Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Das Boot is a wonderfully intense, painfully bleak vision of war from the perspective of a German U-boat in 1941. Sure, maybe all war is bleak (I think so!), but some movies have a way of finding glory in such a conflict. Its soldiers are heroic, mighty, humble and self-sacrificing, all for the greater good. In the case of the Germans in World War II, well we know all about the Nazis so we certainly won’t find any glory in their victory. Instead their story is just about survival, and these characters’ plight has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with just living to see another day.
The closest thing to an audience surrogate here is Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent assigned to the U-96. He is fresh-faced and idealistic. He excitedly photographs the clean-shaven met at work, but the ship’s captain, Heinrich (Jürgen Prochnow), suggests he wait until the return voyage, when the men have grown thick beards and look less like children. By the end of the film they will have grown these beards, and with it seemingly half a dozen creases across their forehead.
We never see their “enemy,” except for a single moment later in the film and even then they are just silhouettes. These men are confined to incredibly tight quarters, where men share bunks and the officers must stand out of the way for crew to pass while they’re eating dinner. Slowly but surely we will become well acquainted with the increasingly tight pressure of the space as, when the ship dives, oxygen levels plummet and the ship creaks with the weight of the depths. They will push the boat to its limit on several occasions, all while we watch the silent, haunted expressions of his crew wondering if they’ll ever get out alive.
Das Boot takes its time setting up these scenes, to wonderful effect. The patience not only works in the moment but works very well in paying off later moments when the ship is forced to dive deep under water and we know exactly what the risks are. There are other ships, depth charges and gunfire, but the film’s climax will deal instead with the simple man versus nature aspect of their story.
The crew of the U-96 is isolated throughout this film. The antagonists include not only their physical environment but so too the ships trying to blow them up and even, to some degree, their superior officers on land.
Later we will see them disembark midway through their journey and meet their saluting, well-dressed superiors who could have no way of knowing what this crew has been through. Looking at these haunted, pale men in comparison with those who are safe from the life and death stakes of war is quite striking. It’s a simple withholding technique which I always find very effective, when you stick with a single person or location and then much later in the film finally open up to the rest of the world.
In Das Boot it works to further isolate the U-boat’s crew, showing that to fight for their survival they have no one else to count on. It’s a devastating, tragic perspective of war, stripping away any supposed glory or the ideologies which put them in this position. They fight for someone else’s agenda (or tyranny) and suffer alone as a result.
Up Next: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Atlantic City (1980)