#25 – Das Boot
Das Boot (1981) – directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Runtime: 209 mins
Availability: YouTube is awesome
Let me preface this review by saying you should never watch a movie in multiple parts. It is detrimental to the effect the movie will have on you and it hurts the natural viewing process. Any film professor/major will say that. Now, with full disclosure, I stopped and started watching this film like 3 times. The length was daunting and I planned on watching it all the way through because I set aside enough time for it, but it is just really difficult to watch something for so long. I apologize for this lack of professionalism, but I cannot promise it won’t happen again because I have decided to restrain myself from looking at the whole list and there very well could be another monstrous film.
Now onto Das Boot. It’s difficult to talk about German director Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film Das Boot without discussing the length so I’ll get that out of the way first. At three and a half hours, this movie is ridiculously long, hence the breaks I took while viewing. With that said, Das Boot is impeccably paced, especially for a so-called bottle movie (a film that takes place almost entirely in one location [Think The Breakfast Club]—in this case, a submarine). In its lengthy runtime, approximately two hours and 45 minutes of it take place on the U-96, a German U-boat commissioned by the German government during World War II. However, by spending so much time on the submarine, the U-96 becomes as much of a character as the humans that make up its crew. By the end of the film, the U-96 seems to have a character motivation of its own: namely, the will to survive and persevere until the end of the world. This is an incredible feat, and it is not something that I’ve seen in many, if any, films.
That’s not to say that the members of the crew aren’t also well-established themselves. Most notably, Herbert Grönemeyer is incredible as Lieutenant Werner. Das Boot uses the classic film technique of bringing an outsider into the world of the film as a stand-in for the viewer (the person watching the movie). Lt. Werner is a reporter who has never been on a U-boat before, and the viewer is immediately aligned with him as the character who is out of his comfort zone as the viewer is. This film trope has been used as recently as Zero Dark Thirty through Jessica Chastain’s character when she is immediately dropped into a brutal interrogation. We follow Lt. Werner as he is given a tour of the submarine—through impeccable Steadicam (handheld camera that produces fluid and smooth shots) sequences—and become more comfortable with U-96 as the character becomes a respected member of the crew. Other crewmembers will also give him information (and, consequently, give the viewer information) on certain U-boat protocol that’s not readily understood, like the recurring sound of the sonar that they use. He also acts as a liaison into the personal lives of the other characters, such as the Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann) who is uncertain if his wife will survive her illness before he goes ashore or the 1st Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch) who writes letters to his pregnant fiancée daily even though he has no way to mail them to her from underwater. Lt. Werner himself is a fascinating character, and his development throughout the film reflects the viewer’s as well.
This isn’t to say that the film is all character development; there are a ton of awesome explosions in Das Boot. At a budget of the equivalent of $18.5 million, the film was the second most expensive German film of all time at the time of its release. I would bet that three quarters of that budget went to the explosions in this film, which are repeatedly astounding and jaw-dropping. (Imagine this but more forceful and over and over again: Underwater explosion) The contrast of the silence accompanied with being underwater and the blast of light that comes from the exploding torpedoes is arresting and gorgeous at the same time. Acknowledging beauty in destruction is a sobering realization. The final scene is one of the most beautiful array of explosions I’ve ever witnessed in a film, but the reality of the situation makes it painful to watch and left me feeling like I had a knot in my stomach—not unlike how I feel every time I watch an episode of Breaking Bad.
As for Das Boot’s connection to Germany (this is an exploration of the term “world cinema,” after all), the film is not subtle about its feelings about the National Socialists and the soldiers who fought for their country. Interestingly, Petersen chose to not delve into the specific politics of the crewmembers of U-96. However, he does show them and the German generals—who say things like “We’re well prepared. In all modesty, of course, but not bad at all” when there is an enormous buffet in front of them—as a dichotomy. The men on the submarine don’t fight for Nazi ideology. They fight for their country. The men who fought on U-boats in World War II knew that it was pretty much a suicide mission, but they did it for Germany and for their families. A constant theme that runs through this film includes the notion that they recognize their efforts are futile, but they will never ever give up until the war ends or they are killed.
Das Boot is a fantastic film, and it is a perfect example of the old adage: never judge a film by its length. It captures the general German sentiment surrounding World War II through the microcosm of U-96 and its inhabitants. The film humanizes the soldiers on board, and I rooted for them to survive, knowing full well how hopeless their mission was. I would not recommend Das Boot to a casual movie watcher, but if you’re interested in a nuanced look at the state of Germany in World War II and/or curious as to how a movie that’s over three hours long could be good, you should definitely check it out.
Funniest line – General: “How’s it feel beneath the surface? Submerged? While the enemy lurks above?”
Crew member: “Dark. And real quiet. As long as nobody farts.”
Most memorable line – Captain: “All you need is good people.
Next up: I’ll be watching and reviewing #24, a 1985 Russian film called “Come and See.” Wikipedia says that it’s a war drama as well as a psychological thriller so that should be pretty exciting. It also is set in Russia during the German occupation in WWII, so we will get to see how another country represents National Socialism in film. Feel free to follow along by just reading the reviews or actually watching the movies with me. I’ll post here if the movie is readily available on Netflix or YouTube. This one, however, is not easy to find so good luck.