Das Boot (West Germany, 1981)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 international sensation, has become the latest motion picture to be remastered for a major re-release. Unlike a certain space trilogy, there aren't any "optically enhanced" scenes, but the 1997 version of Das Boot is significantly different from the first cut. More than sixty minutes of footage from the original German TV mini-series has been seamlessly woven back into the movie's tapestry. Jarring transitions have been smoothed out and character development has been greatly enhanced. The result is a more complete viewing experience. Das Boot, universally recognized as the best submarine movie of all time and one of the most heart-pounding thrillers ever filmed, is even better this time around than it was in its initial release.

During World War II in Germany, submarine duty was considered a "glamour job." It was nearly every young man's dream to be granted the privilege of serving the Fatherland aboard one of the sleek, glorious U-boats. As is often the case, the grim truth proved to be radically different from the shining fiction. Submarine service was a grueling, debilitating, dehumanizing experience, and Das Boot was the first motion picture to de-mythologize it completely.

The bulk of the film takes place within the boat, and follows a group of characters as they are transformed from the clean-shaven, energetic individuals who enter to the scraggly, dispirited men who eventually emerge. We see the story through the eyes of a German war correspondent (Herbert Gronemeyer) who is on board the boat for a single tour. The men are presented as he views them -- a cadre of competent sailors united by bonds stronger than family or blood. The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow), an officer of great intelligence, experience, and compassion, has earned the respect of every man under his command. However, unlike in many war movies, this leader is not a tactical genius. He can, and does, make mistakes -- some of which are costly. The crew is comprised of a diverse group of individuals, including a party member, a chief engineer on the verge of a breakdown, and a young man who longs for a reunion with his French fiancee.

The strength of the director's cut of Das Boot is that some of these secondary characters, who were realized only sketchily in the original film, have been fleshed out this time around. Many are no longer just familiar faces lurking in the background; they are fully formed men with histories, hopes, and dreams for the future. By developing so many characters this well, Petersen adds greater depth and urgency to the action scenes, and increases the poignancy of the bitterly ironic final sequence.

Since this is a story about human beings, not politics, it's not difficult or ethically troubling for audiences to find themselves in sympathy with Das Boot's characters even if, during the time period represented, they were the enemy. Within the bowels of the submarine, there's no room for Nazi philosophizing or cheerleading. In fact, the Captain expresses disdain for the Fuhrer and his minions. Although this was made as a German film about a uniquely German experience during a painful episode in German history, Das Boot possesses an acute insight that allows it to be understood and enjoyed by viewers all around the world.

When it comes to action, Das Boot is at the top of the class, and it's no wonder that, following its initial release, Wolfgang Petersen became a sought-after director (his later credits include Enemy Mine, Shattered, In the Line of Fire, and 1997's Air Force One). From the moment the crew first descends into the sub and we are given a tour of its innards, the sense of claustrophobia is suffocating. This feeling builds alongside the tension until the two, in concert, are almost unbearable. In later scenes, when the air supply is running out, we can feel ourselves gasping alongside the men, as if the oxygen is being siphoned out of the theater.

The battle scenes are superbly executed, not so much from a special effects perspective, but in the way that Petersen keeps us on the edge of our seats. The two standout sequences occur when the boat attacks a British caravan and when it attempts to wend its way through the treacherous straits of Gibraltar. Both are intense, nerve-wracking pieces of film making that are apt to elevate the heart rate of even the most blasé viewer. These aspects of Das Boot are so well-crafted, in fact, that they lose little impact on a second or third viewing. Even knowing exactly what's going to occur, and how it's going to happen, does little to diminish the experience.

In addition to being a great thriller, Das Boot also makes pointed statements about human nature and war, and the visceral eloquence with which they are expressed highlights the film's power. War is one of the great dehumanizing experiences -- it becomes "us" against "them." The objective is victory, simply because that's the only path to survival. This is true whether the battle is in the sky, on the land, on the sea, or under the surface. In Das Boot, the victims of the U-boat's attacks remain faceless entities until one wrenching scene when the crew is forced to confront the terrible ramifications of their actions. Naval battles often seems like the cleanest sort of warfare, with targets distanced from their attackers by fathoms of water and hits registered as blips on a screen. Das Boot effectively dispels that illusion when the men aboard the submarine are forced to look on helplessly while the survivors of a ship they destroyed die by fire and water.

I have often said that Patton is the greatest war movie, but Das Boot comes in a close second. The battle scenes don't define either film; superlative acting, top-notch writing, and exceptional direction do. Throughout the history of motion pictures, there have been many fine movies set in the cramped confines of the submarine -- 1957's Enemy Below, 1958's Run Silent, Run Deep, 1990's The Hunt for Red October, and 1995's Crimson Tide -- but none approaches the impact achieved by Das Boot. This film takes all of the drama and suspense inherent in a submarine-based story and delivers it in a near-perfect package, establishing Das Boot as not just a terrific adrenaline rush, but one of the best movies ever made.

Das Boot (West Germany, 1981)

Ranked #34 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:29
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1