I am told German Wolfgang Petersen’s movie “Das Boot” is the submarine movie by which all submarine movies are measured. It just so happens that the submarine in question is a German one, and in a movie set during World War II, this is quite an anomaly. Then again, I’m sure the Germans were getting pretty tired of seeing World War II movies about them but never about them.
“Das Boot” follows a submarine crew captained by Jurgen Prochnow, as they leave their French port in search of prey in the Atlantic Ocean. The crew is in for a rude surprise, as the British have been making strides in defending themselves. Into this battle goes Prochnow’s crew, but it isn’t long before fatigue, isolation, and signs of delirium and insanity begin to creep forward. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, Prochnow gets an order that may just doom his crew: make his way through a heavily defended stretch of British waters, or die trying.
Running well over 3 hours long, this Director’s Cut of “Das Boot” is, well, long, although it needn’t be so. I’ll wager that nearly an hour and a half of screen time is devoted to the crew standing around listening to sonar pings as British Destroyers hunt them. Even taking into account that “Das Boot” set the standard, I’m not sure if the running length couldn’t have been edited for better pacing. Or at the very least, cut down on the whole standing around and staring blankly at each other sequences, of which there are a lot of.
The above aside, “Das Boot” excels in delving into the minds of the submariners, exposing their mental degradation as the mission wears on. At first the crew are giddy about hunting British freighters, but that giddiness quickly turns to terror when British Destroyers hunt them in turn. In another scene, the submariners witness the end result of one of their strikes: a British freighter and its crew dies before their eyes. For the first time they are up close and personal with the enemy and it isn’t what they expected.
Still, “Das Boot” is not all that original and in fact follows the War Movie conventions pretty closely. The film has a small group of main characters and a supporting cast that are interchangeable. Prochnow’s Captain is up front, followed by Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer), an idealistic war correspondent that quickly realizes war is Hell and that he might not live through it after all. Even the film’s opening, at a French nightclub where the submariners spend a wild night before shipping off, is so familiar it’s painful. What’s a War Movie without soldiers celebrating a night of debauchery before being shipped off?
Also like a lot of War Movies, “Das Boot” doesn’t concern itself with the politics of the war, but instead focuses on the individual salvation of the unit. For good measure, “Das Boot” also throws in a coward who redeems himself and a young soldier who longs for his French girlfriend back in France. (This lends credence to my long-standing theory that the French are just not very good judges of character, but I digress…)
While it may be true that “Das Boot” was a breakthrough film back in 1982, I can’t say it’s anything special in 2002. It’s a good movie, with a good cast, and Wolfgang Petersen’s direction is very intimate. The intensity of being in a submarine crew is well realized, but beyond that, everything else is too familiar.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I am expected to be rooting for a German submarine crew that goes around massacring defenseless civilian supply ships, killing thousands in the process. This, while their army brethrens are slaughtering Jews by the millions in concentration camps around Europe. Then again, maybe it’s just me…
Wolfgang Petersen (director) / Wolfgang Petersen (screenplay)
CAST: Jurgen Prochnow …. Captain
Herbert GrÃ¶nemeyer …. Lt Werner
Klaus Wennemann …. Chief Engineer
Hubertus Bengsch …. Number 1