of U.S. naval kills. By the end of the war, the Japanese were literally
starving to death and the nation was on the brink of surrender. If the Navy
and not MacArthur had had its way, the war might well have ended sooner and
without use of the bomb.
But we were plagued throughout the war with inconsistent and frequently clueless
command and, especially, by terrible torpedoes. The torpedoes were designed
between the wars under the supervision of the Bureau of Ordnance and featured
a magnetic exploder. Other nations, including Germany, had tried and discarded
magnetic exploders but BuOrd was so convinced that they had the high-tech
solution of choice that they locked up all the manuals and never conducted
real-life field trials in order to keep the design out of enemy hands. The
exploders didn't work. The torpedoes were supposed to explode as they passed
under a ship, but rarely did. Worse, they could cause the torpedo to U-turn
and come back at the subs which had fired them. Skippers tried firing them
at shallower angles so they wouldn't pass under the targets. Unfortunately,
that did work. The torpedoes would explode harmlessly before they got close
enough to the target to do any damage.
Skippers complained repeatedly to the war department, but they had no credibility.
The first batch of U Boat skippers were a timid lot because the Navy screwed
them up with its training methods. A Captain could get demoted if his boat
was "sunk" in a training exercise, so they quickly learned to hit and run
without actually engaging the enemy effectively. The kill rate was abysmal
and BuOrd consistently blamed them and their crews for misusing the high-tech
Once it was finally established that the magnetic exploder was a disaster,
they turned to the backup mechanical exploder. That didn't work either. The
more accurately it was targeted, the less likely it was to work because when
it hit its target the firing pin would collapse without setting off the explosive.
One sub expended all but one of its torpedoes in direct hits on the same
target and only one actually exploded only mildly inconveniencing the target
Our torpedoes also left a trail of bubbles as they headed toward a ship thus
giving the target a chance to maneuver out of harms way. Neither the German
nor Japanese torpedoes had that problem. The Japanese used oxygen-propelled
torpedoes and the Germans had electric models which we eventually copied.
They came to comprise about half the torpedoes on a sub.
Finally, our torpedoes had small warheads, about half the fire power of the
Japanese versions. In one instance it took 20 torpedoes to sink a Japanese
You can add to this the fact that our subs were less maneuverable than those
of other nations, MacArthur's penchant for assigning them to useless activities
like ferrying supplies, and a Naval high command focused on its ships and
confused about what to do with its subs. We had some technical advantages,
like radar, but on the whole you've grossly overstated our advantage.
Anyhow, I liked your review. To me Das Boot is the only really accurate
modern war film I've ever seen. In particular, it captures with stunning
accuracy the dynamics of a small, tight-knit group of professionals doing
their job and with a bare minimum of melodrama. Apart from the blood and
gore, those dynamics are the same in any walk of life. It's not friendship
but professional respect that binds a group like that together. When you
see the Nazi ideologue has begun to grow a beard near the end of the film,
you know that even he has begun to trust and respect the Captain and crew
in spite of their personal differences. You can also see that authority doesn't
necessarily follow chain of command. Technically, the Nazi is second in command,
but it's always the navigator that the Captain turns to in a military crisis. - HB
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.