NOTE: This review refers to the 209 minute “Director’s Cut.”
Das Boot has a peculiar release history, having a number of cuts not far from Blade Runner, but a much greater disparity in running time between any of them. Originally released theatrically at 150 minutes, later in two miniseries forms, one set of three 100 minute blocks and one set of six 50-minute blocks, then finally was re-edited (and re-cued) with this version. I spent a long time trying to figure out whether this was the version I should introduce myself to the film with, though only this and the 293 minute version are currently available (in Region 1, anyway, and legally speaking). A helpful soul on Amazon, of all places, gave reviews that gave me somewhere to start, suggesting the director’s cut was the one anyone should see and the miniseries version was for “devotees” of a kind. Still, three and a half hours is a lot of time to devote to a single movie (see my prior discussions of Once Upon a Time in America and Gone with the Wind), so I’ve only just now finally gotten to it.
In World War II, the Germans put many young men, increasingly young, onto Unterseeboots, or U-Boats (submarines if you just must have plain English) and setting them out to see in vain attempts to blockade the British naval fleet. War Correspondent Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is assigned to U-96, under the command of its unnamed Kapitänlieutenant (Jürgen Prochnow), meeting with him and the boat’s Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann) as they wander into a bar celebrating the Ritterkruz award being given to the drunken Kapitänlieutenant Thomsen (Otto Sander). At the party are the 1st Watch Officer (or 1WO, Hubertus Bengsch) and the 2nd Watch Officer (or 2WO, Martin Semmelrogge), with the rest of the crew outside and drunk, Chief Bosun Lumprecht (Uwe Ochsenknecht) singing at and hitting their car (with his fists, that is) and the rest of the crew managing to urinate on it drunkenly. The next day is more sober, but jubilant as U-96 is launched and the rather green crew sets out on war patrol. Much of their time is spent horsing about, doing standard duties or pining for lovers, including the French lover of Cadet Ullman (Martin May), who he fears will be killed when the French Partisans discover she is pregnant with a German’s child. Whenever submerged, Petty Officer Hinrich (Heinz Hoenig) is glued to the headset on the hydrophones, and otherwise translating radiograms. Chief Helmsman Kriechbaum (Bernd Tauber, who bears a weird resemblance to James Remar, though not the gritty voice) attempts to navigate for the ship’s course, eventually losing control of it to stormy waters and the unseen sun. Only on occasion do the eager young men see action, first attempting to attack a British Destroyer that manages to get the drop (quite literally–depth charges) on them, later stumbling across an apparently unguarded fleet of ships. Plans for a return to base are cut short by new orders from headquarters, demanding they brave the Strait of Gibraltar and land at La Spezia, Italy–a narrow straight to say the least, but more importantly a heavily guarded and ally-controlled one.
I mostly know Prochnow from his roles in, well, Beverly Hills Cop 2, In the Mouth of Madness (as a cross between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft–of sorts, at least) and Dune, so this was, you can imagine, a bit of a new experience of the German actor for me. The Captain is a tough man, clearly experienced in war and concerned about the welfare of his crew and the “war effort” as they used to say. He’s sarcastic and less than respectful when discussing the political aspects of Germany at the time, but this does not get in the way of what he feels is his duty to the crew and military that comes from that country, frustrated by the failing war patrol’s attempts at blockading. He smiles and speaks to the enemy combatants above him as if he were talking to a supernatural being that he was on even terms with, hurried but unworried when it comes to their reciprocation of attack. Alongside him in the number 2 position, Semmelrogge puts in a cheeky performance as the vulgar member of the crew, slinging whatever smart remark or oddity comes to mind in any given situation, experienced enough to stand behind it, but not quite so unworried as the Captain is. In stark contrast to either of them (criticized by both, in fact, for his cleancut nature and support of the Nazi party) is the number 1. Bengsch has the unenviable task of portraying the one full-fledged, proud Nazi in a film long after such folk, shall we say, fell out of fashion. He does so with chin up, just as he should for the 1WO, usually thick-skinned but occasionally too offended by the attitudes of his shipmates to stay around them. Werner is greener than anyone else, with even the youngest of the crew able to dash quickly from aft to stern and back at the slightest call, despite the close quarters. Werner, however, is at first thoroughly proud of his assignment, taking many pictures and babbling on occasion until he stumbles into real danger.
All of the men go through a sort of disillusioning change, the forced extremes of close quarters, unchanging living combined with harrowing moments of tense anticipation as the enemies above threaten to drown their ship leave them haggard, bearded and pale. Whenever they (and the audience) can hear that faint whine of a Destroyer’s propellers overhead, there’s a breath-caught moment of absolute terror for the entire crew (and the audience) as the depth charges can’t be far behind. Even the seaworthy mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder, whose image seems to grace most stills used from the film) finally snaps under this pressure at one point, after the ship is violently rocked repeatedly by the explosions they can not see, but only feel and hear. Werner becomes sturdier, going from a clean cut appearance similar to the 1WO to a scraggly man in civvies when the ship stops to port at Vigo in Spain–leading the rather comfortably-lived officers stationed there to mistake the 1WO for the captain, as he is the only one in uniform when they land. These performances can be hysterical (especially in Leder’s case) but always ring true to the claustrophobic and terrifying experience of complete isolation and unknown fate that these crews suffered through.
Responses to this film are interesting, and occasionally actually sort of disturbing. Most literate critics tend to acclaim its highly accurate, very realistic feel, while some dopey, creepy folks write simplistic reviews with things like “why would we want [Germans] to live?” or the alleged fact that three quarters of German submarine operators never made it back was cheered at the first American screening. This is mind-boggling to me. The quote comes from an incredibly ignorant review on Amazon (where the brilliant soul seems to think this film is American) which notes the obvious reason for his disinterest in Germans living: the Holocaust (as well as attempts to “take over the world,” which concern me some great measure less than the Holocaust). Now, not to get too sarcastic here, but I don’t think Jews are an underwater lifeform, nor that concentration camps were built in secret submarine bases. The souls placed on submarines may or may not have participated in it, but it seems highly unlikely that they had any role other than a military one in the war. Beyond that, they were still people, as Wolfgang Petersen’s film works so hard to show us. He does make much of the crew apolitical (and even has Kapitänlieutenant Thomsen and some others make disparaging remarks about Hitler) and one would hope this would be enough for someone to recognize this, but apparently not.
I’ve seen a fair number of war movies in my time, though, and many (if not most, or even all) are not pro-war films, and in fact usually pretty anti-war. Most of the time I shrug and nod, “yeah, war’s bad, I don’t like it, good movie, on with life.” This one really got to me though. Perhaps it was knowing those things that ignorant and sick minds have said and thinking of the fact that they were said by real people of real people, and that even those ignorant minds had some point and proved that the folks dropping charges were not evil either, but I just wanted the combat to end, I wanted the crew to stop having to sit and wait and listen to sonar pings and fear the next charge they heard would be the last thing they’d ever hear besides rushing water and screams, but knew that the solution was not to kill the ones doing it to them, for they were simply in the exact same position of trying to stop the enemy. Certainly, pretending a world without war is possible with humans is beyond naïve, but to actually make me start to desperately wish it was not so, and make my complacency on the subject rattle and dislodge so is an amazing achievement. For me, this brilliant little (ok, I suppose my own discussion of its length discounts it from being “little”) film was the most successful in its antiwar message ever, for representing the “other side” in a way that doesn’t even acknowledge the side attacking them, leaving it simply a display of the fear and effort so pushed into events that only serve to enforce political gain and loss, and a display of the men who have to suffer for it, even without regard for the politics they serve or fight.