I watched Das Boot last night for the 3rd or 4th time in my life. It’s still a great movie. Great book too, actually.
I watched the directors cut last night, which runs for a bit over 3 hours, but without a wasted minute. It’s one of the very few war movies that feels absolutely authentic. There have been a lot of great war movies made, but most feel – at least sometimes – as if they are fabricated, a piece of fiction made with the highest possible production standards, but somehow removed. It’s true of even the most bluntly brutal, such as Saving Private Ryan. I think it’s a pretty good movie, but no matter how immersed I get in the storyline I never forget that it’s a piece of entertainment made for the screen I’m viewing it on.
Das Boot feels different from that, and there are a number of reasons for that. For a start the direction, by Wolfgang Peterson, is very low key. He does nothing flashy, there is nothing for us to stop and remember that we are watching a piece of film. Rather the camera acts as an unobtrusive eyewitness to the everyday chaos on board the cramped confines of the U-Boat. It is purely objective, recording the events without sentiment as it were, without comment, a documentary camera much more than a film camera.
What we see is entirely without glamour. It is grimy and noisy and sometimes dramatic and sometimes still. It feels as if we are watching something that actually happened, rather than made for us. This is the real thing. Though we can’t smell it, we can imagine the stench in the boat from oil and rotting food and the body odours of 50 men in a small tube. We know the icy rivulets of water are cold to the touch. The noises of men at action, voices overriding the other, shouts, the clanging of equipment, are real to us. It helps that these actors are unknown to us, excepting the skipper Jurgen Prochnow, made famous by this. They might be the real thing as far as we know, and not the Hollywood actors we read about in the gossip pages between movies.
All that is true enough, but finally what makes this most different is that we are riding alongside the enemy. For one of the few times we get to see the war through their eyes. What we find is a tough existence, hardy, humorous men tested by events, the volatile elements, not to mention their unseen enemy – us.
Growing up I was a bit of a military nut, like a lot of kids of my generation. For one reason or another I found myself gravitating to the German forces. At some point I found them heroic, notwithstanding the terrible regime they were in service too. I came to understand how defiant they were to resist the overwhelming tide of men and materiel on several fronts for so long, and, for a time, so successfully. It was a testament to strong leaders, generally superior technology, but most of all terribly resourceful, resilient men of the highest calibre.
I knew most of the planes they flew. I knew their tanks backwards, my favourite being the Panther. In my childish way I used to design divisions, putting them together from the different components available – a few King Tiger (II) heavy tanks, the bulk Panthers, maybe a squadron of Type IV, halftracks, armoured cars (Puma?), and so on. To the sea I looked mainly to the U-Boats, though I had a great admiration for the beauty, power and grace of some of their big ships, from the Bismarck to the likes of classic cruisers like the Prinz Eugen, and the doomed , but beautifully contrived pocket battleship the Graf Spee.
I read books on all of this. My father had subscribed to Purnells History of the Second World War, all 8 volumes of it, which I read keenly more than once. I bought books with pictures and cut-aways of tanks and planes. I bought fiction, from the Sven Hassell books graduating to other great books like The Forgotten Soldier, Cross of Iron, and The Torrents of War (a great book I wish I could get a reprint of). My grandfather was a great source of books, but what he didn’t have I bought. I remember buying a book on the U-Boat war by an ex-captain called Iron Coffins. And another I bought, many years ago, became the movie I watched last night: Das Boot.
So, I am somewhat of a faded aficionado on this subject and this media. I surprise myself often by retaining so much of the detail in my head – I can still name a fighter by profile, can tell you the different calibre guns on the T-34, the Panther, the Tiger. I can remember the different generals, recall the different campaigns, get wistful about the German 88mm gun, and think the Type VII U-Boat is a rugged thing of beauty. I watch then movies like last night with an eye to that detail, revelling in it, deeply impressed as ever by how men managed in times and places like that.
Ultimately that’s the appeal of a movie like Das Boot, and its greatness. It’s a beautiful boat they’re on, tough as nails, but so too are the men. They endure because they must, through long solitary periods of quiet searching for an enemy to attack, through lashing storms, tormented by destroyers depth charging them for hours on end, through attacks on enemy merchant ships and so on. Their journey through the ocean has a mythic quality to it, a tormented quest that no matter how violent and tough that it is gives their existence purpose and meaning. They endure the tough days, the hours deep beneath the ocean when any moment might be their last, for the opportunity to fulfil their purpose and attack. All celebrate.
We watch this as if a fly on the wall. They grow beards. The fresh food they brought from port grows stale and rotten. Fuel levels deplete to dangerously low levels. Through attacks equipment fails needing repairs. Storms lash at them. They are German but there is something universal in all of this, endurance and determination.
For the first 2 hours I watched again transfixed by this brutal routine, though often very little happened. Once more it felt like reality. In the last hour sent on an unlikely mission the movie reaches a new pitch. They race along on the surface like a speedboat looking to evade and outrun the British destroyers in the Straits of Gibraltar. Crash dived and lying crippled on the floor of the ocean way beyond safe depth their future seems hopeless. It is mesmerising to watch, knowing that if this is not real then something like this must have happened many times in fact. It’s rousing to watch their ingenuity and flickering hope as they stabilise the situation and find unlikely solutions to their plight. Their ultimate salvation is exhilarating. You feel their joy. You want them to succeed, to survive. By now you know them, have come to respect them, in many cases to like them greatly. You’re rooting for them whether they’re German or not, because ultimately it’s about human endurance.
The end comes as an abrupt shock. You have come to love the skipper, flawed, tough and roughly inspirational, the best type of man. You think that about many of them. The end is brutal, but true enough I guess.
It’s a great movie and a great story. Think it’s time I read the book again.
Wikipedia: Das Boot is a 1981 German epic war film written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, produced by Günter Rohrbach, and starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, and Klaus Wennemann. →