Recently I reviewed Fury, David Ayer’s new World War II film that used the claustrophobia of operating a tank on the battlefield to its full advantage. This claustrophobia and panic was already expertly utilized before in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 war epic about submarine warfare, Das Boot. Not only did Petersen make audiences feel uncomfortable with being in a submarine, but also uncomfortable with our ideas about all German soldiers in World War II. What makes Das Boot brilliant is that it isn’t so much about the war, but the dehumanizing effects on individuals who were thrown into it.
In 1941, the Allied forces and the Nazis were engaged in an epic battle for control of the Atlantic. Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is a German war correspondent assigned to the German submarine U-96, soon meeting members of its crew like the brave and hard headed captain (Jürgen Prochnow). The submarine leaves port and Werner begins to learn what it means to be on a U-boat: boredom, no privacy, and sheer terror. While they’re not sailing the seas waiting for something to happen, they engage in battles of cat and mouse against British destroyer ships with each encounter possibly being their last. While the soldiers may consider themselves to be battle hardened warriors, it is clear the war is taking more of a toll on them than they may realize.
This movie is a classic, there’s really no denying that. Since making this film, Petersen went on to make films like Air Force One and The Perfect Storm, both of which are fine movies, but it’s clear that none of the movies he’s done since has come close to the epic scope and intensity of Das Boot. This film definitely deserves to be considered a classic because it is one of the defining war movies of all time and also just a fantastic film, but, good God, if it isn’t hard to sit through. There are many different versions of this movie, and I have the director’s cut which has over an hour of what was in the original making it three and a half hours long. I’ve seen longer movies, like Lawrence of Arabia as an example, but this one is much more difficult.
There’s very little in Das Boot that can be called entertaining. Now, before you say anything, that isn’t a bad thing. This movie is an experience, and one that puts you right in the middle of the action thanks to the brilliant camerawork of cinematographer Jost Vacano, who created a camera that used gyroscopes for balance before the steadicam was a really practical thing. There’s really intense and suspenseful scenes of naval warfare as well where the submarine has to hide from the better equipped destroyers and find a weak spot to attack. There’s also a whole lot of waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. This makes the movie really hard to sit through and feel a lot longer, but it is necessary for the whole experience of the movie. This is supposed to make viewers feel the claustrophobia and fear of being in an underwater tube, and it works better than I really would want it to.
Another thing that makes Das Boot far superior than your average war film is how it treats its subjects. True enough, this is a German production made by a German director so its clear that the subjects are more than likely going to be German, which seems like it may seem awkward considering Nazis. Oddly enough, there isn’t much talk of Nazis and only a little mentioning of Hitler and Churchill. This is a movie about the individual, the human soldier and his battle to just wake up the next morning. This isn’t a movie about ideals or political beliefs with clear good guys and bad guys. It simply, or complexly, shows the reality and unbiased horrors of war.
Das Boot is one of the best war movies ever made. It shows the realities of battle and the effects it has on young soldiers while also showing a realistic depiction of life in a submarine. The battle scenes are intense, the special effects are awesome, and the acting is truly fantastic. As hard as this movie can be to sit through, it’s also a very rewarding experience. Not only do you get to witness a piece of cinematic history, but you also feel like you’re seeing history play out in front of your eyes. It’s a landmark achievement in film and is not to be missed.