Film #31 in the World War II Marathon!
Written By: Wolfgang Petersen & Dean Riesner
Directed By: Wolfgang Petersen
I am fully prepared to sound like a broken record because this is a storytelling point I have brought up in a lot of my recent reviews, but Das Boot has an incredible claustrophobic feel that helps it play as a sort of horror film. It’s not a horror film for the characters, they have accepted their claustrophobic confinement, but rather it is a horror film for the viewer who can’t fathom the idea of being bottled up in such a tight space with so many other people for such long stretches of time. Oh, and you also submerge yourself under hundreds of meters of water at a moment’s notice, everyone smells terrible, infections such as crabs and lice are prevalent and the food isn’t great to begin with and slowly turns worse. Those conditions are far from the glamorous life the German U-Boat sailors were believed to lead. In all the Kriegsmarine, an assignment to a U-Boat was considered an honor and afforded you rock star status. That status stayed on the mainland, because once at sea your life was beyond hell. Das Boot does a splendid job of bringing every horror the “rock stars” of the U-Boats faced while at sea to the big screen.
Das Boot is a dramatic thriller, but it is a tedious one. I don’t mean tedious in a bad way, but that the crew of U-96 doesn’t have some sort of spectacular mission to undertake, they are at sea until they die or are ordered back. It is a tedious life, full of nothing but the job and banal moments. The look into the life of a sailor aboard a U-Boat is interesting but would become incredibly boring after a while. That is where the job does come in, the contacts with British destroyers, the rush through the Gibraltar Strait and the attempt to fix U-96 and once again ascend to the surface. Wolfgang Petersen is excellent in his documentary style camera work within U-96, but he is even better at creating suspense in the waters that surround U-96. Sonar has never sounded scarier, depth charges rock our world as well as the sailors and as the sub falls apart we marvel at the flying bolts and breaking bulkhead even as we realize this could mean the end of the crew.
Morality and Nazism are always tricky subjects in any World War II picture told from the German perspective. In every way possible Das Boot is a different type of World War II movie experience, because outside of a few scenes there is no mention of Nazis, or Jews, or any of the trappings people have become accustomed to in their World War II pictures. Instead Das Boot is a film about a group of sailors who did their job and faced a great deal of peril as a result of said job. The realm of Nazism is virtually skipped over because this isn’t a film about Nazi’s or their actions. Das Boot doesn’t skirt the issue of morality however, with two scenes in particular highlighting the morality of war. After they have successfully crippled two merchant ships and eluded the British destroyers U-96 returns to finish the job on the merchant vessels only to discover that the crew haven’t been rescued. They watch as the crew dives overboard to either drown or burn alive. They leave them, for they have no choice, it is not practical or their job to save those dying men. Still, it is a haunting reminder about the lack of morality in war, although not as much as the final fate of the crew of U-96. They are killed, and while at first you feel sympathy for these men you have come to know, you also realize that they spent the entire movie trying to destroy non-military vessels. It is at that moment that the supreme irony of their deaths kicks in, not that they die on land outside the death trap that was their sub, but that the lack of morality in war does not allow sympathy for their deaths any more than it did for the merchant sailors earlier in the film.
The only flaws in Das Boot were the various scenes in the conning tower. Those scenes were too obviously done on a set, with the water always splashing against the tower perfectly and in the same exact spot. It’s not a major point of contention, but it did become an annoyance any time the film ventured to the conning tower and the veil of reality was filtered away through the obvious film set.
Das Boot is a monstrous film, at least the director’s cut is, clocking in at almost three and a half hours. But, it isn’t a dull movie and it doesn’t feel like it is a long movie. Das Boot is a deeply engaging film and simply put the best submarine film ever made and a fine entry into the ranks of World War II films. It is a film that requires some effort on the part of the viewer because it certainly isn’t light fare or an easy and quick watch. But, Das Boot is certainly worth seeing and is a film that will bring the horrors of serving on a German U-Boat during World War II home to the viewer whether you can handle it or not.