Das Boot (1981)
One of the greatest films of all time, Das Boot is an undisputed masterpiece of unrelenting terror that makes impeccable use of its claustrophobic atmosphere, nerve-wracking tension & nail-biting suspense to cement its spot amongst the finest war films of all time. Crafted with immaculate precision, featuring an interesting set of full-fledged characters, and scoring high marks in all aspects, this quintessential submarine film is arguably the very pinnacle of German cinema.
Set in 1942 during the Second World War, the story of Das Boot concerns the crew of a German U-boat as they head out to the Atlantic to seek & destroy Allied ships. The film covers their initial excitement for battle, days of boredom at sea & frustration of a fruitless hunt as these submariners attempt to maintain their professionalism as soldiers & accomplish impossible missions, all the while trying to stand by & obey the oaths they took to serve the very ideology of their government.
Written & directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot takes its time to get moving but once it does, there’s no stopping it. After introducing us to all the relevant characters, the film explores how the crew’s initial excitement for battle dwindles and boredom sets in when they couldn’t find an enemy to engage with for days. Petersen leaves no stone unturned to give a detailed account of what life in the submarine was like for these soldiers whose only desire was to do their best for their comrades & country.
The script is an absolute gem, for Petersen takes a very relaxed approach in bringing his narrative to life. The first act patiently sets the stage for the horror that lies ahead and portrays the men serving aboard the U-boat as ordinary individuals who are ultimately pushed to their limit when things go south. And this makes it easy for the audience to relate & sympathise with them. Petersen ratchets up the tension slowly as plot progresses, thus allowing the element of claustrophobia to set up on its own.
Once the U-boat is engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic, every moment turns riveting, for all the lives that are at stake is stacked inside a hull and is entirely dependent on the damage that their warship can sustain. The U-boat in itself is accurately designed & meticulously detailed. Cinematography makes expert use of the camera within the vessel, moving smoothly when traversing through the limited spaces, going haywire when depth charges go off around them, and employing close-ups that says all about what they are feeling in the moment.
Editing is another one of its highlights, for it is no mere feat to create a 209-minutes war film that features only brief dose of action, unfolds entirely inside a cylindrical cabin & concerns only a handful of German soldiers to be this engaging, engrossing & endlessly entertaining. Shifting gear throughout its runtime, the plot rises & falls but the narrative flow is so streamlined & skilfully handled that boredom never sets in. Its theatrical version runs 149 minutes but I’d rather recommend the Director’s Cut as the longer runtime adds sufficient depth & drama which in turn assist in character development.
Sound may as well be its best aspect, for it happens to be the crew’s only source to what’s happening on the surface while they are hiding in the depths. Increasing in volume as the enemy ship approaches, it amplifies the tension to unbearable levels, filling the aura with alarming anxiety, plus every creak heard when the submarine dives deeper only intensifies its already suspenseful mood. Also worthy of mention is Klaus Doldinger’s immersive soundtrack that consists of aptly composed tracks which aren’t just effective in complementing the narrative but also make the whole experience emotionally resonant.
Coming to the acting department, Das Boot features an incredibly committed cast in Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann & others, and every one of them play their roles responsibly. Prochnow is in as the Captain of the U-boat, and his performance is complex, captivating & compelling throughout. Grönemeyer is in as a War Correspondent who’s inexperienced & seen as an outsider but soon learns the true horrors of service on a U-boat. In short, he is our eye into the drama and the actor portrays him brilliantly. Wennemann takes the role of the Chief Engineer and his work only gets better with time. As for the rest of the cast, they all chip in with excellent inputs, thus leaving behind nothing to complain about.
On an overall scale, Das Boot is an ambitious production by all means and offers a cinematic experience that’s emotionally draining but thoroughly satisfying. A naval adventure unlike anything seen on film before or since, it’s a masterwork of pristine craftsmanship that’s as refined in the storytelling department as it is flawless in its technical execution. Writer-director Wolfgang Petersen has created something for the ages here, a World War II epic that’s as informative as it is entertaining, and one that makes a strong statement regarding the futility of war during its final moments. One of the greatest examples of its genre that’s still unsurpassed in the authenticity of its tension & realism, Das Boot is warfare filmmaking at its absolute best. One hundred percent recommended.