Our review of Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version, published July 19th, 2004, is also available.
"Now it all turns psychological, gentlemen."—The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow)
1941, Occupied France. In the first years of the war, the sea wolves ruled the Atlantic. Admiral Dönitz had issued a mandate: destroy all Allied shipping in the sea. And the U-boat crews did just that, harassing the Allies until the tide turned in 1943.
But U-96 will not make it even that far.
First of all, the name of this movie is not pronounced "boot." It just drives me crazy when people do that. The word is pronounced in German just as in English: "boat." U-96 is as much a character in this film as its crew. It speaks in groans and struggles to hold itself together, just like any one of the men inside it. But we never hear directly what it thinks about the war going on around it. Only its crew can speak directly for it.
When we first meet the crew of U-96, they are drunk and horny, trying to cover up the fact that they are entirely terrified of their next trip out to sea. Their former captain offers a cynical toast, tweaking that "wonderful, abstaining, womanless Führer" for his brilliant naval strategy, in spite of being an amateur painter by trade. Ironically, this was the German Navy at its peak, when, according to Michael Gannon in his book Black May, the U-boat fleet may have been small, but still managed to inflict substantial losses on Allied shipping. Unfortunately, the tide was beginning to turn, as the Allies managed to successfully use their knowledge of the German Enigma cipher to track the enemy's movements (shortages of men and machines on the German side did not help either). By 1943, Germany's control of the seas was all but over.
All this, of course, is happening offstage in Das Boot. This is war from a decidedly claustrophobic perspective. We spend most of the film in close quarters, only hearing about the outside world through garbled radio transmissions. Other ships are usually seen through fog and rain and from a distance. These men are isolated. Even in those brief respites in port, they seem like outsiders. The war is going on without them, and all they can do is plod along trying to accomplish what little they can without getting killed.
Few war films have tried to approach World War II from the Axis perspective, without demonizing its subjects. Das Boot tends to avoid questions of Nazi ideology, making it clear from the outset that the crew of U-96 have little respect for their political leaders. They are merely out to despise and defeat the enemy, if for no other reason than that is what you do to an enemy. By keeping politics at a distance, the film allows its audience more room to empathize with the experiences of these men. But our dim awareness that these are soldiers for a doomed cause constantly reminds us that their ultimate fate, regardless of how much we learn to rely on them while trapped with them in the belly of this metal coffin, will not be pleasant.
Director Wolfgang Petersen's slick direction makes fine use of Steadicam shots to slide through the central corridor of the submarine. The film has an almost visceral texture: an ever-present haze from the diesel engines, the sweat, the eerie noises. And the men are all pressed together (Petersen insisted on shooting close in, without removing any walls on the set). Strict realism governs the production design. We see the food storage, the cramped conditions (one latrine for 50 men), the pitching and tossing during storms. The captain quips, "Comfy place, huh? No mail, no phones. A well-ventilated boat. Attractive wood paneling. Free home cooking. We're sitting in clover."
"Like horse droppings," a crewmate wryly remarks, "It sits in clover too."
This is an action film about characters waiting for action. They surface periodically, fire a few torpedoes, and then dive to avoid destroyers, cowering in terror as the boat cracks apart from the depth charges. Then back to the usual routine: V. D. checks, gossip, mildewed food, and interminable waiting. And yet, somehow the film never seems boring. Petersen's focus on the psychological pressures of life aboard a submarine—and the constant awareness that their "Children's Crusade" (to quote the captain) is ultimately doomed—drives the story forward with the momentum of a Greek tragedy. There is enough character development to support what are generally stock war movie types: the idealistic boy with a pregnant fiancée back home, the cynical captain, the patriotic first officer. Carefully performances and the sense of forced intimacy the boat creates give these types more humanity. Little twists on war movie formulas help too. Instead of the requisite anthem scene (where our heroes march off to war singing their fight song), the crew sings "Long Way to Tipperary," mocking both their British enemy and their Nazi leaders. These men are not ideologues; they are merely soldiers.
By the second half of the film, the tension becomes unbearable. The film threatens to topple into such grim cynicism that the audience might shrink away: the harrowing image of bodies floating in the sea, the garish celebration for the "respectable German heroes" still traumatized by their months at sea, a suicide mission to Gibraltar, the boat's sinking and struggle to resurface. But the characters garner enough sympathy, seen through the eyes of a journalist (Herbert Grönemeyer) embedded with the crew, that we want to see them through.
And their struggles go on and on. This is the 210-minute "director's cut" of the film, which even at its extended length (compared to its 1981 theatrical release at 145 minutes) never drags. 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.
Sony has packaged Das Boot as part of its Superbit line. Yes, the picture looks glorious, nearly new and only suffering from slight grain and fading due to age. Yes, the sound is great, as immersive as a submarine film ought to be. Superbit titles (which are all male-oriented, designed for boys who like techie toys) remind me of those old Mobile Fidelity gold-plated compact discs back in the 1980s. They were expensive and marketed to people who owned high-end equipment. The promotional copy always said that the gold plating made the discs sound better, but frankly, unless you had amazingly expensive equipment and your own acoustically ideal listening room, you really could not tell much of a difference. And was the higher quality of sound due to the gold plating, or the fact that the company sank a bunch of money into sonic restoration?
Does Das Boot look better because Sony trumped up some stuff about increasing bitrate (and regular DVD Verdict readers know our suspicions about that) or is it because the print has been digitally remastered and anamorphically enhanced? Gee, I'm only a film scholar with a PhD in English, so don't ask me about technical stuff. The film just looks really nice on my basic level equipment, and it will on yours too.
Every submarine film made since 1981 copies from Das Boot. Its tone may be almost unrelentingly serious and cynical, like an existential coffin ride to the bottom of the sea, but it maintains a hypnotic power for its formidable running time. This is one instance where the remastering efforts of Superbit are in the service of a title that actually deserves quality treatment (unlike some of the titles in this line). Of course, the film could also use some nice extras, like the commentary track on the prior DVD release. But on its own, the film says everything it needs to say about the cruelties of war.
Sony is sent out to sea for continuing to jack up the price point on films that should have been given this sort of loving treatment to begin with. Wolfgang Petersen and company are granted shore leave.
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