Thursday 8 April 2010

Das Boot (1981)

Director: William Petersen
Star: Jürgen Prochnow

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

In 1930, Hollywood produced a war film that looked sympathetically at the plight of the enemy. All Quiet on the Western Front was a very human look at young Germans volunteering to fight for the Fatherland in the First World War but discovering instead the horrors of war and the reality behind the rhetoric. That sort of thing was fine for pacifist America in 1930, but in 1981 there was no way that Hollywood could even dream of a similar treatment for the Second World War. Even today it would court every possible controversy to look sympathetically at a group of young Nazis, perhaps now the epitome of easy villains. Put someone in a Nazi outfit and they're going to look very cool, but it would also be clear from moment one that they're inherently going to be the bad guy. It had to be left to the Germans themselves to produce such a film, and Wolfgang Petersen did just that with Das Boot.

Even so, the original film met with criticism in Germany for daring to look at wartime characters with sympathy, even though only one of the large crew could be described as a real Nazi and others were firmly opposed to that ideology. The filmmakers were very wary about what reception they'd get in the US, even though cast members were chosen not just because of their varied German and Austrian accents, to reflect diversity in the forces of the Third Reich at the time, but because they also all spoke English so that the original actors could dub their parts for the English language release. When it premiered in the US at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the audience even applauded the opening caption that pointed out that of the 40,000 German soldiers who sailed on U-boats, 30,000 never returned. However when the film was over, the sheer artistry of Petersen and his cast and crew received a standing ovation, something very much deserved from one of the most powerful films I've ever seen.

Jürgen Prochnow is Kapitänleutnant Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the new and highly experienced captain of a German U-boat, numbered U-96, about to leave for the Atlantic where he is tasked with hunting down British and American merchant shipping. Naturally he has plenty of problems to deal with, most notably that it is late 1941 and the enemy is getting used to U-boat attacks. These merchant vessels are now being escorted by destroyers and it is becoming harder and harder to get through to them. Also his crew are generally young and inexperienced, trying to understand the ideology of their leaders while maintaining the professionalism that their jobs require; and there is a war correspondent along to document the voyage too. There are various subplots and the running times, which vary from version to version all the way up to the uncut miniseries version at almost five hours in length, allow for a few of them to be subtly explored.

Probably more than any other war film I've ever seen, this one is realistic. Naturally I've never sailed on a U-boat, let alone in war conditions, but Das Boot screams realism from beginning to end and much of that is due to the substantial lengths to which Petersen went to ensure it. As the only remaining U-boat of the class required is now a technical monument and memorial, he spent much of the film's $15 million budget on building replacements. He commissioned the original manufacturer to build a new, full size, seaworthy replica, along with a second full size model for interior shots and three more scale models for special effects work. These make all the external shots look absolutely gorgeous. The U-boat looks like a real submarine rather than a toy in a water tank, as is usually expected. It's serene in calm seas and thrown about like crazy in rough seas and this believability sucks us into the story even more.

Petersen also made the decision to film within the confines of the ship, making the whole shoot very claustrophobic and requiring the use of specialist equipment to even be possible. He didn't want to go the usual route of removing a side wall to open up the field of view, so the flexibility of movement is minimal. I'd be surprised if a whole bunch of the crew didn't hurt themselves during filming, running around at speed in such a cramped and confined area. Certainly one actor, Jan Fedder, lost his grip on a tower scene and was washed off the boat, breaking a few ribs in the process, though Petersen initially thought it was an inspired improvisation. When he realised the reality of the situation, he rewrote Fedder's part so that he could spend most of the film in bed, but he still had to be moved back and forth from the hospital for each day's shooting because of a concussion.

Other little details add to the realism too. The film opens like The Deer Hunter with the calm before the storm, at a bar where the new and inexperienced crew are preparing for their long voyage by getting incredibly drunk. The realism comes because some of these actors were actually drunk at the time and weren't acting in the slightest. The entire crew was also deliberately kept indoors for the whole shoot so that they would look as pale as a real submarine crew would on a long mission with rare access to sunlight. To aid this the film was shot mostly in chronological order, which is far from the norm but an approach that does lead itself to aging without the need of effects, the same going for hair growth and pallour. I was also impressed by the long delay while torpedoes sped to their targets with accompanying held breaths, expecting instead the usual Hollywood artistic license that would have them seem to move at the speed of light.

Petersen also uses the everyday grittiness of the mission as a contrast to the few opportunities he gets for cinematic artistry. Inside the boat, the story focuses on details and character building. Crew members get drenched or covered in oil, submit to genital examinations, pee in tins, run bare assed from the bathroom during drills and get hit by bolts shooting off like bullets under pressure too far below. Outside, however, is beauty. Early scenes with the boats still in dock are lit superbly and I could feel the heat of the repair yard reaching out to me. This glowing red contrasts wonderfully with the steel grey of the boat and the sea. Given that everything in a submarine is grey, colour becomes very important indeed, and the glowing red returns later in the mission where burning ships glow into the sky and reflect into the sea.

It takes a long time for the boat to meet action and the first time they come across anything it turns out to be a destroyer that they can't fight. Finally they find a convoy that they can attack but swiftly turn from predator to prey as they're chased by two destroyer escorts searching hard for them. The tension during these chases is palpable. Petersen lulls us into a false sense of security while nothing of consequence happens, then throws us into chaos without a warning. This is exactly as it should be, of course, but I couldn't help but wonder how many other directors would have done it this way. The scenes under attack are gloriously out of control with quick editing and the shakes, and Petersen pulls at our gut as well as our admiration by taking it all that one step further. Watching burning men in a burning sea is gut wrenching, especially as we know that the U-boat has orders not to take prisoners aboard.

The score is very low key while we watch the flames flicker out and the burning boat go under to the accompaniment of German sobbing, the enemy sympathising with our own. Such scenes contrast well with surprising tension breakers elsewhere such as the entire crew singing along to It's a Long Way to Tipperary. In fact there are contrasts everywhere in Das Boot and probably the most obvious one is also the most obvious nod to All Quiet on the Western Front. At one point the boat must resupply from a naval vessel on the Spanish coast and the difference between the pristine naval officers and the weary and bearded men of the U-boat couldn't be more apparent. They ask the submarine crew how many boats they've sunk, not realising in the slightest that even after so many months, the answer is one. This detachment from reality is exactly like the best scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front, where our hero returns home on leave only to find a bunch of old men asking why he hasn't invaded Paris yet.

I only recognised two names here out of a very large cast: director Wolfgang Petersen and lead star Jürgen Prochnow. Petersen had made many German films, often for TV, dating back to 1965, so was already a notably experienced director. As such he was trusted with a large budget by German standards, making this the most expensive German film since Metropolis. However its success gifted him with a widening of opportunity and he went on to many Hollywood movies, which have been variable in style and quality. He seems to be highly selective in his choice of films and as a result I've seen him directing fantasy (The Neverending Story), science fiction (Enemy Mine) and a disaster movie (Outbreak). He also directed thrillers (In the Line of Fire), strange mysteries (Shattered) and historical epics (Troy). Back in the water, he also directed The Perfect Storm and remade The Poseidon Adventure as Poseidon, suggesting that he might have the sea in his blood.

Jürgen Prochnow, with his bright eyes, is the only recognisable face on the screen, as is fitting. After all, the captain of a U-boat should be somebody, even if the crew are just young nobodies, as would so often have been the case, especially as the war ran on. It wouldn't have been anywhere near as effective if German equivalents of Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford had been in the crew. As the captain, Prochnow never seems to sleep. One particular scene where ultimate despair turns into hope is a masterpiece of technique: we watch his face in close up and it carries the entire scene. Oscars have been won for less. Going back a ways, Prochnow was considered to play the Terminator, but by some strange quirk of synchronicity ended up playing Arnold Schwarzenegger instead in the movie See Arnold Run. Das Boot established him outside of Germany too, and I've seen him play memorable roles in a variety of American movies, from Beverly Hills Cop II to Judge Dredd via David Lynch's Dune.

The actors playing the rest of the crew are solid but without anyone else particularly standing out above the rest, again as a crew should be. Erwin Leder, gives probably the next most notable performance as Johann, the chief mechanic, who goes almost crazy at one point under pressure but goes on to save the boat later on after the captain has avoided court martialling him. Klaus Wennemann is notable too as the chief engineer, as is Herbert Grönemeyer as the war correspondent who has been assigned to chronicle the voyage. All these solid supporting performances help us really identify with these submariners, who were trying to kill our fathers and grandfathers who in turn were trying to kill them. It's this identification that makes the film and also makes the finale, which is up there with the most powerful finales I've ever seen in film.

I should point out here that as awesome as I felt this film was, I saw the full screen version, dubbed rather than subtitled, and thus I haven't seen it as I should. Admittedly this is undeniably the best dubbing job I've ever witnessed, probably due to the fact that the entire principal cast was bilingual and dubbed themselves for both the German and English language releases, the sound of the gyroscopes used to stabilise the handheld cameras far too noisy to record sound with the visuals. Watching in full screen probably makes the movie even more claustrophobic but I'll certainly keep my eyes open for a widescreen edition. I also have the choice of a growing number of versions and while I watched the two and a half hour theatrical release, that equates only to about half the footage. If Petersen can sustain the tension he made very apparent here at twice the length, it may be very difficult to watch in a single sitting. Finding out won't be a hardship.

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