Tube of Steel
The DVD release of the 293-minute mini-series version of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a landmark event for connoisseurs of war movies, thrill-seekers, and lovers of consummate filmmaking. Far more clearly than any other, this version confirms both his unique talent as a filmmaker and the limitations within which he chooses to work.
Petersen is fascinated by genre film, and he pushes the expectations of genre without breaching the compact with the audience that the “war film,” “thriller,” and “epic” implies. In Das Boot, he executes the conventions of the war movie superbly, using visual imagination and directorial discipline to take risks with length, inaction and with complex characters whom he is not afraid to show in their less likable moments.
The film is set in the last months of 1941, after Hitler’s hubris had launched a massive invasion against Germany’s erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, and the German dictator truly seemed master of Europe. Although only hindsight allows contemporary viewers to see that invasion as the fatal mistake that precipitated the total destruction of the Third Reich, the captain of the submarine, nicknamed the “Der Alte” (the Old Man), and played with fierce concentration by Jürgen Prochnow, is already bitterly nostalgic for the submariners’ glory days of 1939 and 1940.
Then, roving “wolf packs” of submarines threatened to cut Britain off from its supply of food and armaments. In the film’s present, Der Alte claims, on the eve of his submarine’s departure, almost all the great U-Boat captains are dead, and the only survivor beside himself is a hopeless drunk, wholly unfit for service. Instead of comrades in arms, the navy has sent him mere boys, untrained and untested, for whom he can barely contain his contempt. As one final burden, a young naval journalist, Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) has joined the crew to report on the submarine’s victories at sea. Das Boot charts the testing of captain, crew and correspondent as the Old Man’s submarine completes one routine Atlantic patrol.
The word “routine” is key to the whole experience of this extended version of the film, and to the daring of Petersen’s generic exploration. As he did in the earlier director’s cut of the film, Petersen fleshes out both characters and the effects of the apparently unending tedium of submarine operations. Just as the men themselves slowly grow to know each other, through shared photographs and the sharing of fragmentary gossip, so too does the audience grow to know them, if not necessarily like them. Petersen presents fallible people, not stereotypes: they pick their noses, fart, and retell stale sexual fantasies. Food hangs everywhere, sailors share bunks, hammocks, and each other’s stench, and the wardroom for officers is merely an alcove, which anyone passing must disrupt.
Petersen pushes further than the physical confines of the submarine. Repeated medium and close shots reinforce the psychological claustrophobia. Through the eyes and commentary of Lieutenant Werner, the audience encounters what looks at first like unbelievable human degradation, not the tidy, master race fantasies of either contemporaneous German propaganda or subsequent Hollywood movies. Men and officers grow beards, lie around their bunks with unwashed hair and filthy clothes, all in a tube of steel. In more conventional war movies, this might signal a lack of morale and imminent disaster (as it did in Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High , for example). Here Petersen presents it as the mere fact of submariner life from which their skills as underwater warriors must, and indeed does, burst.
The longuers of patrolling, which in this version, if truth be told, might also strain the forbearance of audiences, push the action sequences into brilliant, adrenaline-pumping perspective. Without sacrificing the strangling frames, Petersen and Director of Photography Jost Vacano, jangle the nerves of crew (and audience) through a combination of hand-held shooting and a jagged battery of lighting effects. In the two sequences where destroyers attack the sub with depth charges, Petersen literally assaults the audience with the intensity of his visual and aural disjunction.
Yet the director and scriptwriter (Lothar-Gunther Buchheim) never alienate the audience from the crew. The cynical captain turns into an inspiring hero, who also shows his sensitive side by reading and re-reading letters from his fiancée, and showing a taciturn mercy to the engineer (Martin May) who hysterically abandons his post during one attack, only to save the lives of the crew through his skills in the aftermath of another. The youngest lieutenant, Ullman (Heinz Hoenig), writes nightly letters to his pregnant French girlfriend while the second-in-command is a kindly, ailing quasi-father figure whose family may have died in the British air raids on Cologne. And of course, the callow boys, when called upon finally to fight for their lives, turn into the warriors the captain needs.
The underlying conventionality of the narrative makes all the more surprising the claims that critics and other writers have made for Das Boot over the last twenty-odd years. For example, it’s certainly not an anti-war film, despite being made at the height of German baby-boomers’ obsessive introspection into what they called the “sins of their fathers.” The message of much of the film is that war’s trauma makes men of boys, whose valor can make their captain abandon his nostalgia for the “good old days” in admiration of their endurance and tenacity. The captain’s fiancée, with whom he appears deeply in love, is a committed Nazi, and his tirades against Hitler and Goebbels are not so much an indictment of their ideologies as a condemnation of their ineptitude as war leaders, and their willingness to sacrifice the young.
These elements emphasize how Das Boot, however unusual and challenging, ultimately fits firmly within the mainstream of war films. It recalls most vividly such classic war films as William A. Wellman’s Story of G.I. Joe (1945) or Charles Frend’s The Cruel Sea (1953). With the latter, Das Boot shares both the vivid scenes of drowning sailors abandoned to their fate for the higher “good” of fighting the enemy, and the ship’s ignoble war record. In all of these films, unheroic realism makes glory, when it comes, seem all the more magnificent.