Running time: 3h 28min
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Written by Wolfgang Petersen, Lothar G. Buchheim (based on the novel by)
Starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Das Boot is one of my favorite war films, and maybe even one of my favorite films of all time. It is a somewhat realistic look at what it was to sail in a U-boat during World War 2 — there was no glory, and the vast majority of the time on the boat was spent fighting boredom, but when the enemy is finally encountered, adrenaline quickly gives way to despair. Due to the subject matter, the pacing, and the length, Das Boot can be a hard watch, but it can also be very rewarding, and it is inarguably one of the greatest war movies ever made.
There are some extremely intense and memorable sequences in Das Boot, but, as it is more of a realistic take on submarine warfare, screen time is mostly devoted to depicting the very dull reality of the crew’s existence aboard the ship. Action is not seen often, and while on paper the U-boat is the hunter, it cannot realistically take on the destroyers that guard their targets, the convoys of the Allies. Thus, they have to be patient and pick their targets very carefully. Every action that they take can potentially be met with devastating consequences, and often does. Those who are easily bored and have trouble concentrating will likely not find Das Boot very watchable due to the slow pace and long stretches of time spent with the bored-out-of-their-minds crew. Those that are not inhibited by the aforementioned disabilities and who like the genre have a much greater chance of enjoying the film. The mood needs to be just right to get the most out of Das Boot; it is not easy, mindless entertainment to casually consume.
I am not a naval warfare expert, nor am I a World War II scholar, but Das Boot has a reputation for authenticity and realism, and I think this reputation is well-earned. The claustrophobic existence aboard the ship is depicted with great attention to detail — something which, again, might put off those who are accustomed to having their senses stimulated with more intensity. The ship looks and feels real, people behave realistically, and the events are believable (though the ship and the crew do get through a lot.
The casting of the film is fantastic, and I think everyone does a terrific job, but it is somewhat difficult to judge this accurately since I do not speak German. Jürgen Prochnow as the captain is exactly how I would imagine a grizzled veteran sailor/soldier, and he has a commanding screen presence. Others fit their parts perfectly as well, though it can be easy to lose track of who is who on the first watch. Wolfgang Petersen (who, by the way, directed the first film I reviewed for this site, In the Line of Fire (1993)), is on top of his game; in addition to the realistic feel and authenticity, the film looks and sounds great. Apparently, Clint Eastwood was so impressed by Das Boot that he wanted Petersen to direct In the Line of Fire, despite being a skilful director himself. If I were to criticize Petersen’s directing, I could point out that the many sequences of the U-boat getting bombed by depth charges do eventually start to feel repetitious, even for me. So there is an argument for some harsher editing, at least for the director’s cut.
The tone of the film is mostly bleak, interrupted only briefly by levity or the adrenaline of battle. The music is great, if arguably a bit repetitive. There are only a few moments in the film that one could categorize as adventurous excitement, if such terms can be used to describe war, and the music is an important component in making them feel so energetic. It is also the extreme contrast between the waiting and the action that makes the battle scenes so impactful. I will also highlight the opening bar scene of the film, which I think is absolutely hilarious. I also love the ending (which, as I understand, not everyone does), but I will not spoil what happens.
There are a few things one should note before watching Das Boot; there seems to be a consensus that the director’s cut or the (even longer) miniseries are the preferable versions, instead of the theatrical cut (2h 29min), which leaves out much of the story. Also, at least on my blu-ray version of the film, the standard spoken language was the English dub instead of the original German. I do not support dubbing, though I suppose it does have some merit in some cases (e.g. children’s films). In any case, however one feels about dubbing, it is an absolutely sinful and shameful choice to have the dubbed English audio selected as the default on a bluray release of a non-English language film. On a related note, the quality of the subtitles is essential in how enjoyable a film viewing experience is, and Das Boot features many technical naval warfare terms that might be difficult to translate — the skill and dedication of the subtitler will play a major role in how good the movie is.
I suppose I should address the fact that the movie depicts events from the point of view of German soldiers, and makes them sympathetic. Das Boot is very clearly an anti-war film, and most of the characters in the film are no fans of Hitler or the Nazi ideology. There is only one character that is clearly a nazi, and he is not viewed favorably by the rest of the crew. The movie does not glorify war or the actions of the Nazis.
Das Boot is not an easy watch, being over 3 hours long and at times agonizingly slow-paced, but it is excellent; those who enjoy war films should watch it at least once. Obviously not for everyone, but I highly recommend it regardless.
Rating: 9.0 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: at least 4
Would I want to rewatch this film? Eventually I most certainly will