Das Boot (1981)

Note: this is a review of the Director’s Cut.

Deep beneath the sea, a submarine full of Germans wait breathlessly, everyone tense, silent and wary. As the sub slightly shifts and the bolts creek from the pressure of being so deep, wide eyes look upward as if they might see the source of their fear. What starts as just a few moments seems to stretch out into an eternity, the dull noise of explosions intermittently pierces the silence.

The submarine rocks violently. The distant explosions have caught up; one of the depth charges from the British destroyer has found its mark. Screams and hollers of pain are heard emitting from boyish faces, the same faces that gouged themselves on food and drink days ago.. The older men call for silence, knowing that the sound could mean the difference between life and death.

These grim veterans of the sea had the foresight to brace themselves properly, still standing firm amid the swaying sub as it tries to regain balance after the explosion. Upon their faces is a grim look of determination, bitter and strong, both anticipating and dreading the next violent attack, knowing well how the tight setting and violent attacks can drive a man to madness.

The Captain, Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow), stands unwavering amid the scene of boys lying about, catching bruises and cuts and old comrades with serious looks. He has a glint in his eye and a smile on his face. He knows that this is just the beginning, a small taste of what is in story for this crew. A nice little tussle, a warm-up. The worst is yet to come and Henrich defies it with his simple gaze.

It was this scene that early on solidified Das Boot as a great film. On a most basic level, it’s a fantastic suspense piece that keeps the audience drawn in, the long takes making moments extend to unbearably tense sequences. The silence amplifies this, the slight creaking and dull distant explosions add a sense of unease. And then, just as it reaches a maddening length, the release comes.

But on another level, the scene shows the disparity between the various groups on the ship. The common grunts are too inexperienced and young to handle the intensity of the violent attack, many screaming out in fear and wounded because they didn’t prepare themselves. Contrast this with experienced officers, well trained and well-seasoned, who ready themselves for the attack. While it might simply seem a device of experience, throughout the film there’s a clear disparity between the two groups in terms of treatment and perception.

And then, there’s the captain. He only says one line in the scene, but it tells the audience everything they need to know about him. He knows the seas, is preparing for the worst and is eager to meet it head-on. While it might be easy to draw parallels between Henrich and Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Henrich has a much different arc as a character and is less concerned with ideology.

Most films can’t even manage to get in all this information with a two hour runtime. Das Boot builds off all of this and more in its lengthy runtime, crafting a long, suspenseful and unforgettable experience over the three-hour runtime. This is about the closest thing someone might want to experience to being on a sub without ever going underwater.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing