During the late seventies and early eighties, some of the greatest war movies were produced, including The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Das Boot is commonly known for being a war epic, but that long war film in a submarine. Depending on which version you have seen, Das Boot can range from 150 minutes to 293 minutes.
I managed to find a version that fell in between. It was the director’s cut that stood at 209 minutes, which is still quite substantial for a films runtime. Set during the Second World War, Das Boot opens with quite a harrowing message stating that of the 40,000 men deployed on German U-Boats during the war, only 10,000 actually returned.
Many of the aforementioned films are taken from the viewpoint of Allied soldiers, which created some entertaining and memorable viewing. Wolfgang Petersen chose to spin it and have Das Boot centralised through Hitler’s soldiers being deployed to the North Atlantic. Their aim was to destroy the American convoys sent to aid Great Britain during the wartime effort.
As I mentioned, Petersen chose to open with the statement on the 10,000 men returning but immediately juxtaposes this against a lavish party scene involving all the fresh-faced sailors that are set to leave La Rochelle in the morning. This party scene begins familiarising the characters including Lt. Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer), the captain and chief engineer (Jurgen Prochnow and Klaus Wennemann, respectively) of the U-Boat, that departs in the morning.
This joyous occasion becomes infectious, as you begin to forget the ominous message that was displayed previously. As the Captain and his crew board the new U-96 submarine, Petersen really puts the use of claustrophobia as the crew sprint around the submarine to find their quarters and store their belongings, as they sail out to the North Atlantic Sea.
Wolfgang Petersen chose to have the communications between the U-Boats and their command post rather unreliable and visibly frustrating for the Captain and the Chief Engineer, especially as they begin to think they are floating aimlessly in the North Atlantic. In between the frustrating lack of communications and the gruelling weather the U-Boat has to manoeuvre through, they nearly crash into a friendly U-Boat commanded by the decorated drunk veteran Thomsen. (Otto Sander)
As time wears on, it becomes visible in the faces of the frustrating crew and especially the two leading men on the U-Boat. Their newly-grown facial hair and the darkening bags under their eyes become ever present over their meagre dinner conversations. As people push past the captain’s quarters, the cramped area of the submarine is really accentuated throughout, especially as the time wears on causing visible frustration.
As well as masterfully showing the claustrophobia that is throughout the submarine, he also manages to create a great deal of tense sequences throughout Das Boot. During the U-Boat’s misinformed travels in the North Atlantic, Allied destroyers constantly disrupt their operation, which signals the beginning of said tense affairs. As the captain peers over the water level, he notices the forthcoming destroyer and screams “Alarm! Alarm!” which sets the submarine in motion to dive in attempt to avoid the oncoming battleship.
Petersen continued this with the use of the Allied sonars trying to spot the U-Boat. As you hear the ping against the hull, the silence amongst the crew is quite deafening. Das Boot is one of the tensest affairs I have watched, as the submarine seems to become a magnet for misfortune. As they dive trying to escape the Allied war ships, they continually test the submarines diving level, but it’s the way Petersen uses the sounds as though the boat is tearing itself apart as it dives to further depths.
With the help of the soldiers being characters that are likeable and understandably frustrated, you begin to want these soldiers to not meet the perilous fate that was defined in the opening seconds of Das Boot. Wolfgang Petersen’s ability to make the audience forget that these are actually Nazi soldiers really helped this along. Their gruelling adventures in the North Atlantic and tense sequences throughout really help the daunting runtime seem effortless. (Well, the runtime that I saw)
Petersen manages to break up the tense sequences throughout as the Captain demands the Chief Engineer continually test the depth of the submarine, but also by having the soldiers seem unified in their own war effort. They celebrate the torpedo strikes, but also have a sing-song during the opening hour with ‘It’s A Long Road to Tipperary’.
As I mentioned, this film is from the viewpoint of Nazi soldiers of Hitler Germany, but this isn’t pushed at all throughout the film, which really helps Petersen’s film through the lengthy runtime. Das Boot is best viewed in it’s original language and is one of better films to be produced amongst some of the best war films around. The way Petersen bought together the characters throughout the film and had the claustrophobia looming large was very effective throughout, but the lasting image is the faces of the men as they hear the ping of the sonar. Das Boot is perhaps the tensest I’ve felt during a film, and it was great.