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From the Other Side: 'Das Boot' (Blu-ray)

Das Boot is a film about textures, not swastika waving ideology, a lesson in the sweat of sinewy men, the oil gunked grime of living inside the bowels of a massive mechanical marvel.

Das Boot

Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Cast: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge, Bernd Tauber, Erwin Leder, Martin May, Heinz Hoenig
Rated: R
Studio: Columbia
Year: 1981
US date: 2011-07-05 (General release)

We never think of the enemy as "heroic." In fact, many would argue that the losing side in any battle cannot validate the true tenets of such a term. There is no denying that they fight for what they think is right, and do so with a sense of duty and honor, but for the most part, losing the war means losing the right to be considered brave, courageous, or gallant. In his breakthrough film Das Boot, future Hollywood mainstay Wolfgang Peterson (Air Force One, Poseidon) argued for a certain heroism in the U-Boat crews of Nazi Germany. Yes, their goal was to sink ships and break up conveys delivering vital armaments and supplies to the Allied Forces, but they did so under some of the harshest and most harrowing circumstances of any enlisted man anywhere. By juxtaposing both the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, Peterson places us in that dark, dingy tin can, and gives us a view of 'the other side' more stirring than any conqueror's cry.

Das Boot (new to Blu-ray from Columbia) tells the fictionalized story of U-96, a submarine located on the Northern coast of Nazi occupied France. Its mission is to sail the waters around England, destroying boats and preventing blockades and convoys. Commanded by a no nonsense Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) and his crew - including a Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann), 1st Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch), 2nd Watch Officer (Martin Semmelrogge), and Chief Helmsman (Bernd Tauber) - they take their assignment with the certain amount of 'merely following orders' efficiency.

Joined by a young correspondent named Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) who hopes to experience the war first hand and report back to an eager nation wanting to know more, their first mission finds them traveling around aimlessly, always just beyond the action. As morale starts to sink, the ship is suddenly seized by a storm. Then a chance for some real battle. But during an ordered rendezvous in Italy, the boat is besieged off the coast of Gibraltar and is suddenly scuttled on the ocean floor. With the external pressure mounting and the vessel nearly inoperable, it will take a Herculean effort to save everyone on board.

At first glance, Das Boot looks like your typical Hollywood war picture. It introduces standard types - stern yet sympathetic Captain, wizened right hand man, upright/irreverent senior staff, and a naive, neophyte reporter - and then tosses them into some terrifying, if again typical, battle scenarios. We get the search for the "enemy," the dodging of depth charges, the monotony of days without direct contact with the surface, the ordinary interpersonal stories (girlfriends, lost loved ones) of the men on board, the thrill of victory and the near deadly agony of deep water defeat. But the difference between Peterson's perspective and that of a typical Tinseltown director is like night and Nazi day. Das Boot is a film about textures, not swastika waving ideology, a lesson in the sweat of sinewy men, the oil gunked grime of living inside the bowels of a massive mechanical marvel. This is not an exercise in recognizable patriotism or heroism. Instead, it's a tale of everyday people placed in peril and how they respond.

Originally, Das Boot was released in a truncated 149 minute cut. Since it was originally created for German television, a much longer 293 minute cut exists as well (and is available on DVD). This Blu-ray offers two differing versions - the original edit and a new "director's cut" which saw Peterson reinsert an hour of material back into the film for a final running time of about 209 minutes. This is perhaps the definitive Das Boot, since it contains all the action of the first release as well as more of the character material Peterson felt separated his story from the rest of the WWII motion picture propaganda. The main theme of the film is that politics did not drive the vast majority of U-boat personnel. They were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers (many weren't), but they were first and foremost citizens of a nation under attack, hoping to help their families and loved ones back home by doing their duty for the Fatherland.

Das Boot gets it all right - the boredom, the lack of breathing space, the suddenly jolts of adrenalin, the stir crazy nature of life several fathoms below sea level. Among the officers, we get the Hitler lickspittle, but we also get cooler heads who simply want to serve their time and return to their homes. Many don't understand their orders and openly question those above them. During their down time, sitting around plates of putrid looking food, they argue and countermand, desperate for something to do but never quite ready for what the next packet of directives has to offer. We see both the solemnity and the breaking point, the fear and the fearlessness of people we've come to despise by label only. Just because they are Nazis (or under Nazi control) doesn't make them inherently evil, just sovereignly suspect.

The performances pitch his concept perfectly. Prochnow, who would go on to some Western celebrity and prominence, does a great job of being both in command and in denial of his duty. He's seen it all, done it all, and is through with it all. Sadly, he can't resign, since death is the only option for those who disobey. The same goes for "the old timer" (though he is probably no more than in his middle 30s) played by Wennemann. He's got the grizzled look of experience blazoned across his hopelessly hound dog facade. While Semmelrogge is always smirking, his red-headed mischievousness hiding the real horror of his position, it's Grönemeyer who continually draws us in. Looking like a more Aryan version of Terry Gilliam, his open expression of terror relates directly to our own reactions, relegating the story of U-96 to something more personal, more powerful.

Granted, the high definition upgrade betrays some of the lo-fi physical effects Peterson had to use to obtain his various sequences (especially some of the miniature and greenscreen work) and there are times when we wish there was more battles taking place along the surface, and not between the members of the crew. Yet for all its recognizable genre beats, Das Boot still struts to its own unique rhythms. It's a view from the other side that few, if any, have ever seen or understood. Perhaps the efforts of U-96 weren't worthy of the laudable tag we'd place on other acts of gallantry, but there is something in their drive, in their determination (no matter the ideology) that resonates as real, and revelatory. Thirty years ago, a film like Das Boot removed the good vs. evil label from our understanding of combat. No matter the side, men serving, and surpassing, unspeakable odds do so in a way that can best be described as daring, dauntless...or for want of a better term, heroic.

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