One thing I should try to clear up right at the beginning is that there are three major different versions of this film. The first is the theatrical version that runs around two and a half hours. This is the one I first saw back in the 1990s on VHS. The budget for Das Boot was by far the largest in
’s history up to that time – most of it going to build a real, full size submarine to the exact specifications of the WWII model. This meant that the producers wanted to get more than just a theatrical film out of it, so enough footage was shot for a TV mini-series. That version runs nearly five hours. I have not seen it. In the late 1990s when movies started being re-issued on DVD, director Wolfgang Petersen re-edited some of that additional footage into a three and a half hour long Director’s Cut. I have also watched this version. Of the two versions I have seen I would recommend the Director’s Cut for the additional depth of character that its length allows. By making these men fully three dimensional beings the viewer cares about their fates more. West Germany
The film opens in 1941 when
has only twelve U-boats in their fleet. They have been getting sunk more and more often by Allied destroyers that accompany the fleets of cargo ships coming to Germany Europe to help in the war effort. (Opening text tells us that of the 40,000 German men who went to war in submarines, 30,000 did not come back.) The result is is trying to launch new subs as fast as possible and they only have crews that are very inexperienced. We meet the Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) as he arrives at a party his crew is having. They are drunk, debauched, and generally not remotely prepared to go to war. The experienced Captain seems to take it all in stride, though, even though another experienced officer laments the poor state of the men being sent to sea. Germany
Included among the crew is a young Lieutenant Werner who is a journalist that will be chronicling the glory of the Third Reich’s victories. Once again, the Captain takes it all in stride even though he is not a Nazi and in fact has little love or respect for them. Even though this film goes out of its way to make a distinction between “Nazis” and “Germans” the reception in its own country was still controversial because these German submariners are the protagonists of the film.
There was such a concern about this that
did not even nominate this film for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Much like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), though, Americans were okay with seeing Germans in the roles of heroes of their own story during a war against them. The Academy nominated Das Boot for six Oscars anyway, including Best Director. That would be a record for a non-English language film that would stand until 1997’s Life is Beautiful received seven nominations. One of those was for Best Foreign Language Film, though, so it really didn’t have more than Das Boot in the main categories. In that sense it wasn’t until 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received nine nominations in the main categories, along with a tenth for Best Foreign Language Film, that Das Boot’s record was broken. West Germany
Once the Captain, Lt. Werner, and the young crew go to sea we get a very realistic look at what life was like for the men who served then. (This film is based on the German book of the same name by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, who in turn based it on his own experiences.) Wartime onboard a submarine was not glorious; it was pretty ugly. The men get bored by the waiting. They grow beards and most stop bathing entirely. There is an outbreak of crabs from men having to share bunks. Even the officers have to share because of the cramped conditions. When they do get to engage the enemy they spend as much or more time in fear of imminent death than they do excited about a victory.
The cinematography and sets are a major part of the success of this movie. Petersen insisted on filming in the real dimensions of the sub, which was hardly wider than a man could reach with his outstretched arms. Everyone is crowded in together. This meant they had to shoot without sound, and it is remarkable because sound also plays a very important role in this film. The cramped conditions did lead to a famous goof where you can see a crewwoman’s head as she crouches down trying to get out of the shot behind some equipment. To be honest, I never noticed this until it was pointed out to me, but then it was hard to miss.
They also shot the movie almost in sequence so that the actors’ beard growth would be realistic. And they had the actors stay indoors even when not filming so they would have a realistic pale, pasty look that just enhances the unhealthy image of the endeavor.
The result of all these things is a tremendous feeling of claustrophobia. Not only are the Allies the enemy, so too are the conditions and their fellow crewmen. Even the very sea outside their vessel becomes a dangerous beast that is constantly trying to either drown them via leaks or crush them in its depths. There are several very tense scenes with the sonar pinging of an enemy ship getting closer and closer, or of rivets in the walls of the sub exploding inward like bullets as the pressure starts to get too much. By the time the sub is ordered to run the Allied blockade at the entrance to the
Mediterranean, we fully understand just as much as the Captain that this is a suicide mission. One of the strongest reactions I have ever had to a film is when the sub is resting on the bottom, far below the maximum safe depth, with water coming in, the pressure starting to crush it, and with the oxygen running out.
Prochnow became a star after this film was released. He soon appeared in the big budget Dune (1984) before coming to
in the late 1980s. He appeared in a number of films in the 1990s, although none approaching the level of excellence of Das Boot. In the 2000s he continued to make movies, but his star had faded. Fans of Das Boot are advised to avoid 2006’s Beerfest where he appears as the captain of the German team at a beer drinking competition that includes a final round with “das boot” – a boot shaped beer glass. Hollywood
In a similar way, director Petersen also came to
and made several more films, but none approached Das Boot for impact. There were a number of box office successes like In the Line of Fire (1993) and The Perfect Storm (2000), but after the dreck that was 2006’s Poseidon he has not directed since. Until looking up his IMDB page for this post I never realized that he directed 1991’s Shattered – a B movie with one of the all time best twist reveals that I have ever seen. Hollywood
Das Boot is a film that you should see regardless of any phobias you may have about subtitles, long movies, or war movies. It transcends all such concerns. I’ve yet to find a person who has seen this film who has not felt it was at least very good, if not great – even ones who had aversions to this kind of film prior to watching it. It truly is a “must see” and I give it my highest recommendation.
Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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DVD Blu-ray Instant Video Paperback