Sony // 1981 // 293 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 19th, 2004
All you need is a good crew.
"Of course, a real director's cut of the film would run five hours and be formatted to 1.66:1, the original specs for the television mini-series this was cut down from. But you have to move to Germany if you want to watch it that way." -- Judge Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict review of Das Boot: Superbit Edition
Don't pack your bags quite yet, Dr. Pinsky, because the full German mini-series has finally found its way to North America (albeit not framed at 1.66:1). That's right, folks, Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version presents director Wolfgang Petersen's (The Perfect Storm, Troy) masterpiece in all its glorious, full-length sprawl -- a whopping 83 minutes longer than his director's cut, which in turn was 25 minutes longer than the 1981 theatrical cut. And damned if the added minutes don't make the movie even better.
Autumn, 1941. New radar technology has given the British navy increasing success in hunting and destroying the German U-boats that once disrupted Allied supply lines. The crew of U-96 prowls the Atlantic, waiting for orders from headquarters. After weeks at sea, they receive word that U-32 has engaged a British convoy and rush toward the other U-boat's coordinates. By the time they arrive, there's no sign of U-32. Eventually, they locate and successfully attack the convoy before being hounded and almost sunk by a British destroyer.
After 65 days at sea, U-96's captain (Jürgen Prochnow, The English Patient) gives orders to return to port in La Rochelle in occupied France. No sooner does the crew begin their journey home, then headquarters finally sends them orders. After replenishing their supplies in Vigo, Spain, they are to continue to port in La Spezia, Italy. The problem is, gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea means sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar, a seven-mile wide channel heavily guarded by the British navy. It's a suicide mission.
It's possible Das Boot -- like Steven Spielberg's Jaws -- is an accidental masterpiece forged of clever problem-solving in the face of budget limitations. If Bruce the mechanical shark had worked properly, Spielberg's flick would have been a different and, most likely, lesser picture. The fact the director had to find ways to build menace and dread without showing us the monster is what ultimately made the movie a classic (that and Robert Shaw's entire performance). At the time of its production, Das Boot was the most expensive German film ever made -- Wolfgang Petersen won financing by selling the project to the moneymen as two films: a massive German television mini-series, and a much shorter cut to be released theatrically all over the world. Still, Das Boot is such a large tale, its characters so numerous, its Atlantic theater setting so vast and violent, one can imagine Petersen consuming ten times the budget he did in order to tell the same story. The final product would've been bigger, splashier, and far less satisfying.
Despite his budget, Petersen had to mostly use miniatures in his exterior shots of U-96 and its battles at sea. The limitation forced him to keep his story almost entirely inside the U-boat, and in the process became no limitation at all. Near the beginning of the film, U-96 is forced to dive in order to avoid detection by British fighters. The action never moves outside the submarine. The camera remains trained on the faces of the huddled crew as they listen to the sounds outside their tiny vessel and await their fate. The effect is intense and intimate, the story of a massive world conflict told in the faces of a small group of isolated men. Later in the picture, when the U-boat finally happens upon a British convoy, the entire battle is played out in a similarly interior style. Petersen gives us shots of U-96's torpedoes leaving their bays but little else exterior. Again, we watch the men's faces as they listen for the sounds of the impacts. They're exultant when the explosions finally come but, like us, experience a level of sickened horror, a regret, hearing the sounds of creaking bending metal and gallons of displaced water as the enemy ships sink to the ocean floor. They know it's the sound of terror and death.
Petersen eschews his claustrophobic approach to armed conflict only once, really, when U-96 finds a damaged British vessel whose crew they believe has been rescued. They decide to sink the boat to ensure it can't be salvaged, and are horrified when British sailors scurry out onto the deck and leap into the vast and dark Atlantic as the vessel sinks. The sailors plead for help but the captain of U-96 has no capacity to provide it, and the crew of the German U-boat is demoralized by the knowledge they've needlessly killed -- however unwittingly -- fellow sailors made enemies by the arcane workings of global politics. Das Boot is an action/anti-war film, its U-boat crew not Nazis party members but weary soldiers doing their duty. Petersen makes sure we know it as both der Führer and Hermann Goering are singled out for ridicule and disdain in the crew's conversations: they're politicians with little understanding of or concern for the human cost of the decisions they make.
Das Boot's great achievement is its pacing. Petersen's an adept action movie director, and he brought that to bear in making his epic. The first half of the picture explores the paradox of the tortured boredom the sailors feel while awaiting the arrival of orders from headquarters, even though getting those orders will lead to certain terror and possible death. The crew's restlessness is palpable, yet never bores us as an audience. The men regale each other with dirty jokes and erotic anecdotes. One officer asks another for help with a crossword puzzle and the answers end up being "bath" and "love," the two things each man desperately wants more than anything. Slowly, we learn a little about the men on the boat, background information that humanizes them without flattening them into a collection of dramatic motivations. We don't get to know them intimately but learn their preoccupations, the sorts of details we'd discover if we were members of the crew. Kriechbaum has four sons and laments his family can't know his whereabouts at sea; the captain re-reads old love letters from his girlfriend, a Nazi party member; Ullmann is in love with and has impregnated a French flower shop girl and worries the Resistance will find out and shame her as they do all collaborators; chief engineer Grade's wife is in Cologne and he's wracked with worry after word comes that the Brits have bombed the city and there have been massive civilian casualties. These details are presented for their own sake, not as trite setups to be paid off when the characters' fates are revealed in later battles as in most war flicks. Petersen's film allows us to hang out with these characters, sharing their small joys and woes; it allows us to bask in strong ensemble performances by a capable group of actors. And how rare has that become in the action film genre?
For the most part, this complete cut of Das Boot adds to the intimate human drama, and offers little in the way of additional action. It's a credit to Petersen's skill as a storyteller that this five-hour cut feels as breezy and enthralling as the shorter versions previously available in North America. The mini-series originally aired in Germany as six individual hour-long episodes (including commercial breaks), and the program is oddly presented in this two-disc set: Disc One is single-layered and contains about 1-hour and 50-minutes of the show, while the remaining three hours plus extras are housed on Disc Two, a dual-layered DVD. Thankfully, episode breaks are not preserved, so the picture plays out in the manner of a theatrical film. As previously noted, the original television aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is not preserved here, but the 1.85:1 framing (enhanced for 16:9 displays) worked fine in the previous theatrical and director's cuts and, so, isn't aesthetically problematic for this release. Overall, the image quality is in keeping with the previous DVD releases, which is to say excellent with only the slightest of wear and color fade. Some of the material added back for this cut displays more grain and damage than the previously released footage (an isolated scene or two has fine vertical emulsion scratches), but none of the flaws are bad enough to distract.
Audio options most closely match those provided on the original Das Boot: Director's Cut: Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo mixes in both German and English (the director's cut replaced the German stereo with a Spanish track). The Superbit Edition's excellent DTS option isn't offered, but all of the disc's audio options incorporate the redesigned sound design Petersen and company created for the initial DVD release, with the German 5.1 offering the most subtle and detailed ambient soundscape. The tracks are full and dynamic, though there isn't much low-end punch.
The only extras are the same Behind the Scenes of Das Boot promotional featurette found on the director's cut release, and previews for DVD releases of three Wolfgang Petersen films: Das Boot: Director's Cut, In the Line of Fire, and Air Force One.
Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version is a rare example of additional footage actually enhancing rather than diminishing a film's artistic power. If you haven't seen Das Boot in all its original glory, you're missing out.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
Running Time: 293 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind the Scenes of Das Boot Featurette