Before Wolfgang Petersen became the go-to-man for CGI tidal waves (The Perfect Storm and the unnecessary Poseidon remake), he directed one of the most iconic war movies of all time: Das Boot. Originally aired as a miniseries for German television, this film is usually regarded as the ultimate war movie because of its epic scope and relentless realism.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Sony Pictures has released a special Blu-ray edition that undoubtedly will become one of the landmark releases of 2011. With a simply stunning conversion to high definition you definitely will feel as if you’re inside the submarine, next to the young officers. The picture is so rich and ironically gorgeous that you feel like you can reach out and touch what you see on the screen. This makes the film even more successful in achieving what it always did best: get us inside the psyche of a person trapped inside an underwater vessel for months.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves by mentioning the psychological complexity of the film and start at the beginning. Das Boot takes place during WWII, 1941 to be exact, and chronicles the voyage of the U-96, a German u-boat, which we visit thanks to war correspondent Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer). He serves as our eyes inside this strange ship and Petersen makes an interesting meta use out of his photographic camera. Inside the boat we meet its idiosyncratic captain (Jürgen Prochnow), the chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann) and the rest of the crew.
Petersen gives us a short glimpse of these men outside the boat, before sending them away on a trip from which we’re warned at the beginning, they might never return. However, as the story moves forward and all we get are sequences in which the sailors perform routine duties, we realize that we might never get the dramatic payoff we were expecting. Perhaps this is what makes Das Boot so fascinating: its ability to convey dramatic tension without following standard story methods.
In a way Das Boot is an impressionistic war film; once it’s over we might not have actual recollections of what “happened” but we know how it made us feel. It’s not a movie you can “tell”. Petersen masterfully captures the men performing innocuous acts but infuses them with such meaning—if only by default—that we can’t help but admire the film for its meticulousness. Das Boot in its original, uncut form isn’t precisely a “fun” film, it’s actually a harrowing, demanding experience that requires you to be in the right state of mind when you sit down to watch it.
Its tense existentialism, however, is well balanced by the marvelous supplies included in this Blu-ray edition. There’s a rich, inspired behind-the-scenes documentary shot when the movie was made, which provides it with profound insight and trivia that makes further viewings all the more effective. We see, for example, how the miraculous art direction team crafted an actual submarine in which director of photography Jost Vacano had to adjust his camera (they truly don’t make them like they used to!). “There isn’t anything to beautify in this movie, not even for the makeup artists” says the narrator, as we witness a cinematic shooting that in the best German fashion, combined stunning aesthetics with almost mechanical work.
Another fascinating bonus is a documentary called The Battle of the Atlantic which provides you with the historical context that the film fails to fully provide. If anything can be made of the extras in this Blu-ray it’s that Das Boot is a film which might be better enjoyed by those fully familiar with the myths and symbols that surrounded not only its subject matter, but its very existence. How the film became only the second most expensive film in German history after Metropolis for example, raises questions about the role of commercial art before and after Nazism and its subtle anti-war theories provide audiences and critics with endless material for philosophical conversations. (How much of Das Boot influenced The Thin Red Line for example.)
However, for all its intellectual content the film also has moments that reach emotional sublimity, like fragments of love stories from the sailors’ pasts as well as the hope reflected by Werner, up until the shocking finalé. It’s truly a shame that Petersen became such an uninteresting filmmaker in recent years, because the dexterity he shows in Das Boot suggests he could have been the greatest war movie director in contemporary history. From the way in which he flirts with the tale of Moby Dick while recalling exciting naval dreams, to the way in which he finds how to fit his camera into the submarine without feeling intrusive; Das Boot sometimes makes us wonder if in fact we’re not watching a documentary.