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Das Boot originally came out in theaters with a run time of 150 minutes. Between now and then it's nearly doubled in length. The original, uncut version I caught up with from my local library clocked in at 293 minutes. So how does one approach a five hour film? I wasn't able to carve out a full five hours to watch it straight through, and instead watched it like a TV show, a half hour here, an hour there. It works well that way, so it's no surprise that it aired as a BBC mini series in 1984. I'm very glad I finally made the time for Das Boot. It's one of the greatest war movies of all time.
Normally I try not to bring up a film's faults at the beginning of a review, but here there is a problem with the beginning of the film. Das Boot takes too long getting us on board the submarine. We first meet our protagonists at a party and I understand that choice. In a film where our main characters are Nazis, we need to get to know them and hopefully feel sympathy for them. Especially since we're going to spend a lot of time cooped up with them on a U-boat during World War II. So we're very quickly drinking with them and seeing our similarities as human beings, rather than our political differences. They too have hopes, dreams and fears. These men even have some reservations about what they're fighting for and how the war is being fought. But we spend enough time with these men on board the boat, and the human connection we feel with them is even stronger there, so this opening party scene becomes unnecessary.
U-96 sails out of port to a pipe and drum fanfare. The ugliness of war is far away, and safe on the dock, families and friends wave goodbye. The sailors, some of them barely 18, sail away full of uncertainty. There have been numerous reports of U-boats being destroyed, and propeller damage and torpedo issues are a constant concern as well.
U-96 has a crew of fifty men. The quarters are cramped and the camera squeezes us through as if we're one of the submariners. It is sweaty, confined, and without showers the men are as dirty as the jokes they amuse themselves with. There's no time to be alone, and there's always someone at your elbow.
Food is stored everywhere. Meat hangs all over the ship. Every bit of available space must be put to use. There's no mail or telephones, but little tokens of home can be seen everywhere on board. Photos abound, a pocket watch hung from a chain pendulums back and forth with the rocking of the boat, and a small plant reminds a sailor of the land that is so far away. A record player provides some entertainment and the radio provides news of the war.
We aren't the only new sailors, there's a war correspondent and another first timer on board as well, so we get to know the ship and its routines along with them. The captain runs drills until the first airplane attack brings the reality of war home to the boat.
Life aboard a diesel powered U-boat was very different than life aboard a submarine today. The U-boats spent the majority of their time above the waves. Attacks would be targeted at merchant convoys at night. Once the U-boat struck, they would submerge and hope to putter away on battery power undetected.
Before the first big encounter the film gets into an unfortunate rhythm. After each scene inside, we get an exterior shot of the U-boat cruising through the waters with a repeating musical theme playing. It's almost as if it's left over from Das Boot's time as a mini series, with the music and exterior shot welcoming us back from a commercial.
We get to know the crew little by little as we are all waiting to be called to action at any moment. Paranoia sets in, along with tedium and frustration. "We are sailing in limbo," one man says. Messages arrive via Morse code. They are received, then fed into the enigma machine to decode the contents. But the messages aren't always orders for them, and the waiting continues.
The scenes where the men are standing watch on deck are the only times that remind us we're watching a movie. It's a standard studio shot with a green screen behind it. But other than that the rest of the film is astounding with its submarine replicas, models and detailed interior shots that keep us entranced.
Some of the exterior shots are really nice, and feel like vintage footage. Especially when the weather turns and we get these great camera shots mounted on the back of the boat, pitching and tossing us in the waves as water splashes over the lens.
When U-96 encounters another U-boat at sea, we never leave our submarine. To see things from the other U-boat's perspective would have taken us off the ship, and the filmmakers are smart to keep us contained to this vessel. We are stuck with the boat and its crew, for better or worse.
Once the attacks begin, the film never lets up. There are times we get to see the destruction U-96 causes, but other times we are too busy hiding underneath the waves avoiding destroyers to see the impact they have made. At times we can only listen to the sounds of torpedoes exploding and merchant ships sinking, taking their crew to the bottom. The one time we see the victims in the water is hard on the men, as they are forced to see the people they've condemned to death.
Submerged after an attack, U-96 is hunted by the enemy's sonar and depth charges. We can hear the destroyer's propeller as we slide under it. All the men can do is endure, and respond to the whispered orders as they remain silent under the waves. When they are pinged by sonar, a new technology at the time, they react as if the enemy is cheating. There is no way for them to fight back except to evade and hide. Death circles above, and they can only hope it passes them by.
Towards the end of their tour we've forgotten we're sailing with the enemy. These are not the clean cut Nazis we've come to expect. They are disheveled and openly questioning their mission and cause.
On their way home new orders arrive and spirits are crushed. As U-96 pulls near a Spanish city for a resupply, this weapon of war looks out of place next to a peaceful metropolis. The dichotomy is even more apparent once they're standing on board the supply ship next to some spit and polished Nazis. "Cardboard soldiers," our captain calls them. "This is not my kind of place." The resupply does lift the crew's spirits though. And then, we're off again.
Though I won't spoil the ending of the film, I do want to note that towards the end, U-96 is submerged and the film begins using canted angles to add to our feeling of desperation. It's a really nice touch. We know something is wrong, but like the men, we have to wait it out to see just how wrong it is.
Writer Samuel Johnson said, "For being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned." Drowning is a constant fear in Das Boot, and the men even compare the submarine to a coffin. And though Johnson may be right, on U-96, we find we'd happily do time with these men, forgetting all the while that they're on the wrong side of the war.