Monday, December 9, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Das Boot" (1981)

"Das Boot" is one of the first foreign films I saw more or less contemporarily to its debut in U.S. theaters. A German submarine war epic is not exactly first pickings for most preadolescent kids, so I can only imagine my parents' reaction when I asked them to take me to see it.

It's not one of those films that slides in under the radar and whose reputation is burnished with the passing of years; seeing it, you immediately sense you are in the presence of greatness.

I remember the movie causing quite a stir at the time. In part because foreign films rarely got mainstream attention in America, but also because it was a German film that was purported to show German soldiers as brave and competent. Shunting aside that claim is easy, since the strength in writer/director Wolfgang Petersen's finely-crafted workmanship is that the submariners are depicted as real flesh-and-blood creatures with all sorts of varying qualities -- some of them vile, but a few of them noble, too.

Besides, it is a fundamental flaw in human thinking (and thereby our cinema) to believe that genuine heroism cannot be performed in service to a cause that is evil. The Confederacy fought for the preservation of slavery, our country's original sin, but that hardly obliterates the great gallantry shown by many of its officers and foot soldiers.

The soldiers in "Das Boot" are German naval seamen who are in some ways at the most forward front in the war against Britain: the North Atlantic sea battle of late 1941 and early 1942. It was a war of attrition Germany was destined to lose, as too few U-boats were available to stop the convoys of supply ships and destroyers feeding the Allied strength. They essentially acted as more or less autonomous rovers, hunting for juicy targets and wallowing in misery and boredom otherwise.

There are more versions of "Das Boot" than can be easily counted. There was a European version during its initial release, and an American one that ran a hair under 2½ hours. It also played on German television as a mini-series, six episodes of 50 minutes each, including recaps from the previous show, for five hours total. Petersen was allowed to present his own edit in 1997, but this 209-minute version wasn't available on Blu-ray until last year.

In general, I'm not a fan of director's cuts of films. Except in rare cases where a studio clearly took over a picture and hacked it to pieces -- say, Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" -- most of the time I find that when a filmmaker gets the opportunity to present "their" version of a picture, the original was better. Director's cuts are invariably longer, lose narrative cohesiveness and have a self-indulgent vibe.

(James Cameron would be the glaring outlier in this regard -- his re-cuts of "The Abyss," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Aliens" are all improvements, with one notable exception.)

Petersen's cut of "Das Boot" is an hour longer, but somehow doesn't dramatically change the experience of watching it. The reinserted scenes are nearly all quiet character moments where the officers and crew interact with each other more deeply than we saw in the theatrical versions. We see an unnamed crew member complaining about the captain's bold tactics, or more reminiscing between the junior officers about their lives back home.

I can't definitely say which version is "better," other than the new version is "more" of the same movie. My judgment would probably be that if I was watching it in the theater, the original cut would make for a more engaging experience. But the slower rhythms of home video lend itself better to the expanded version, where we can get inside the heads of the characters a little more.

"Das Boot" is the sort of movie where you probably walk away unable to list the names of more than one or two characters, but they exist as distinct, easily recognizable individuals. There's the resolute captain (Jürgen Prochnow), a brilliant but overly aggressive strategist who repeatedly presses the luck of the U-96 and its crew. He's like a wolf pack leader who is often sullen that circumstances require him to be more careful than his instincts would dictate.

The first officer (Hubertus Bengsch) is a ramrod straight Nazi, the only man onboard who burns with ideological purity -- reflected in his carefully groomed appearance, in stark contrast to the pale, scruffy bearded submariners around him. Klaus Wennemann plays the quiet, hard-working chief engineer, his mind occupied by an unspoken problem with his wife at home; Martin Semmelrogge is the impish second officer and comic relief.

Erwin Leder has a memorable role as Johann, the chief mechanic known as "The Ghost" for his wan, sickly appearance and tendency to haunt his beloved engine room without ever leaving. The most seasoned man aboard, it is Johann who cracks in the middle of a tense battle with a British destroyer, attempting to escape out the main hatch (and thereby killing the entire crew). He redeems himself with his subsequent heroic efforts.

Acting as the eyes and ears of the audience is Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent sent to chronicle a U-boat mission for propaganda purposes. Young, intelligent and sensitive, he has trouble fitting in with the hard-bitten camaraderie the men share -- even the captain takes great pains to keep him at a distance and uncomfortable. Appearing to confide in the young writer, he's actually mocking him most of the time.

Werner is a clear stand-in for Lothar G. Buchheim, an actual German journalist who spent several months aboard the real U-96. Buchheim milked his experience for literary purposes not once, but thrice. There was the initial short story published during the war, then a 1973 novel upon which the movie is based, and finally a nonfiction account of the same journey three years later.

(Interestingly, when the film came out Buchheim was a lonely voice criticizing it for historical inaccuracy, which is an odd choice for a man who exploited his time on a U-boat for propaganda, fiction and supposed neutral observation. Most of his ire seems to stem from the fact that Petersen preferred to write the screenplay himself instead of turning it over to a cinematic novice.)

For all its length and majesty, the storyline can be neatly divided into four unequal parts. The first is the initial launch of the U-96 and several dreary weeks spent at sea waiting for some action, other than a brief encounter with a British destroyer in rough seas where the German have their hats handed to them, though they escape serious damage. Then there is the successful attack on a convoy in which the U-96 sink two ships, only to be pursued and nearly destroyed by two avenging warships.

The third section is a brief visit to a German supply ship off the coast of Spain; at this point the audience has been confined inside the sub for two hours, so when the men emerge into the bright, sumptuous atmosphere aboard the merchant vessel, it seems practically like stepping onto an alien planet. Finally, there is the long sequence where U-96 attempts to sneak through the well-guarded Straits of Gibraltar, and is literally sunk -- stranded on the bottom of the sea, unable to move. An amazing undertaking manages to raise the submarine to the surface and escape to freedom, until being strafed by Allied planes while at dock and sunk.

The final image is of the captain, kneeling on the dock after being fatally wounded, watching through a steely gaze as he watches his ship slowly bubbling downward on its final death dive. Strangely, this somehow seems like a victory, since the captain got to die on his own two feet in the sunlight, instead of a cold, dark demise under the frozen ocean.

For most vessels, a captain going down with his ship is seen as a grand gesture. But as this film well shows, submariners have a love/hate relationship with their ships. Beyond stealth, they have virtually no defensive capabilities -- they are essentially a spear point, hurled at the enemy with little regard for what happens after to the weapon.

Petersen's claustrophobic camera work is simply brilliant, roving up and down the narrow 10-foot-wide shaft of the submarine like a wandering spirit. They built a real-size replica for the production, which lasted a full year and required the actors to stay out of the sunlight so they could take on the real pallor of submariners.

The sound design and editing is especially important to the success of "Das Boot," since there are long stretches where the movie is utterly silent, as the U-96 crew waits for the sound of enemy ships or the feared depth charges. When we first hear the harsh ping of a sonar array, searching for the submerged vessel like a groping, eyeless and icy finger of Death, it's positively chilling.

"Das Boot" would end up with six Oscar nominations, including screenplay and direction, though it would not be represented as Germany's "official" entry for the Academy Awards -- so no nod for Best Foreign Language Film. Personally, I think it's the definitive submarine movie.

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