***½/**** Image A Sound A+
starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch
screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen, based on the novel by Lothar G. Buchheim
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
by Walter Chaw The curious mental state of German submariners in the waning days of the second World War is reflected in the general malaise of the United States in the weeks following September Eleventh and the hours preceding our unpopular pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Caught in the maddening doldrums between one act of unimaginable violence and its inevitable aftershocks, America's implacable disquiet is one part anticipation of the inevitable, multiple parts cynicism, and, for a large portion of the population, a dollop of distinct lack of faith in the motives and competency of our leadership. A closer examination of the similarities pithy but perhaps unfruitful, sufficed to say that revisiting Wolfgang Petersen's masterpiece Das Boot (in its Director's Cut form) at this suspended moment in time is not only rewarding as great cinema can be, but also current and amazingly poignant.
Journalist Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) boards Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock's (Jürgen Prochnow) Type VII-C U-boat, U-96, on what amounts to a suicide mission into the North Atlantic to disrupt allied shipping lines during WWII. In a contained capsule measuring roughly 10' by 150', with one toilet for fifty men and humour in the spread of crabs in close company, Das Boot is a unique war journal in that it locates the true horror of conflict in the low-level hum of the roiling anticipation of it.
Paul Verhoeven's favourite DP Jost Vacano updates the visual signatures of America's cinema vérité and France's Nouvelle Vague--the picture has a handheld documentary feeling that Petersen made necessary with his deep reality. (The life-sized set on which Das Boot was filmed was kept completely enclosed to preserve a sense of reality for the cast.) The intimacy of the technique, particularly in mad scenes where the crew rushes to the front of the boat to aid in quick dives, creates a palpable claustrophobia enhanced immeasurably by Mike Le Mare's brilliant sound effects editing. Though imitated since in every submarine opera, Vacano and Le Mare's work here stands as something of a seminal achievement in this peculiar nautical action genre.
Technical achievements aside, Das Boot's key scene is undoubtedly the one where the Captain orders a slow retreat from drowning and burning enemy sailors, the power of the moment lit with astonishing clarity by Prochnow's humanity. In an instant, considerations of space, of honour, of allegiance to his men at war with an allegiance to mankind serve to paint the sailors aboard Das Boot as children of fear and violence connected still to a base morality. The moment that Prochnow's captain turns away from men he's ostensibly murdered, for a cause in which he's no longer certain, speaks silent volumes of the horror of war--the taking of a brother-soldier's life suddenly stripped of the handsome trappings of patriotism.
Not a perfect film by any means (its opening celebration scenes are too prolonged; its middle section is interesting but redundant (and more's the point, I realize, but even points well-made can be stultifying)), Das Boot is fascinating and sticky. More surprising, upon its twenty-second birthday, Petersen's picture finds itself a metaphor for a great industrial country led blindly into a prolonged war to no good, understandable end but for the dealing of death in an alien place. We know the Germans lose WWII and that adds to the pathos of the piece (and to Petersen's freedom to be uncompromising), but the brilliance of Das Boot is that this tale of survivors features a shit-bath, flop-sweat, and, in the end, the realization that even if Germany had won, the men of U-96 would have still lost a portion of their humanity: the confidence that victory was worth it all in the end.
by Bill Chambers The Superbit reissue of Das Boot: The Director's Cut finally gives the 210-minute film room to breathe on DVD. The original release crammed the movie, a commentary track, and other supplements onto a single platter, and while the Superbit double-discer does away with all of the making-of material, it adds a German DTS 5.1 track so spectacular as to actually seem like a fair trade. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer smoothes over bumps in the source print with impeccable compression and stable colours; shadow detail is diaphanous. But the star of the show is that soundmix, which transforms your viewing area into a creaking, leaking vessel. The subwoofer was invented for the film's depth charges, and the eerie call of sonar is, eerier still, untraceable to any specific speaker. The audio isn't aggressive for aggressive's sake, though, and ambient surround usage is reduced to almost nothing during scenes when the sub is stuck near the bottom of the ocean floor, an artistic decision that emphasizes a sense of profound isolation. German Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Surround tracks are also included. Das Boot: The Director's Cut is the first Superbit title that lives up to the hype and promise of the gimmick. Originally published: March 19, 2003.