Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Das Boot 
Summary: Wolfgang Petersen's cut of his WWII submarine epic is four hours of pure meat. We see masterful camerawork, dynamic acting and enough tension to cause a mini-stroke in its viewers. "Das Boot" is one of the first truly modern war pictures, whose style holds up three decades on.
NR | 209 min.
Director & Screenplay: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Herbert Grönemeyer, Jürgen Prochnow, Klaus Wennemann
Distribution: Columbia Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $10,915,250 (#65 of 1982)
*NOTE: This review covers the Das Boot Director’s Cut edition, not the original theatrical release or television miniseries.*
Claustrophobia isn’t difficult to convey in a movie scene. Tighten up the camera angles to close-up, shrink the set’s walls inward, dim the lights and raise the sound levels of your characters’ breathing. It’s enough to get any audience member panicking after just a few minutes.
How do you think they’ll be feeling after nearly four hours?
Part German mythology, part gritty war games thriller—director Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is all meat. More precisely, it’s all bratwurst.
Despite its sheer brilliance, Das Boot may be the last film you’d ever want to pop into the DVD player on date night with a lady you’re trying to impress. This film represents one of the most shameless sausage fests ever put to celluloid, with zero named female characters in the lot. The nearest thing to a romance storyline you’ll find in this movie is the obsession between one below-deck character and the submarine’s engine.
But Das Boot is far from a one-trick pony.
Based on the 1973 novel by German author Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Das Boot (or simply, “The Boat,” in English) follows a Nazi propaganda photographer named Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) as he joins the crew of Nazi submarine U-96 on a mission. What’s meant to be a routine trip to showcase the fabled U-boat’s power results in several bouts with British and Allied forces, pushing the submarine—and its men—to the limit.
The plot is that simple. So why does the Das Boot Director’s Cut need to clock in at 3 hours 29 minutes? Because it was originally shot as a German television miniseries (the full version is just under 5 hours long). The sheer size of Das Boot has intimidated many prospective viewers but one of the film’s great achievements is that it has no problem holding your attention for its entire run.
Petersen, a guy who would later direct American action blockbusters such as Air Force One, Troy and Poseidon, became an internationally known filmmaker after Das Boot earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director. Showing U-boat fever was mostly a German affliction, the film collected only about $11 million at the U.S. box office in 1982, compared to about $75 million globally. This movie treats the German-engineered U-boat with loads of respect, giving the sense that Petersen and his compatriots were in awe of the iconic vessel.
This idolization of the U-boat was one of Buccheim’s chief knocks against the film adaptation of his book, which he called “cheap entertainment” in a scathing review. Buccheim felt Petersen used gimmicks to build tension and also characterized the ship’s crew as a lot of unprofessional yayhoos.
Buccheim isn’t completely inaccurate in his observations on Das Boot, but I do feel he’s way off base. Just like Stephen King detested Stanley Kubrick’s vision of The Shining, Buccheim’s dislike for Petersen’s film shows the source’s author may be too close to the material to truly judge an adaptation. Pure and simple, this movie is a masterpiece.
While Das Boot does handle the Nazi regime with kid gloves, its admiration is for Germany’s WWII Naval officers and not their land-grabbing commanders. The film starts by depicting the Nazis in 1941 as a Roman empire bound to fall. The evening before U-96 departs, everyone is blind drunk, including decorated officers who can barely stand. We see a group of young sailors pissing on a passing car outside the wild Bacchanalia. Not exactly a glorification of their country’s proud military history.
We follow Lt. Werner undersea, as he snaps away at the crew with his camera. We observe many mundane conversations among crew members as they pass the time doing crossword puzzles and busting one another’s balls. It’s also here that we realize Das Boot is not a classy, fanciful picture about a deep sea journey, as the men hurl coarse language at each other constantly. We’re an hour into the picture before the first battle situation arrises, as U-96 locks horns with a British Naval destroyer. This film is calm until this point and from here on out, it’s a pure tension experiment.
Das Boot‘s pace is deliberate, with many starts and stops but the droning sound of the engines and the modern (for the time) minimalist electronic score by Klaus Doldinger lull you along. Aside from the U-boat, the film’s true star is actor Jürgen Prochnow, who plays the sub’s weary captain with decades spent in the water.
Prochnow’s performance is complete. His character obviously loves his assignment and will protect the vessel and his men by using creativity and unmatched knowledge or maritime war. Known as “The Old Man” by his young crew, he seems to know how each battle will unfold from the time the first shell is fired. In possibly the film’s best quote, the men sit in silence waiting to be hit with a bomb when Prochnow utters, “Now it all turns psychological, gentlemen.” That line, written by Petersen, goes on to sum up the entirety of Das Boot.
Like many of the best modern war films, Das Boot could also be categorized as a psychological thriller. After all, what could be more psychologically demanding than being in combat? Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket showed us what happens when a frail psyche is put to the test and given a high-powered rifle; Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker took us inside the sweat-filled Kevlar helmet of a young man as he disabled bombs in Iraq; in Das Boot, Petersen shows us the quiet intensity inside a U-boat submerged about 700 feet below sea level.
The submarine itself comes to represent the fear inside these young men crammed within this airtight can. No character better exemplifies this strain like U-96’s chief mechanic, who’s known by his nickname “The Ghost” (Erwin Leder). Ghost is at home in the vessel’s dank engine room, where he is one with the massive pistons and every bit as intense as they are. Eventually, the pressure crushes the Ghost, as he suffers a mental breakdown and must be carried out of the engine room like a PTSD case waiting to happen.
The sequence that will most stick with you after Das Boot ends comes during an attack from an unseen predator ship. The U-96 has been getting the shit kicked out of it when suddenly the shelling stops. Petersen creates palpable tension by using utter silence while the men wait for another bomb.
The ship’s interior is hushed save for the soft whimpering we hear as cinematographer Jost Vacano (Total Recall, Starship Troopers) goes in tight on several actors’ faces. Next, we hear the Sonar system’s pings slowly picking up speed—and just when you feel you’re about to fall off the edge of the couch, a bolt pops loose under the water pressure, causing everyone to jump. Using silence to create tension is hardly a new concept but Petersen masters it in this sequence, which is one all hopeful directors should study.
Das Boot’s subtext is also about sobering up to reality. The crew of the U-96 feel their ship is untrackable and indestructible because it’s the world’s most advanced submarine. But the realization that they’ve ended up in the crosshairs of something more vicious and powerful is a shot to their collective gut. It just shows that no matter how advanced your technology may be, someone else is always toiling away in the lab to design the world’s next great killing machine. It’s about the futility of war and the countless funding that goes into it—not to mention the human cost.
Much of the imagery from Das Boot is up for artistic interpretation. At times the ship—and its men—don’t seem to be of this world. One evocative sequence happens when Lt. Werner violently wakes up before heading to the above-sea deck where he and several officers witness a burning ship surrounded by a lake of fire. These men have spent so much time living in the shadows you wonder if any of it’s really happening or if they were killed a long time ago and are simply damned to survey the seas of Hell for eternity.
With Das Boot, Petersen created one of the most perfect war thrillers we’ve ever seen—and even more impressively, a WWII flick that Germans could be proud of. The line separating mythology from real life becomes a bit blurry but what we’re left with is an intense movie about men locked tightly inside a pressure cooker with everything on the line.