Film Reviews

Nazi love

When the original theatrical version of Das Boot was released 15 years ago, it ran just under two and a half hours and didn't feature a single marquee name in its all-male cast. And it was in German. With subtitles. Did I mention that almost all of it took place inside a U-boat, and that Nazis are the heroes? Notwithstanding these handicaps, Das Boot managed to become the most successful foreign-language film of its day. It was hardly a surprise: few viewers could walk away unaffected by the film's grim beauty--the heart-stopping tension of the psychological battle scenes, the torturous claustrophobia of everyday existence under the frigid North Atlantic, the ironic exuberance in listening to the German crew sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," a kind of salutary hymn to the Englishmen they plan to destroy. Like the crew, you're as attentive as a cat from the first moment the U-boat submerges, and you don't unwind until well after the final credits roll. Its simple poignancy lingers in the air, like a stench of sweat and diesel exhaust, and the feeling is difficult to shake. (It was released the first year I started reviewing movies, and was my number one film of 1982.)

With a newly mixed digital soundtrack that convinces you rivets are popping out of the theater walls, plus the addition of an hour of footage (it now clocks in just shy of 210 minutes), Wolfgang Petersen's new version, Das Boot: The Director's Cut, illustrates why it is a template of its genre, a quiltwork of rare qualities that has seldom been reproduced--a humane action picture, an intimate epic, an ambiguous, morally complex cautionary tale.

The daunting length and language barrier might seem intimidating--that's a sizable commitment of time and mental resources just to see a movie--but ultimately these are irrational prejudices, and counterproductive ones. The extra scenes don't pad the film, they flesh it out, putting some skin on the lean, skeletal framework of the original. (The addition is comparatively modest: Lothar Guenther-Buchheim's autobiographical novel was originally adapted as a six-hour miniseries for German television.) Over the course of three and a half hours, you gain an even more bitter taste for life on board an unterseeboot; its scope shouldn't be feared, but luxuriated in.

"Luxuriate" might not be the best word choice; there's nothing lush about the dingy, humid pipe in which 90 percent of the movie takes place. But then again, the power of Das Boot results not just from Petersen's superb evocation of the setting, but from his reliance on the humanity of the characters to make his points. These Nazis are as far removed from the insulting, one-dimensional villains of Hogan's Heroes as Hogan's Heroes was from reality itself. The crewmen aren't jack-booted stormtroopers, but young German conscripts. The officers, led by the steely-nerved captain (Jurgen Prochnow), are mostly career sailors, not fanatical race warriors; even the two politically connected officers (a war correspondent full of all the piss and arrogance of a soldier nurtured on propaganda; and the first mate, the only volunteer and a model of cold Aryan perfection) resist convenient categorization. Indeed, the tight, lean screenplay eschews cliches of all kinds. Absent are murmurs of mutiny (as in Crimson Tide), overwrought heroics (The Hunt for Red October), or sappy moments of pathos to pluck at our hearts. Like the U-boat itself, the plot is bareboned and murderously efficient. The boat sets sail from its port in 1941, one of a dozen underwater attack vessels intent on strangling Britain, and engages in the customary mechanics of warfare--the excruciating boredom in waiting for battle, the horrifying noise and force of enemy depth charges, the borderline insanity that arises from not knowing whether the enemy is upon you, and, perhaps most acutely, the grim spectre of watching the men you have attacked die.

Despite its power, Das Boot is a film of tremendous thematic subtleties; Petersen rarely says something when he can show, or just as often, suggest. When, after a month at sea, the bearded, battered soldiers board a supply ship, they're assaulted by a succulent epicurean display: pastries, meats, fruits. You can practically hear them salivate, but you're aware of their ambivalence, too. Why are such delights available to these useless bureaucrats, when the foundation of the war effort toils in squalor? Why, indeed, should anyone feel this comfortable during war? Like the men themselves, you're both tantalized and disgusted.

The audience's identification with the Germans is the obvious consequence of spending so much time together, and Jost Vacano's superb photography is largely the reason. Within the cramped, musty confines of the sub, Vacano delivers breathtaking tracking shots that plunge you from the narrow officer's mess to the far end of the engine room, through dank bulkheads and stale, feculent bunks, his camerawork approximating the woozy disorientation of a feverdream. You feel trapped like the crew itself, as if ever exiting the theater is as distant as the end of the boat's cruise. (When the U-boat loses ballast and free-falls toward the ocean floor, bolts bursting from the bulkheads like popcorn, the pressure on my blood vessels increased until it easily equalled the pressure on the ship's hull.)

While a great technical achievement, Das Boot deserves its status as a modern classic because it is a stirring tale of ordinary men. By giving the enemy not only a face but a soul, Petersen holds up a mirror to the audience, causing us to reel in horror at what we see: the capacity in mankind to create, tinged with his greater willingness to destroy. The Director's Cut magnifies this realization, and warns man what lies ahead unless he changes.

Das Boot.
Jurgen Prochnow. Written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Now showing.

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