No submarine film series would be complete without Das Boot, the 3.5 hour German epic from 1981. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot explores life onboard a U-boat during the Second World War.
Let’s start by addressing the length. Three and a half hours is too long for a film. And this, the director’s cut, isn’t even the longest version – that title goes to the uncut release which chugs in at five hours. But despite its length, Das Boot succeeds in conveying that combination of profound boredom and utmost terror of life aboard a military submarine.
Like The Bedford Incident, this film begins with a journalist (Herbert Grönemeyer) boarding the ship to provide the audience with their point of civilian access. But unlike The Bedford Incident, the crew aren’t a bunch of swivel-eyed, blood-thirsty sadists. In the case of Das Boot, we meet a range of likeable characters who have been placed in squalid, cramped and impossible conditions. It’s interesting seeing a WWII movie from the point of view of the Germans, reminding us that despite the terrible aims of the Nazi command, the soldiers fighting for those aims were ultimately just people.
The conditions in which they not only fought but also lived are brought brilliantly to life. This was the most expensive German film since 1927’s Metropolis thanks to the impressive combination of full-sized models and detailed miniatures. According to IMDB, the purpose-built submarines were re-used in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The effect of filming inside replicas is one of total authenticity, capturing the horribly claustrophobic conditions and dirty, wet environment.
It also allows for long shots through the interior of the submarine using a specially designed hand-held camera, while apparently the actors were forbidden to go out in sunlight to create the pallor of men trapped in a metal box under the sea for months at a time. The sound too, as in The Bedford Incident, is vital to maintaining this enclosed, realistic atmosphere; the screeching noise of creaking metal punctuates the long periods of eerie silence deep below the ocean’s surface.
All this makes Das Boot a masterful musing on war as bleak, horrific and futile. The sinking of enemy ships is treated not with celebration but with astounding images of people on fire jumping overboard to their inevitable deaths. This is a film about the consequences of war and its effects on real people. It’s epic but human, ambitious but unpretentious, grounded but deep – if you’ll pardon the pun.
It’s easy to see why this is considered a high-watermark of German cinema – again excuse the pun. It balances technical brilliance with complete humanity, and on top of all that there’s a great score to boot – and that’s definitely the last pun. But if three and a half hours is too long (which it definitely is), then you might want to just watch the superb episode of Peep Show entitled The Man Show, when they’re halfway through watching the film and Olivia Colman says with perfect naivety: “Oh, are they on a submarine?”
That concludes our submarine series, and what have we learnt? Two things: Firstly, Sebastian the crab is dead wrong to claim: “Darling its better, down where its wetter.” Secondly, I can safely cross U-boat commander off my list of potential careers. Take it from meeeee.