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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Das Boot’ (1981): Survival at 280 Meters Below

Directed by: Wolfgang Peterson || Produced by: Gunter Rohrbach

Screenplay by: Wolfgang Peterson || Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann

Music by: Klaus Doldinger || Cinematography: Jost Vacano || Edited by: Hannes Nikel || Country: West Germany || Language: German

Running Time: 208 minutes

When I was in either my late teens or early twenties — to be honest I can’t recall exactly when this was — my Mom and I visited the home of the pastor of our local Presbyterian church. I remember him remarking on his fondness for classical guitar and his respect for an older war film he had recently watched. Das Boot, he mentioned, was a German picture about submariners in World War II (WWII) that had left quite the impression on him. I knew many nations produced war films from various perspectives (often the most patriotic, perhaps even nationalist viewpoint of their domestic audiences), but that man’s honest, raw reflection on a movie with a funny German name (“The Boat” in English) stuck with me for over a decade.

I at last viewed the 208-minute “directors cut” of Das Boot earlier this week and agree with my old pastor’s assessment of the German classic. Considered not just one of the better European films about foot soldiers of the Third Reich, but one of the greatest war films ever made, Das Boot follows the exploits of the real-life German U-boat, U-96, during WW II as inspired by the accounts of wartime journalist Lothar-Günther Buchheim, first published in his 1973 novel of the same name. Its technical, almost procedural storytelling about the mechanics of submarine warfare mirrors the cold, calculated portrayal of military retreat by British forces from mainland Europe during the same conflict in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). Das Boot contains far greater character development and personality than that later Hollywood picture, however, somehow splitting the stylistic difference between the minutia of submersible engineering and epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)-type action filmmaking.

Like the later Call of the Wolf (2019), the bulk of Das Boot is defined by its oppressive, claustrophobic set-design and cramped blocking.

Written and directed by the late Wolfgang Peterson, the film was only Peterson’s second theatrical feature and his last native German-language production before his transition to Hollywood with such well received pictures as The NeverEnding Story (1984), Enemy Mine (1985), In the Line of Fire (1993), and Air Force One (1997), in addition to the middling yet financially successful Troy (2004). Peterson made more English-language American blockbusters than he did films in his home country before he passed in August 2022, six years after his final movie and first German-language feature since Das Boot, Vier gegen die Bank (“Four Against the Bank”), in 2016. Das Boot remains his most identifiable and well known feature amongst cinephiles, however, both for its notable historical subject-matter and its reference-level close-quarters indoor cinematography, the latter courtesy of director of photography Jost Vacano.

Though Steadicams had been popularized by the early 1980s by such films as Rocky (1976) and The Shining (1980), the stabilized handheld camerawork of Das Boot resulted from Vacano’s creativity and environmental necessity. The massive full-scale submarine replica that forms the basis of Das Boot’s set-design forced the filmmakers to adapt their cinematographic style to the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of their titular vehicle. Aside from the scenes in La Rochelle in coastal France that bookend the film, themselves featuring a wide array of indoor and outdoor photography, a neat tracking shot that introduces a riotous party at a brothel, terrific in-camera explosion FX, and impressive stunts, the majority of the film takes place inside the tight steel confines of the replica. A combination of hydraulic machinery, terrific post-production sound FX and automated dialogue-replacement (all sound in the submarine sections was added later), and gyroscope-stabilized 35mm cameras create the ominous, foreboding audiovisual experience within the submersible’s bowels. Vacano would later work with venerable Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven on the science-fiction action classics Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997) in Hollywood after previously collaborating on Verhoeven’s earlier Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980) in the Netherlands, but his work here in Das Boot represents arguably his career highlight; for all the supposed immersive qualities of computer generated (CG) FX in modern big-budget movies, these slippery camera movements inside a steel tube of death feel far more cinematic and real.

The few weaknesses of Das Boot have to do with its shoehorned epilogue (see below) and certain limitations of its practical FX. While the interior sets of the U-boat are seamless, numerous external shots of the U-96 underwater, breaching the surface, and confronting various enemy naval craft aren’t as convincing. The miniatures of most of the aforementioned watercraft look just like that, miniatures, and would’ve benefited from subtle flourishes of contemporary digital FX like placing small CG characters in numerous long shots.  To that end, multiple composite shots of crewmembers on the U-boat’s conning tower stand out in a bad way as well.

Last but not least to discuss is the written component of Das Boot. All characters, from protagonist, war correspondent, and the stand-in for the source material’s author, Herbert Grönemeyer, to main character and ship’s captain, Jürgen Prochnow, to chief engineer and sympathetic underdog Klaus Wennemann, are memorable. Their chemistry is realistic, emotional, and often funny, humanizing the greater narrative despite its overwhelming technical jargon and dour visual aesthetics. The only problem I have with Das Boot’s screenplay is its artificially dark, contrived ending that serves little purpose besides an unnecessary reminder that Germany lost WWII.

Earlier sections of the film inside a French bordello (top) and U-boat bunker (bottom) feature more open cinematography and fewer sweaty beards. Unlike the story’s conclusion, the prologue provides a nice contrast with the rest of the movie.

Despite a few notable problems, though, Das Boot remains a powerhouse of German filmmaking as well as war cinema in general. I remain grateful to my former church pastor for recommending this film to me years ago, because otherwise the film might never have stood out from those numerous “Greatest Films of All Time” lists from various film institutes around the globe. Its inventive, groundbreaking cinematography is matched only by its careful deconstruction of Nazi grunts working inside an uncaring, monolithic war machine, so I can’t recommend it enough for those interested in film history, European history, and warfare at sea.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though you may need to watch it in chunks depending on which version you try (Das Boot exists in no less than five versions ranging from 2.5 to 6 hours in length), Das Boot was the populist-intellectual war movie-hybrid that laid the groundwork for future muscular war pictures like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and last year’s (2022) All Quiet on the Western Front.

However… practical limitations of various exterior shots of naval craft date the film somewhat and the heavyhanded irony of the ending is unnecessary.


? As fate would have it, Das Boot was the most decorated German film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (six Oscar nominations) until All Quiet on the Western Front (nine nominations and four wins).

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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