Reviewing enough war movies, you’re going to watch some that are told from the perspective of a soldier/sailor/civilian/politician different from your own nationality. For the most part, I’ve watched American-made war movies told from the American perspective. On a simple level, I’m rooting for the American soldier to win in the end, beating the Germans or the Japanese, whoever the enemy is in front of them. So with a story that follows a patrol of a German U-boat in 1941, am I rooting for the Germans against British troops and sailors? Surprisingly enough, it isn’t an issue with this classic film. This isn’t a movie about nationalities or who’s right and who’s wrong. It is a story and depiction of men and the horrific impact war has on everyone it touches.
It’s 1941, and Germany has been at war for two-plus years already. Hitler’s U-boat fleet is meeting defeats on a grand scale for the first time as the British Navy figures out how to not only defend themselves but hunt down the dangerous boats. A veteran captain (Jurgen Prochnow) has been given command of a new U-boat – U-96 – with a young, inexperienced crew working under him. A correspondent, Lt. Werner (NAME), has been assigned to the captain’s ship to document the lives and trials of these heroic German soldiers. So tagging along, the U-96 leaves port and heads for open water to join in on the hunt for British and Allied convoys in the North Atlantic.
If you were ever curious as to what life on a WWII-era submarine was like, this is the movie for you. Director Wolfgang Petersen films this epic story in the cramped, extremely claustrophobic gangways of the submarine, his cameras filming right alongside the German crew, not outside like a passing onlooker. You are THERE with this crew. We see the overcrowded living quarters of the crew, the food supplies hanging wherever there is room, the lone toilet for the whole ship, all the little things that WWII sub movies often overlook. There are asides where some of the crew leaves the ship, or the sub surfaces and skims across the water, but a majority of the movie is set within the sub. By the end of the movie, I felt uncomfortable just for having watched the movie. Actually living in a submarine for weeks and even months at a time? I’ll take a pass on that.
Some of the best war movies don’t glamorize what war is really like. The best description I’ve ever heard about the life of a soldier is ‘long periods of extreme boredom shattered by moments of pure terror.’ That is the tone of the movie. U-96 patrols and patrols looking for targets unsuccessfully, actually almost colliding with another U-boat before even seeing an enemy ship. They hear reports of other ships finding British convoys and successfully sinking tons of ships, but meanwhile they keep on just looking for targets.
No aspect of any war ever seems really intelligent, but submarine warfare in WWII seems stupider than most other aspects of war somehow. A ship that sails under the water sneaks up on large groups of ships, fires a handful of torpedoes hoping to sink a ship or two, and then hauls ass to get out of there before a protective escort of ships with heavier firepower hunt you down and try and blow you to hell with depth charges. What I took away from this movie is that, the pure and extreme terror that overtakes the individual as they possibly await their death. Hundreds of feet below the surface submarine crews can’t run because the ships above can make more speed than them. Those ships fire depth charges into the water that are triggered to explode at a certain depth, possibly ripping the submarine apart. The best segments of Das Boot document this, silence broken by explosions that hit like punches to your midsection. The tension is everywhere, and it’s executed so well you feel butterflies in your stomach.
So it’s realistic, incredibly unsettling, and very professionally done. What’s wrong with this movie? Originally it was a 6-hour miniseries, but the DVD version clocks in at 209 minutes. As good as the movie is, at times it is a very long 209 minutes. In illustrating the life of boredom these sailors live, Petersen pushes too far at times. I was bored watching them be bored. I would have used these scenes to give some more background on the captain (Prochnow does deliver an amazing performance) and his crew. We’re interested more in the danger of the situation than the characters and what’s happening to them. Give us a personal reason to get invested in the movie, and the quality improves. Who knows though, maybe that wasn’t Petersen’s intention. No matter his intention or my complaints, it’s still an incredible look at submarine warfare in WWII.
Das Boot <--- trailer (1981): ***/****