Das Boot is long – bloody long. The uncut version (and the best according to snobby purists like myself) of the Second World War epic has a staggering running time of 293 minutes. That, ladies and gentleman, is just a shade under five hours. Peter Jackson would be proud.
It’s also the most expensive German film ever made, with a similarly mind-boggling budget of 32 million Deutschmarks (or $12 million in today’s money). But that’s nothing: Das Boot made a stonking $84 million at the box office in 1981, making it one of the highest-grossing “foreign language” films of all time.
“Blimey,” I hear you cry, “that’s a lot of numbers. It must be one of those clunky swords-and-sandals epics or a flashy sci-fi romp for that kind of money.” Nope, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is about men in a submarine. That’s it. There are no aliens, no lightsabers, no Val Kilmer and no celebrity boobs – just sweaty German men in a glorified tube.
Sound like your homoerotic cup of tea? Sit back, light your pipe, pull on the tartan blanket and enjoy the ubiquitous “here’s the plot in a nutshell” part of the review.
First, the opening shot. It’s easily up there with that of Blade Runner and Boogie Nights and perfectly sets the scene, atmosphere and tension for the rest of the film. We are first confronted with a simple, sickly green panel, accompanied by the faint sound of sonar. The music builds. The gurgling sound of the invisible U-boat’s engine slowly thwumps into your skull. A whale-like shape appears and transforms into the title card with an orchestral flourish. It’s bloody good.
The rest (by which I mean the remaining 292 minutes) of the film centres around a naive war correspondent, Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), as he joins the crew of the U-96 on a mission to the North Atlantic in 1941. But the situation is rapidly turning against the German Navy – the British have developed new ways of seeking and destroying the underwater “hunters”. Make no bones about it, Das Boot is firmly, utterly, tragically anti-war. It shows the futility of the whole affair, the wastage of life involved in the megalomania of one man.
The ship itself is the German military in microcosm: provincial, cynical, non-Nazi, funny and human. There are none of the cheesy Achtung Spitfeuer! or Gott in Himmel! characterisations of the Germans here. They are real, three-dimensional characters. In a film of excellent performances, one stands head and shoulders about the rest: Jürgen Prochnow’s Kapitänleutnant. Prochnow has the rare gift of being able to convey deep emotion with the tiniest twitch, the quietest murmur or grunt. His sweaty, grizzled face leers over Das Boot. He is the film.
Das Boot, and especially it’s truly (and I mean truly) shocking ending, is probably the best war film ever made. I know even suggesting such a thing will induce loud snorts from The Bridge on the River Kwai or Saving Private Ryan brigade, but I don’t care. No other portrayal is a more caring, thoughtful and, quite literally, fleshed-out depiction of kinship in the face of adversity. It is the jewel of German cinema. Watch it now.
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT
Want to read more of Max gushing about a film he loved? Check out his review of ‘The Babadook’.