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Nominated for six Academy Awards on its initial release, Das Boot is a prime example of how crowd-pleasing a foreign film can be when it refits an old genre with new earthiness and an alien accent. In The Cruel Sea (1952), British warship captain Jack Hawkins braved the elements and German U-boats and dared to show the sweat above his stiff upper lip. Das Boot is The Cruel Sea pushed underwater and lubricated with literal piss and vinegar, with the heroes and villains (for us, anyway) jarringly reversed. It pays tribute to the intense, taciturn captain (JYrgen Prochnow) who faces tough moral challenges and bucks up his crew throughout a dangerous, wearying sea patrol, spending months in quarters so cramped that one of two toilets serves as a larder. During a pursuit of a destroyer and a three-week storm, an attack on a convoy and a broken-sea run through the Strait of Gibraltar, Prochnow is a model of glittery-eyed yet terse and modest command.
The other characterizations are equally familiar from our own World War II extravaganzas. The war correspondent (Herbert Grsnemeyer) gradually sheds his heroicizing glee to become one more hardworking cog in the military machine; the chief engineer (Klaus Wenneman) keeps everything in apple-strudel order without losing his stoicism, even when the U-boat runs aground on a sand hill 280 meters under. There's also the obligatory wistful drag scene; a fresh-faced sailor wrought up over his French lover's pregnancy (the Resistance will persecute her when they realize her baby's half-German!); and the first officer who attempts to be a proper by-the-book fascist. Having this true-blue Nazi on board is the cleverest of ploys: He makes the captain, in contrast, look like a humanist fit for that most honored of current movie entities, The English Patient's International Sand Club. (In this year's Oscar winner, Prochnow plays a sadistic Nazi; here he's anything but. He may back off from rescuing survivors of an Allied destroyer, but he's tortured about it. And, after all, war is war--even Jack Hawkins made some questionable calls in The Cruel Sea.)
Right from the beginning, writer/director Wolfgang Petersen shrewdly establishes his heroes as military men, not ideological Nazis. This allows English and American audiences to relax and take voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing enemy operations while feeling that ol' reliable anti-war film twinge: Yes, indeed, they're ordinary people, just like us. With this positioning, it's easy for Anglo-Saxon audiences to bond with the captain and his men when they belt out "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." (Presumably, German audiences would find it equally touching and hilarious to hear the heroes of a movie called The Sub singing "Lili Marlene.")
Once he lays down the moral and political ground rules, Petersen concentrates on putting the moviegoer in the same perilous spot as these undersea swabbies. Sending his camera hurtling with the men down the gangways, between bunks, through the engine room and command post, the captain's mess and the galley, he does a solid job of communicating the physical strain of their journey--as well as the psychological strain of worrying whether the water pressure will loosen electrical connections, weaken the hull and send rivets flying from the walls like nails from a nail gun. Petersen gives you the illusion that you know what the captain is doing when he chases or eludes convoys or tries to salvage his battered ship, but at the end, you won't be any closer than you initially were to understanding how the sub actually operates.
Despite the movie's war-is-hell patina (including an ironic, tragic ending), it exists to give you the feeling that You Are There as the captain takes charge and prods the men into purposeful action while water spouts into the cabin and bolts whiz by like mini-missiles. Especially in the burnished new prints with Sensurround-like sound, Das Boot accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's as if, once you step into the theater, you sign up for a hitch or you're drafted; if you're awake by the end, you earn your stripes. The movie plays more gracefully and clearly with the hour of new footage in this director's cut (drawn from the six-hour German-TV version). If sixty more minutes of underwater rocking and rolling from depth charges and flooding seems like an extra dose of punishment, that's part of what the film's fans expect and want. Their experience would be capped only if they were handed "I survived Das Boot" T-shirts. For the rest of us, Petersen's plodding realism is more grueling than pleasurable. I was thankful for the gaudiness of Erwin Leder's performance as "The Ghost," the mechanic who tends the engine and teeters on the verge of crackup--his red-rimmed eyes are possibly the film's eeriest effect.
Written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, from the novel by Lothar-GYnther Buchheim. With JYrgen Prochnow and Herbert Grsnemeyer.
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