Saturday 9 May 2015

Film Review: Das Boot - Wolfgang Peterson, Jürgen Prochnow, et al.

In Das Boot Director Wolfgang Peterson tells the story of the German submarine U-96 and her crew, as they go out on patrol in the Atlantic. The story is based upon the 1973 book of the same name by war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who accompanied the real U-96 on her seventh patrol, under Fregattenkapitän Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, one of the Kriegsmarine's WWII 'tonnage aces'.
Lehmann-Willenbrock (left) and
Buchheim (right), on board U-96, 1941.

The 1973 book cover.

This epic production was intended for release as both a film and a TV mini-series. As numerous fans and reviewers of this WWII epic have noted this can potentially present problems in deciding which version to get. My intuition, helped by some reading of online reviews, Wikipedia and other resources, etc, steered me towards seeking out the longest release I could lay my hands on. Consequently I bought the 282 minute, 2004 '2 disc uncut version'. 

That's four hours forty-two minutes long! Apparently Peterson's original plan for the German TV series was to be six hours. I'm not aware of any versions quite that long. If there was such a version, I'd want it. The shortfall is just shy of an hour and twenty minutes. Can that all have been ad breaks? One hopes not! From what I've read here and elsewhere this trumps both the theatrical and 'director's cut' versions, both in terms of length and viewing experience.

One of Kriegsberichter Buchheim's photos, on board U-96.

Buchheim amidst the crew.

At the time of posting this review it's my fourth or fifth viewing of the film - this time watched in one sitting - and it remains utterly magnificent: compelling, moving, entertaining, thought-provoking. The hours flew by. Simply put, it's brilliant!

Traditionally media production executives seem to have erred on the side of brevity. Perhaps this is changing? thanks to things like the Peter Jackon LOTR and Hobbit trilogies, which categorically prove that large audiences will sit through marathon movies. Certainly part of what makes this lengthiest version so good - perhaps even part of its charm? [1] - are the long periods, weighted toward the beginning of the film, in which there's little or no action. [2] I haven't seen the theatrical release version of Das Boot, so I can't really pass judgement on it. All I can say is that, for me, the dramatic arc, or the tension and release, could only have worked as it did in the longer form.

A poster for the shorter theatrical release.

I'd actually quite like to see the short 'action-movie' version, to see how it compares. It may well work very nicely in that form. But I have a strong suspicion that, overall, the longer version is a richer and better experience for its length. In addition to the contrast this creates between the tension of waiting and the release of action, the extra time aids in the development of character, and this film is a superb example of real humanity in a war film. It's such a marked contrast to the vast majority of war films, which tend to  disappoint with their lack of believable humanity. [3] We'll return to this theme when we consider the characters and actors.

Das Boot begins with shore leave frolics for the Second Watch Officer,
played by the almost always grinning Martin Semmelrogge.

Werner is not quite as into the spirit of proceedings at the cathouse.

The story starts, in this long version, with Werner arriving in a staff car with the Captain. They run a gauntlet of drunken seamen before arriving at what appears to be a cabaret/brothel, where inebriated German U-boat crews are carousing, some having just returned from patrol, others - our protagonists - about to embark. Excitement builds as they get ready to depart. Once underway this soon gives way to boredom and ennui, as a relentless routine takes over. But eventually the actions starts. When it does it really is something to behold, building towards a grindingly intense and prolonged climax, amongst the best moments of war on film I've ever witnessed.

Alrhough I'd quite like to recite numerous scenarios from this superb film, I won't go any further than the above very sketchy outline, which mostly concerns how the film begins, and then very generally how it develops. I've very deliberately attempted to keep this post/review free from too many significant spoilers, so you can hopefully read and enjoy it either as someone who knows the film well or someone for whom that exquisite pleasure lies 'dead ahead'. So, aside from any potential cryptic references I may have made, I've avoided rebelling the major dramatic events, and I certainly won't discuss the ending!

Fregattenkapitän Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock.

Prochnow as 'Der Alte'.

One of Buchheim's sketches of a U-Boat pen.

A scene filmed on location at the La Rochelle
U-Boat pens, on the French Atlantic coast.

It might well be observed that the submarine itself is near enough a character in this film. Indeed, one of the chief engineers appears to be morbidly in love with it! Or rather certain parts of it. But I'll deal with the flesh and blood characters before getting to the U-boat herself. Many of the characters, especially amongst the officers, are known by rank rather than name: there's a core cadre of the chief officers, headed up by the grizzled, thoughtful and very sympathetic Jürgen Prochnow (right), as 'der alte' Kapitän. Old on a sub full of late-teenage crew-members means in his 30s! A mixture of manly qualities, with taciturn and stoic featuring quite high on the list, he has real presence and charisma, being very believable as an inspirational leader.

Next in the chain of command are two very different characters: Klaus Wenneman is the Chief Engineer, whilst Hubertus Bengsch plays First Officer, or 'No. 1'. Wenneman's character is the closest in age and temperament to that of Prochnow's Kapitän, albeit a little more overtly melancholy, whereas Bengsch's character, the guy who actually is second in command, is a very clean-cut youngster, rather subtly portrayed as what one assumes to be a by-the-book German officer type. The subtlety of the portrayal lies in the fact that whilst he's very clearly a patriot, it's not made clear if he's an ardent Nazi. This last and potentially tricky theme is handled very well, and very humanely. One can see that for the majority on the boat they are simply men caught up in strange and extreme events simply doing their 'job' as best they can.

Wenneman, to Der Alte's right, in his pre-beard phase.

Pale and bearded upon returning.

No. 1, always makes sure to be clean-shaven.

Wolfgang Peterson's own Das Boot website sums this up well: 'THE BOAT is a film about war, about men at war. THE BOAT is the story of young men, practically boys, hungry for adventure, seduced by Nazi propaganda, enticed by the marvels of technology. Eagerly, they set out to challenge the brutal forces of nature, to battle an invisible enemy. Many are inexperienced. They have yet to learn of the horrors of war; they know neither the loneliness nor the desperation. In the hell of submarine warfare, the alternatives are grim: you either emerge unscathed or you perish. Beneath the sea, there are no wounded.'

Lothar-Günther Buchheim, as a war correspondent,

on board U-96, 1941.

Herbert Grönemeyer as 'Leutnant', Buchheim's counterpart,
in Das Boot.

Herbert Grönemeyer - now Germany's most successful pop star! - plays Leutnant Werner (left). The story as a whole is based on the aforementioned novel his real-life counterpart Buchheim wrote, and in the film it's his diary entries we see, and very occasionally his thoughts form a commentary. Despite his very central role, I wouldn't quite say that the film is entirely told from his viewpoint. But he plays his part, as do all the cast, terrifically well. Completing the ensemble we frequently see in the cramped officer's quarters - basically a table and some seats in the corridor! - is the ever-grinning 1st Leutnant/Second Watch Officer, played by Martin Semmelrogge.

Frenssen, Pilgrim's companion in crude humour,
and an aggressive occasionally bullying character.

Jan Fedder, at right, always amusing and
disgusting with his foul mouth.

There are numerous other roles, such as the filthy duo of Pilgrim and Frenssen (Jan Fedder and Ralf Richter) who delight in dirty anecdotes, the radio-operator/medic Hinrich (Heinz Hoenig), another rather taciturn and stoic heroic type, and the spookily intense Chief Mechanic Johann, 'The Ghost'. There are many more memorable characters, including, amongst the barely out of their boyhood teens, a lovelorn lad with a pregnant French girlfriend and a quiet Bible reading boy. The acting is absolutely superb. It's not surprising that Spielberg, who cites Das Boot as an influence, cast a good number of these guys in Schindler's List.
Erwin Leder, 'The Ghost' in the machine.

Radio and sonar op, medic and crab-killer, Hinrich.
Der Alter depends heavily upon his expertise.

Like most things in life, despite the film itself as presented here being a magnificent achievement, the complete DVD package isn't perfect. The special effects and the music date the production somewhat. But it's actually extremely good, nevertheless, and perhaps especially when you recall it came out in 1981. The soundtrack music - there are numerous instances of in-context music, from the jazzy band at the cathouse to radio and records played on the sub - sounds rather Germanic, and also very '80s (synthesised rather than orchestral). [4]

Regarding the rest of the soundtrack, the dialogue is all dubbed - even the original German had to be dubbed, owing to the noises made on set, in part by the gyroscopic cameras (specially developed for the film) - but as I prefer to watch it in German with subtitles anyway, this isn't an issue to me. The rest of the aural soundscape deserves some attention in its own right, as it's fabulous.

The sound world of a U-boat is meticulously recreated, and ranges from eerie silences with only the creaking of the boat, due to water-pressure, via whispers when trying to evade detection, to the full on cacophony of battle and 'action-stations'. Some of the sounds, enemy boats passing overhead or their echo-location pulses, the sounds of torpedoed shipping breaking up, or bulkhead bolts popping like champagne corks (most definitely not the sound of celebrations!) are terrifyingly evocative.

Listening with baited breath...

Something doesn't sound good...

Whilst on the subject of meticulous reproduction, the boat itself has to be mentioned. I don't know all the technical stuff, but I'm sure there's a lot about it out there on't interweb. It looks as if several different sized models were used [5], and the interiors are in particular worthy of mention. [6] Along with the ground-breaking camera work, these interiors really vividly bring to life the unbelievably cramped conditions submariners had to contend with. Fortunately we don't yet have 'smell-ovision', but the visual production is so damn funky - in the old non-musical sense of that word, that you can almost smell the rank stench of oil, sweat and fear!

U-boats, like Hobbit holes, have round doors.

But they smell more like troll caves.

The only disappointment for me has to do with the DVD package as a whole, rather than the film itself, and it's the 'making of' feature-ette (actually a piece about the director's cut). A little reading online quickly reveals many fascinating stories connected to Das Boot: from the real-life fates of some of the characters portrayed (Capt. Lehmann-Willenbrock's fate differs rather markedly from that of Prochnow's character, and real-life war correspondent Buchheim went on to become an art collector specialising in Expressionist art, a style Nazis had labelled as 'degenerate'), to aspects of the production - actor Jan Fedder, who plays the macho foul-mouthed officer 'Pilgrim', was genuinely accidentally swept of the bridge during filming of a storm scene.

They all got very wet making Das Boot.

The call of 'man overboard' and the scene of his rescue was, apparently, not scripted. Fedder was hospitalised as a result, but Peterson incorporated the scene into the film, even utilising it's consequences, by rewriting Fedder's part so as to have him wounded and bed-bound. The making of documentary could have been both long and full of fascinating stories. Sadly it is neither, and instead, despite its brevity, is padded with self-congratulatory reflections from cast and crew; understandable perhaps, because the film/mini-series is a masterpiece, but not very interesting and, apart from technical stuff about how they did it, not even very edifying.

But I don't want to end on that rather critical and negative note, when writing about a masterpiece that is certainly amongst the best war films I've ever seen, and is frequently cited as amongst the best of its kind ever made. Let's wind up instead with a celebration of what's best about it: well, it's beautifully filmed and superbly acted; the structure of the plot and the development of character throughout the lengthy near five-hour opus are both masterfully managed.

The 'Ghost', happy in his beloved engine room.

Later on it's make or break time... not so happy now.

You will be drawn in by the humanity of these men, despite the butchery that is their their trade, and despite the appalling ideology they were being employed to further. Despite the limitations of the technology available at that time - I for one love inventive 'old school' films of this ilk, with no discernible CGI to be seen - Peterson and his crew and actors create a believable world and, pardon the almost unavoidable pun, immerse the viewer deeply and intensely in a stifling, murky subaquatic domain.

Whatever the ethics or philosophy of such complex thorny issues as war may be, you will be both horrified and yet also inspired by both (red pun alert!) the depths and the heights that humanity  attains in war. In the parlance of the '60s, this is a real 'trip'; watching it is cathartic in the way the Ancient Greeks meant tragic drama to be. Five hours lying prone on the sofa never felt so exciting, arduous, involving or compelling. Verdammt! as Prochnow's Kapitän likes to says, this is one helluva story!


NOTES: Another format that the original Das Boot book has been released in is spoken word, as an audiobook read by Wolf Kahler.

[1] I originally wrote 'paradoxically part...' as if length of time automatically equated to longer = worse! I suppose, ironically, that in most cases, i.e. as far as most movies that get the green light from movie execs go, longer would indeed be worse. But in terms of good films (and probably this is true for good media of any sort, for that matter), duration has no necessary corollary with quality. 

[2] I've not been in the military, but I have been a touring musician, and that life has its parallels: long periods of near inactivity as you travel around, punctuated by short bursts of action. In the military this is characterised as '90% boredom, 10% terror', or words to that effect. Hmmm... have I just admitted that's what my life as a musician was like!? 

[3] Buchheim apparently didn't like this adaptation that much, and thought the acting 'hysterical' and 'clichéd'. As the man whose experiences this is based we have to give him some credence, but I still think that, compared with most war films, the acting in Das Boot is far better and more subtly nuanced. Sure, there's everything from the expected (machismo) to the unexpected (Werner's tearful and trembling soliloquy on facing raw reality), some of which might be considered a little hammy. But wouldn't one expect to find such things in the overall mix in war? And this is a dramatisation.

Arab (1920), by Emil Nolde, part of

[4] I don't know if it is synthesised or orchestral or a mixture. I might look into that? I do know that the actor who plays [Frenssen?] has a brother who's was at this time a member of the experiment art-house industrial noise band Einsturzende Neubauten!

[5] Under the heading 'Sets and models' at the Wikipedia entry for the film it says this: 'Petersen was admittedly obsessive about the structural detail of the U-boat set, remarking that "every screw" in the set was an authentic facsimile of the kind used in a World War II U-boat. In this he was considerably assisted by the numerous photographs Lothar-Günther Buchheim had taken during his own voyage on the historical U-96, some of which had been published in his 1976 book, U-Boot-Krieg ("U-Boat War").' I found a good website that illustrates how this stuff was done here.

Relics from the film are now part of a museum in Bavaria.

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