Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
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 (coming
soon from Fox) come to mind - but for dramatic intensity and claustrophobic realism, none can hold
a periscope to the German film, Das Boot.
Originally filmed (and sometimes revived on cable TV) as 6 or seven hour miniseries, Das Boot
was a big success in the U.S. in an excellently dubbed version 1
that was taken as a super-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
With the first DVD, Columbia did the extraordinary - it released an adapted version of
the film, which stayed in feature form but added in almost 65 minutes of content not seen in
America. Das Boot plays so well in any form, that it somehow never seems long, and this
version is a pleasure to watch. The original DVD was a flipper with extras, and now Columbia has
added the title to its Superbit collection - spreading the show across two extra-free 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 excellent. 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, and impossible views of cartoony vessels abound. The
miniature second-unit in Das Boot shoots its models with such 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 to compensate. 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 grossout 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 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 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 the party officer is in
Red October; he's a loyal crewmember 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, and quite the contrary is 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. Later, when he 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 luck that the Captain had thought deserted his ship 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 is a SuperBit followup to their fine earlier disc. The
previous release was a flipper, and contained some nice extras, but this version of course has
nothing but the movie and the generic Superbit menus. Since the show is so long, it's been arrayed
on two discs.
Is the quality better? I played one disc, then the other, and then the first one again on my large
Mitsubishi rear projection
monitor, and after a bit of study, the finer detailing and slightly better colors - in some shots -
became apparent. Perhaps on some more exotic DVD player the difference might be even more acute, but
all in all, I don't think my eyes really appreciate the improvement enough to warrant buying the
new disc, unless you are a total quality tech freak.
I can't decode the fancy audio 100%, but buyers concerned with such details should note that the old
disc had both English and German 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. On the new Superbit, the German track is
in 5.1 and DTS, but the English is only recorded in Dolby Surround. The old disc has only English, Spanish and
French subs; the new disc adds Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Das Boot rates:
Packaging: Keep case in paper sleeve
Reviewed: April 6, 2003
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.