Das Boot: The Director's Cut (1997)

D: Wolfgang Petersen
S: Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer

Harrowing, incredibly intense war movie based on the real life experiences of Lothar-Guenther Buchheim on board a submarine on patrol in the North Atlantic during WWII. First screened on German television in 1981 at a length of some six hours (then the most expensive film ever made there), the film was cut down for cinema release and distributed both in German as Das Boot and dubbed in English as The Boat running at just over two hours. This latest 'director's cut' greatly extends the length from this second incarnation, but still falls short of the full television version. It has been tweaked, restored and otherwise technologically tinkered with to keep up to date with the demands of theatrical exhibition. This hardly matters except to purists, as in any form Wolfgang Petersen's film is among the most gripping depictions of men at war that you're ever likely to see.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Das Boot is its simplicity. Working within the claustrophobic space of an authentically recreated submarine allows Petersen and director of photography Jost Vacano literally little room to manoeuvre. This results in a series of painstakingly composed tight frame images of men and metal in close proximity. Intercut with surprisingly few model shots and special effects sequences, it is a symphony of the human face; an almost unbearably intimate study of the effects of long term stress and fatigue upon ordinary men. It also makes superb use of sound, creating exciting battle scenes mostly through the suggestion of the presence of ships and depth charges with subtle use of the aural world of the underwater seamen.

There are some bravura moments of large-scale action, and Vacano makes excellent use of a hand-held fast-tracking camera to up the visual tempo during scenes of crisis. We follow men charging along the narrow channels between bunks and closets and through the low-hung doors without the benefit of the steadicam which amused Stanley Kubrick so much only a year before in the making of The Shining. One haunting scene involves the crew surveying the wreck of a ship they have torpedoed on the surface, the sky aglow with flames, men aboard the stricken vessel visible only as dark shapes which scream in pain. For the most part though the film is set underwater and concerns itself with tableaus of its cast enduring emotional and psychological hardships which are far from the often glamourous and romantic representations of submarines in films from Operation Petticoat and The Enemy Below to more recent films like The Hunt For Red October and Crimson Tide.

The film begins with photo-journalist Herbert Gronemeyer being escorted to a naval party by U-Boat captain Jurgen Prochnow, considered 'the old man' though still in his early thirties. The gung-ho attitude of some of the sailors fuels Gronemeyer's naivete, but an encounter with an embittered, drunken pilot (Otto Sander) who makes a sarcastic, inflammatory speech about Hitler before throwing up in the bathroom suggests darker things to come. On board the boat where he is expected to write a series of articles he is introduced to the crew and its various 'characters'. As the narrative progresses, he comes to see how they respond to the combination frustration and boredom when awaiting orders and white-knuckle terror and suspense when in battle, and finds himself less the distant observer than an equal among them as a human being subject to the same human emotions.

Eschewing political analysis in favour of a defiantly humanist interpretation of the war, Petersen successfully redresses the balance of representation of German characters without falling prey to generalisation about the 'right' or 'wrong' of the larger conflict. Prochnow is eager to sink British ships not because he is a fanatical nazi, but because he is a skilled warrior employed at his profession. The battle of wits with the Allied fleet is seen not in terms of an overall goal, but of specific missions and strategies of kill or be killed which bring the crew only along the next step on a road with no visible end, or at least no end which has meaning to them beyond their next set of orders and the problems that they bring. The film's heartbreaking resolution only serves to reinforce the point that despite any and all of this, and despite the integrity or individual personalities of any of the people involved, Germany lost the war, and the human cost of this was more than an opportunity for triumphalist flag-waving. It honours men in battle and decries their loss not because of what it represents in political terms, but because, as the film has been at pains to point out, they are still people whose most dearly held wish is to get back home.

The film may not appeal to casual viewers given that, especially in this latest incarnation, it is often as much concerned with long periods in which nothing in particular happens as moments of crisis. The narrative flow is relatively smooth though, and it does not feel like over three hours of screen time. It may well find a crossover audience and it certainly has endured all this time for reasons other than the admiration of history buffs and film critics. The restoration is excellent, and viewers of the DVD version can enjoy an illuminating director's commentary and a short production documentary featuring interviews with Petersen and Prochnow.

Even after sixteen years, Das Boot remains a gripping and powerful film which has yet to be bettered on the level of intensity and authenticity (the first forty minutes of Saving Private Ryan match it, but the rest of Spielberg's film abandons this metre in favour of cliché, which Das Boot does not): the Director's Cut gives audiences an opportunity to spend even more time in its company, and it is an experience to be recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.