Das Boot (1981, Wolfgang Petersen)

Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is perhaps the most culturally resonant German movie about World War II, a documentary-like, bold and stark examination of life on the consistently fatal missions of the Nazi u-boats. Despite its attention to detail in this regard, the film is essentially a remake of All Quiet on the Western Front set in a different war; the scathing satirical attacks, the attitudes, the turning points, and the ending are all the same. It’s done with a technical chutzpah unavailable in 1930, but far less charisma and somewhat less of a true feeling of creeping human horror. It’s not exactly pleasant cinema, even in the early scenes that follow the doomed men while still on land — their brutal boorishness, while the order of the terrible day, is an indicator that this film is bound to be a challenge, a you-are-there steeping of an audience in a horrendous time and place, under almost intolerable circumstances.

Like a lot of films made in modern Germany about this lost war, however, Das Boot presents claustrophobia with the kind of conviction most directors reserve for sex and murder; the degree of heat and tension felt inside this hellish submarine is as palpable in ourselves, as we journey through these impossible odds with the actors, as in the sweat visible on every human being we see. Indeed, shot for shot, the film’s almost flawlessly directed and photographed. It does have its surface shortcomings: The John Williams-ish score by Klaus Doldinger is detrimental to its realistic bent and raw impact, the buildup is excruciatingly overwrought, the characters are almost entirely indistinct, and depending on which version you see and how you see it, it can all seem dreadfully overlong and repetitive.

That requires further explanation: Das Boot exists in three major variations. The 150-minute theatrical print is the movie that ran the festival circuit and won awards. The version widely available on video ever since then is a 210-minute director’s cut, which is rough going. The definitive version is likely the five-hour television miniseries version, which is preferable because it’s handily divided into thirds, which makes it easier to space out and appreciate properly. The entire point of the film is that it’s grueling, but it loses its punch when seen in one sitting; you become too numb to its catastrophes and aches. In any case, the first third is (apparently deliberately) dull, getting across the agonizing discomfort and boredom of life in these conditions. Petersen settles into an annoying pattern of establishing shots, followed by a brief scene of “life aboard the u-boat,” then back to another establishing shot, repeat. Everything is plainly building to the two major setpieces later on, of the attack on the British ship and the nearly fatal sinking, and these are easily the best moments — gripping, almost unbearably tense, and quite deliriously inventive given the paucity of space Petersen had in which to work. To his credit, he uses the film’s sprawl — the formal opposite of its physical minimalism — as well as can be imagined.

What’s missing even from the longest version, however, is complexity. Das Boot is a simple war movie, and its premise is not one that can be dismissed, that those working the cogs of the war machine are only doing their job — a group of faceless men working in a vacuum (which isn’t to say that some of the performances, especially that of Jürgen Prochnow as the submarine captain, aren’t extremely charismatic). That idea would be pushed aside if Das Boot did not attempt to reconcile the attitudes of the German countrymen with their leaders, and this is where it starts to matter which edition of the movie you’re watching: looking upon either of the theatrical edits of the film, one wonders why a complete avoidance of political and moral issues was considered necessary. There is a bit of this in the miniseries, a bit of chortling at the arrogant posturing of Goebbels on the radio, but the emphasis is still on the pure raw human existence of soldiers coping with constant adversity. It’s understandable in a sense, but it’s also a copout because it sets aside the realities of the war to such an extent that it may as well be any group of men, in any war, in any era. Without any serious content or context regarding the war itself, as there was in the biting expository and home front sequences in All Quiet, the finale has — when you think about it — no meaning except a somewhat empty anti-war message. It doesn’t play that way exactly because we all know the whole story, but I prefer anti-war films that approach the issues of their ideals in a less simplistic, threadbare fashion.

That said, the ending is a truly startling and convicted moment, and adds a lot of power. It plays as a sickeningly random act, a comment on the hollow brutality of war. But it could easily have played much more effectively with the conflict of what one wishes didn’t have to happen and what must happen. There is a marked difference between an anti-war film and a blankly pacifist film, and Das Boot ends up coming down slightly too far on the latter end for my tastes, but it’s still impressive, especially at the astoundingly loaded finale.

[Originally posted after viewing the director’s cut in 2007. Revised this year after watching the entire miniseries.]

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