Saturday 28 March 2020

Movie Review: Das Boot (1981)

A World War Two submarine warfare epic, Das Boot (The Boat) is a grim, claustrophobic and harrowing depiction of survival against aching boredom punctuated by moments of euphoria and terror.

It's 1941, and Germany's U-Boat fleet is starting to suffer significant losses in the Atlantic. Regardless, more boats are pushed into service with inexperienced crews. Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is a reporter assigned to accompany U-96 on her next patrol. The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) and Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) are veterans, but many of the crew members are young men.

After setting sail from La Rochelle in occupied France, days of crushing tedium are endured at sea. The monotony is broken by a minor skirmish with an Allied destroyer, followed by a chance encounter with another U-Boat in rough seas. Eventually U-96 locates a large Allied convoy of merchant ships and engages in warfare. But enemy vessels launch devastating counter strikes, resulting in U-96 enduring a severe beating. The Captain has to navigate back to safety, but further nasty surprises await.

An uncompromising representation of life in a steel tube crush-filled with mariners fulfilling their national duty and based on a German reporter's actual account, Das Boot aims for and achieves an overbearing, physically uncomfortable impact. Deploying frequent long takes, writer and director Wolfgang Petersen elbows his cameras on board the submarine to capture the men in their squished status at close quarters.

Within the harsh confines, the passage of time is a character unto itself. The theatrical cut of Das Boot, at 149 minutes, is already an epic representation of the boredom and mental atrophy that seeps into the sub with days and nights of nothing but choppy seas. Other versions run to miniseries length at close to 300 minutes.

But then unexpected encounters crack the monotony, and a rush of adrenaline sweeps through the vessel. The euphoria of vanquishing an enemy is matched by the absolute dread caused by the grim reaper banging on the walls with depth chargers. The oscillating emotions are exhausting, and it is the Captain's duty to manage his men's mental state, keeping them focused on the most immediate task while ensuring the sub remains functional to survive another day.

Although the film is about the collective more than the individual, Petersen does sufficiently define three characters. The Captain is approaching the resigned state, now far removed from buying into state propaganda and witnessing a future defeat in the raw age of recruits assigned to the U-boats. But he is still in complete command of his commission, capable of making every required decision under extreme duress.

The Chief Mechanic Johann is also a veteran but closer to the edge, and he may have completed more missions than he can mentally handle. His journey features the wildest oscillations, his character tested like never before. And finally the reporter Werner is the outsider's eye, standing apart from the men and witnessing war from within a submarine for the first time. Physically and mentally unprepared, his lack of foreknowledge is sometimes advantageous in shielding him from horrors to come.

Das Boot is at its most intense when U-96 is under unyielding attack from an unseen enemy. Petersen draws out these scenes to the point of unrelenting psychological collapse, finding the corners of men's souls where there is nothing left to do but wait for death. With a submarine under attack offering the expedient opportunity of a mass coffin, young men will either grow old in a hurry or pass into legend.

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