Flashbacks | Das Boot: The Director’s Cut (1981, Theatrical Release; 1997, Director’s Cut / 209 mins (Director’s Cut) / Germany)

Before The Hunt For Red October (1990) and U-571 (2000) brought the thrills of submarine warfare in films, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot came and defined a rather niche war genre, setting superior standards that are rarely surpassed since its release in 1981.

The adaptation of a novel by former war correspondent, Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, tells of the exploits of German U-Boat, U-96, and its crew led by an astute captain (Jurgen Prochow) known simply by his rank or nickname, Der Alte (The Old Man). In the midst of World War II, the U-96 stalks the European waters where Kriegsmarine subs are fast losing their dominion as elusive terrors.

The U-96’s mission is mainly to disrupt Allied shipping but the central theme of survival is evident. Its crew is a bunch of stoic and quietly desperate men who are constantly tested by the boredom and perils of long sea patrols. Despite the virtual absence of ostentatious heroics from any of the characters, a few interesting personalities stand out.

Prochnow’s stellar performance offers a glimpse of what it’s like to be in command during dangerous times. The captain is a figure of tough confidence, albeit possessing great faith in his ship, has doubts about winning the war. Being part of a military service that was least moved by Nazi ideology, Der Alte carries a disdain for the German leadership, in counter to his First Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch) with his nationalistic patriotism.

The captain is supported by his Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann) and Second Watch Officer (Martin Semmelrogge), who forms the intimate core of his authority, as well as Johann (Erwin Leder), the eccentric Chief Mechanic, and Hinrich (Heinz Hoenig), the all-time alert sonar controller.

The war correspondent, Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer), who is tasked to gather propaganda photos for the German military, is Das Boot’s everyman. Embedded with the U-96, the insignificant Werner keenly observes the submariners with discreet curiosity and provides a connection to the crew’s plight.

The adaptation of a novel by former war correspondent, Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, Das Boot tells of the exploits of a German U-Boat and its crew led by an astute captain (Jurgen Prochow; middle, first from left). Image: Günter Rohrbach.

A subtle tension among the men is further underscored by an austere environment — most scenes seldom occur outdoor and were shot within the U-96’s interiors meticulously laid out with instruments and controls. The tight confines induce a realistic hell as Allied destroyers attack the sub with depth charges. Booming underwater explosions followed by seemingly endless waits for yet another barrage rattle the sub and nerves of the crew. These moments are where excellent sounds demonstrate Das Boot’s restrained but heart-pounding thrills. In a metaphorical prison where fear is physically and mentally contained, the anxiety that hangs over the crew is progressively the tangible centrepiece of the film.

When things quieten, anti-war sentiments emerge while most of the men are not seen to be vying for battlefield glory. Das Boot‘s gravitas stays even at one of its most climatic scenes, with one such moment — an assault on an enemy vessel which causes initial excitement, only to later give way to eerie poignancy when the crew witnessed dying sailors of the torpedoed ship.

With an effective cast and strong sound editing and mixing, director Wolfgang Petersen made the portrayal of war an unsettling, auditory experience. Image: Günter Rohrbach.

But the final act rewards the long wait for what triumphs the crew could afford. The U-96 wading through the heavily guarded Strait of Gibraltar and nearly sinking to a watery grave is perhaps one of the most nail-biting and victorious moments in war cinematic history.

Petersen’s masterpiece isn’t the kind given to large-scale battle actions and explicit violence, although it is probably because land wars tend to be shot with fiercer physicality and lacerations as compared to skirmishes at seas. That near-absence of war-horror intensity otherwise allows the constant doom and gloom of Das Boot to pervade. Fundamentally, Petersen made the portrayal of war an unsettling, auditory experience. As glass bulbs shatter and bolts pop off when the U-96 braves attacks and dives deeper to evade depth charges, one could briefly assume that the sub is literally going down until it cheats death.

With minimal visual cues and artful realism, Das Boot brilliantly shows the dread of war as played out by an effective cast and backed by strong sound editing and mixing.