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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 a 5 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 Petersen.
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.
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 air patrols.
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 and impossible views of cartoony vessels abound. The miniature second-unit in Das Boot shoots its models with artistry and taste.
For the first time, the claustrophobia of a sub interior is properly communicated. No more four-foot-wide 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 fraternal military camaraderie to compensate for the loss. 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 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 is the party officer 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 this officer's face and his eyes start to narrow. 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. 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 Hawks movies.(spoiler)
The sub somehow sneaks back to its 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 beong to the losing, "wrong" side as well as 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 succeeded. 4
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. 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:
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:
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 torpedoes.
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 ship.
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 tanker.
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