Friend and I went to the Astor Theatre to watch this 1981 German film, considered to be one of the greatest war films ever made and probably the greatest submarine film of all time. I’ve no argument against these claims whatsoever.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot is set during World War II and takes place almost entirely onboard the tight, cramped space of a German U-boat participating in the Battle of the Atlantic. One exception is the opening sequence inside a raucous French brothel, where we meet most of the main characters. Among them, there’s a war correspondent assigned to the submarine, who’s basically our fish-out-of-water character and whose presence is helpful for explaining things that otherwise would go unsaid. There’s also the boat’s captain, who is openly cynical and bitter about the war, and laments the fact that most of his crew on the upcoming mission are fresh-faced boys who have no idea what they’re in for.
Though we become familiar with many of the characters, the film is not really about their personal stories or conflicts, rather it takes a very documentary-like approach to explore the life onboard a U-boat during wartime: the sheer boredom of waiting, the tense chase and terrifying counterattacks, the mental and physical hardships the crew go through. In some ways it reminded me a lot of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which had a similar episodic feel while depicting life in the British Navy during Napoleonic Wars.
Cheering on the protagonists is a very natural place to be while watching a movie, but the fact that the film’s point of view is from the German side makes it more complicated; you don’t actually want them to successfully sink the shit out of the Allies. From a purely human perspective however, it’s easy to sympathise with the crew and want them to survive if not succeed. Especially when the film highlights that the real “us vs them” in the movie is the worn-out crew who emerge from the U-boat looking like death warmed over, and the well-fed Nazi high command who think nothing of sending thousands of men to their deaths.
Running at three and a half hours, the Director’s Cut is looooong and sure feels long, but it is exceptionally well-paced and always gripping to watch. The craft and care that went into the making of Das Boot is nothing short of outstanding. I’m pretty sure that the filmmakers had to cheat a bit and make the interior of the U-boat more spacious for the purposes of filming, but you do get a full sense of the dreadful claustrophobic conditions. At one point, when the boat is rocking from the impact of the explosions, I felt actually queasy. Some of the most tense sequences in the film is when the submarine endures a depth-charge attack by the destroyer, and it falls mainly on the strength of acting and sound design to convey the horror of the situation.
Because I knew nothing about the story or how long the film was going to be, there were many times when I was convinced that the crew were dead men, and because this is a foreign-language film, I could actually believe it. Something that I don’t think would have been possible if I was watching a Hollywood submarine movie with Hollywood stars – deep down I’d have known that everything was probably going to be ok.
P.S. I didn’t realise while watching the film, but Jürgen Prochnow, who plays the captain, looked somewhat familiar to me because he also played Duke Leto Atreides in David Lynch’s Dune.
P.P.S. I figured that this movie was going to get brutal, but even so the ending is still haunting me a week later.