In the early 1980s, I saw the original cut of Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (a.k.a. The Boat) at one of Chicago's best theaters, on a huge screen with fantastic sound. I was blown away by the spectacular visuals, the intense drama, the music, the authentic sense of being aboard a German U-boat at the height of World War II. The original theatrical release ran 150 minutes, which was longer than the average movie-goer's attention span, but the running time didn't hinder its financial and critical success. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and won numerous other awards worldwide. In 1988, the BBC released a 300-minute-long mini series using previously unseen footage that featured considerably more character development than the action-centered theatrical release. Then, in 1997, Wolfgang Petersen produced the definitive director's cut, with additional scenes, enhanced video quality, and new sound effects, with a running time of 208 minutes. I had never seen this version, which is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, so this weekend I availed myself of the opportunity.
It was rather different than the movie I remembered, which, after its original theatrical release, I had only seen once, probably in the late 1980s. The director's cut plays as deeper, darker, more claustrophobic, more unsettling than the shorter original cut. I would go so far as to say it is one of most intense movies I have ever experienced, so much so that I don't think I want to sit through it again. Even knowing how the drama would ultimately end, I found some of the moments of suspense so nerve-wracking as to be almost physically exhausting — far more so than during my viewings of the original cut.
The movie is an adaptation of the novel, Das Boot, written by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, a German war correspondent, who, in 1941, joined the crew of U-96 for a single tour to chronicle the submarine's mission, primarily for purposes of propaganda. The story is fictional but only just, with much of it based on actual events. In the movie, actor Herbert Grönemeyer plays the war correspondent, here named Leutnant Werner. He appears naive but devoted to his duty, and he gets on well with the U-boat's battle-hardened captain (Jürgen Prochnow). Initially, the mission is endless tedium, the boat missing numerous opportunities for combat due its remote position, which the captain feels to be the result of ignoramuses running the German naval command. The mission is further thwarted by a violent storm that forces the boat to remain submerged for extended periods.
Finally, however, the U-boat makes contact with a flotilla of allied freighters, and it successfully torpedoes several of the ships. The captain gives one of the damaged vessels time for its crew to be evacuated before sending it to the bottom. However, as the ship sinks, he and his crew find — to their shock and horror — that the crew had not been evacuated. Forced by his orders to take no prisoners, the captain, with obvious emotional distress, turns the U-boat away from the scene, leaving the survivors to their fates in the ocean. But now, the fleet's escort destroyers pursue the boat and damage it with depth charges. The hardy crew manages to repair the ship so it can make its way to the neutral but Axis-friendly port of Vigo, in Spain. Here, the captain hopes the crew can disembark and return home in time for Christmas, but to his dismay, he receives new orders to take the U-boat to La Spezia, Italy, via the heavily defended Strait of Gibraltar.
Knowing he faces an impossible challenge, the captain nevertheless takes the U-boat through Gibraltar. However, before it can make its way clear, it is attacked, first by aircraft and then by destroyers, which send the boat, critically damaged, to the bottom of the strait. With water pouring in and their oxygen running perilously low, the captain and crew appear doomed to an ignominious end beneath the sea. But using all their wits, their materials, and almost superhuman willpower, they manage to make repairs sufficient to bring the boat back to the surface. Finally, the captain is able to find a clear course back to their home port of La Rochelle, France.
However, no sooner has the U-boat arrived at the port, to great fanfare, than low-flying Allied aircraft roar in over the nearby hills and unleash a devastating bomb and rocket attack, which kills or injures many of the crew. The assault all but destroys the entire port, leaving Leutnant Werner and the wounded captain to watch in helpless sorrow as their U-boat sinks slowly beneath the surface of the water. At the very end, the captain collapses from his wounds, and Leutnant Werner stands alone amid the wreckage of what was to have been his mission's triumphant finale.
|Before the mission: Leutnant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), the Captain (Jürgen Prochnow),|
Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann)
|Captain and crew on the conning tower, searching for enemy contacts|
|Allied freighter burning after being torpedoed by the U-boat|
|The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) and crew listening for telltale sonar pings, indicating|
that enemy destroyers have found the U-boat
Das Boot, even in its original incarnation, presents itself as essentially apolitical while portraying in most vivid fashion the horror and futility of war. With one blatant exception — a young, fiercely devoted Nazi officer (Hubertus Bengsch) — the men of the U-boat fulfill their duty because they believe in honoring the call of their homeland, regardless of whether they embrace its political ideology. By way of their sometimes less-than-guarded dialogue, possible only because of their isolated environment, the captain and his officers show more disdain for their nation's politics than one can imagine their superiors would tolerate. With its extended running time, the director's cut is more suited than the original to emphasizing the crew members' basic humanity while minimizing the political nightmare that has forced them into their untenable positions.
This does not necessarily diminish the moral bankruptcy the Nazi regime has engendered. At the beginning of the movie, the young, brash crew members clearly believe in the righteousness of their cause, and it is only when they witness the sheer horrific nature of their mission — as they watch the crew members of the ship they have torpedoed, some with their bodies aflame, leaping into the ocean — that an onslaught of remorse overcomes their innate senses of duty and honor. The captain, in particular, appears stricken — haunted — after leaving countless enemy sailors to die in the ocean, duty-bound to follow his orders that dictate he take no prisoners on board the U-boat. He simply cannot, for there is no space aboard for any souls beyond his crew.
For the movie, the U-boat set was built to be as realistic as possible, and the camerawork conveys a sense of claustrophobic confinement unmatched in any other film I've seen. During the destroyer attacks, the tension becomes palpable, the repeated booming of depth charges a cruel assault on the senses. In the penultimate act, with the U-boat lying at the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar, damaged and taking on water, the crew beyond any realistic chance of salvation, the pervasive sense of futility becomes overwhelming, yet — despite the fact that from the American point of view these men are the enemy — it would be difficult not to hold out hope for their survival. There was, for me, a rush of pure relief when the crewmen escape their watery prison; yet there is no final relief, for only destruction waits for the boat and crew at their last safe haven.
It's an irony that hurts. It assures you that this is the true face of war; that whatever ideologies drive us as human beings, our strengths, our weaknesses, our basic natures aren't very different. Not in any meaningful sense.
Das Boot has been hailed as one of the greatest of all German films, and one of the best, if not the best, films about submarines ever made. The director's cut affirms the validity of such sentiments.
In 1983, it was actually Klaus Doldinger's driving theme from the soundtrack album, which a friend had played for me, that alerted me to the movie's existence. As is often the case, the album recording was a bit different than the actual movie score, with the addition of percussion and rhythmic sonar pings, but I quite love this version, and I've embedded the YouTube video of it below. (Some of you may also remember Doldinger's fabulous score to The Never-Ending Story.)