Year: 1981 Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Das Boot (English title: The Boat) is the story of a World War II German submarine as it struggles through the turning tide of the Battle of the Atlantic. It was originally made as a mini-series for German television. It was this 5-hour ‘uncut’ version that I watched this time, though I have seen the other previously released versions.
The story is based on the book of the same name, which is a fictionalized memoir of a man who served as a war correspondent on a German sub. His role is filled by a Lt. Werner, played by German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer. Werner is newly assigned to the ship, and has a little trouble being accepted by the crew. This is especially so given the minimal room the crew has on such a ship. They react poorly to someone taking up space but doing no useful jobs on the boat itself. In the longer versions the story is a little more spread out to the other characters; the thread of Werner’s role is not pulled out as strongly.
It’s probably a good thing that it does not follow just one character. While Werner may help introduce us to the ship and the crew, no one person is the focus of the story. There is very little character development; what we are given instead is a group of men in a tough environment trying to do their best. We do see how some are affected by the events around them.
The captain (Jürgen Prochnow) is probably the most interesting single character. He is at once both cynical and glory-hungry. As he remarks, the nation is looking for “heroes … even broken heroes like Thomsen [another captain, shown drunk at the start of the film] … or dead ones like Keltsch”. He is concerned about his crew – not so much for their safety in particular as for their quality. In his view this is crucial to ensure both their chances to survive and to perform their duty to sink enemy ships.
As it happens, much of the time is not spent engaging the enemy, but in waiting for orders, dealing with unfavorable sea conditions, or trying to avoid detection. In fact, for most of the early part of the movie, especially in the uncut version, almost nothing happens. While tedious to sit through, this provides the proper background for the exciting times when something does occur. The overall tone is never that war is intriguing, but that it is extreme boredom punctuated by moments of terror.
Except for a single scene showing the survivors of a sunken ship, we also do not see or hear any of the Allied enemies. They seem supernatural at times – an intelligence seeking to kill them that almost always knows where to find them. We don’t know how smart they really are, however, as the audience is never provided with any more information than what those on the sub know. (Possibly less, if you aren’t familiar with the orders on a submarine. Here a subtitled version makes it easier to pick out the commands, but it’s not crucial to understand what is happening.)
The most notable cinematic achievement of the film, for which Petersen is rightly famed, is how the interior of the ship is shot. Meticulous recreations of a U-boat, down to every bolt and screw, were made. The cast were trained in moving in these close quarters, and a special filming rig (recall, this was in the days where moving a camera around in a small space was no easy task) was used. The camera often leads us on a path through confined spaces in and through the passages from room to room as if we are crawling through them ourselves. We rarely get a chance to see the outside world. It is this, along with the restriction of knowledge to only what they have, that pull the audience into the life of this crew. We understand the stress and danger they face, the uncertainty about what will happen and if they will make it home, and even the sense of dread they feel about the war.
While set at a time in the war when things elsewhere might have seemed okay for the German military (late 1941), for these crews the fight was growing increasingly impossible. It is only natural to expect this to be the sort of sentiment expressed in a film made in West Germany for German audiences 40 years after the war. Only grudging acknowledgement is given by most of the sailors to the Nazis or Hitler. It comes off as actually fitting for the characters instead of feeling like a heavy-handed distancing from the period. There are even a few obvious Nazi party members (though naturally the swastika is avoided). In the end, the struggle is not political, and it is not even a military one as it is a fight just to survive the ordeal.
Reasons to watch: Fantastically detailed sets shot with remarkable skill convey the claustrophobic inside of the ship. Regarded as the most realistic submarine movie ever made.
Warnings: This is indeed an ordeal. Realistic life on a sub is not as much fun as it sounds. It is (not unintentionally) rather boring at times, especially with the longer versions. The 208-minute Director’s Cut is the best balance.