Das Boot Movie Review

In an effort to direct my writing into lighter subjects, I will try my hand at movie reviews, hearkening back to a film appreciation class that I took in college. Since everybody else on the internet has the new releases pretty well covered, I prefer to uncover the lesser known movies that are noteworthy to me, and the first is Das Boot, from 1981, directed by Wolfgang Peterson. It is the story of a German submarine (“the boat”) and its crew in the north Atlantic during World War II. German submarines (U-Boats) had been extremely effective in destroying Allied shipping for the first couple years of the war, but the tide was turning in 1941, and our U-Boat crew is caught in the middle.

It is easy to look at this movie as just another war movie, but I believe that would be a mistake. Let me explain why. First of all, aside from the fact that these men are in a war, killing and being killed, there is a sense that these boys are putting out to sea in a way that young men have done for thousands of years. Times change, but the sea is always the same. Wolfgang Peterson did an excellent job of portraying the sea in a wild and menacing way, and in the same way that World War I pilots had a greater connection to the sky in their open cockpits than their modern supersonic brethren, the men on a World War II submarine had a connection with the ocean that their nuclear descendants are isolated from now. These guys are constantly soaked, and thrown around by the ocean. The submarine begins groaning and creaking when they go too deep. Technology of the time was indeed amazing, but it was nowhere near perfected. Because of the ominous presence of the ocean all around, you cannot help but appreciate the design and construction of the wonderful machine that keeps the men alive against all odds.

This movie is one of my favorite kinds of movie: men in their machine in a crazy adventure against the odds. Think Apollo 13, Memphis Belle, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Island at the Top of the World, Serenity, and Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. You develop an appreciation for the submarine similar to what the crew must be feeling as they survive one scrape after another. Every bolt that holds, and every pump that works is cause for rejoicing, and no one can deny that the Germans make quality machines. The version of the movie that I have is the 209 minute-long director’s cut, so by the end I am quite familiar with the interior of that boat, and am also longing to see land once again…

The 1980s were a fun decade for movies, but this movie is not exactly fun. What it is, however, is extremely well-made. The ’80s saw the epitome of pre-CG movie making. In other words, it looks very real, but you know you’re not just looking at a bunch of computer graphics. It actually took real work. Real water, and real explosions. It does not have that soulless fake feeling that so many action movies have today. With about $15 million dollars to work with, a new sub was built to the original specifications, along with scaled-down sea-worthy models for underwater shots. But, you may ask, another submarine movie? It is easy to take submarine movies for granted if, like me, you grew up with U-571, The Hunt for Red October, etc. But pause and reflect that this movie came out before many of the submarine movies that we have seen. It does stand well on its own, but it helps to remember the originality involved. It almost seems as though they started cranking out the other movies after this one made the genre popular. It would be more fair to compare Das Boot with an old-fashioned classic like Destination Tokyo.

Realism was a high priority with this movie, and Peterson insisted on filming within the confines of the sub, instead of removing a side to give the film crews plenty of space. To the observant audience-member, the directing is superb considering the challenges. One aspect that I found particularly impressive was the scenes that involved the crew running to the front of the sub when a fast dive was needed (to put the weight forward), and the director was able to record the fast-paced tumult with a precise artistry.

What about the characters? I must say that the captain, played by Jürgen Prochnow, is an amazing character. He exemplifies the intense professional, disillusioned yet determined. As the men appear to age during the voyage, many acquiring beards to match their newfound maturity as veterans, the captain only seems to appear more intense and naturally suited to his role. He is like a sea captain of old. The men begin apparently as boys, but they quickly get a baptism by the fire of combat, and we watch as they become more haggard and yet more efficient at their jobs. We follow the innocent war correspondent, as he faces the reality of war, and the die-hard Nazi officer, who sees the damage caused by his ideology. There’s the diesel mechanic who dotes over his engines, and the sailor who writes letters that he cannot mail. Characters like these bring the human element into the emotional telling of this story.

This movie is a great study in leadership and camaraderie.

There is another element to this that must be mentioned: sound. Especially in the director’s cut DVD, the movie-makers went out of their way to create a realistic perception of the terror you would have felt inside a steel tube hundreds of feet below the waves, as the ships above do all they can to kill you. Every click, every creak could be the last sound you hear before the ocean swallows you in one gulp. The German U-Boats owned the seas early in the war, but soon it was the hunters who were being hunted.

By the way, the movie is almost entirely in German. This might be the last straw for pampered American movie-goers, but for those of you who are still reading, I’m sure we can all agree how cool this is. I personally wish that more historical movies were done in their original language. It might be the history buff in me talking, but it lends a certain authenticity that makes a movie more believable. If you agree with these sentiments, you probably would also appreciate The Lives of Others, Apocalypto, and Joyeux Noel. And, if you’re wanting to brush up on your German language skills, Das Boot is perfect for the task.

In some ways, we can sympathize with the Germans in the sense that these were young men who answered their country’s call to arms. It would have been better if the war had not happened at all, and this movie’s overall message is powerful in that respect. The futility of war is shown on the faces of the men who are sent to die in it.

-Ben 11/17/13