Blog Directory CineVerse: Taking a deeper dive with "Das Boot"

Taking a deeper dive with "Das Boot"

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Wolfgang Petersen's brilliant "Das Boot" (1981) is a full-frontal assault on the senses and a stark reminder of perhaps the biggest casualty of war: our sense of humanity. CineVerse revisited the theatrical cut of this magnum opus of world cinema last evening (click here to listen to our group discussion) and came to the following observations:

What is unique or memorable about “Das Boot” as a war picture or even an anti-war film?

  • It shows the cost of war from the enemies’ point of view, which is kind of rare for American audiences.
  • We find that it’s easier to identify with and sympathize with the so-called bad guys than perhaps we thought.
  • Most of the film is slow-moving with a tightening knot of anticipation and suspense, unlike common action and war movies driven heavily by plot, sets, and effects.
  • The movie is almost documentary-like in its realism: It tries to accurately depict life on a German submarine and how dirty, difficult and unglamorous a job it was.
  • While there have been plenty of anti-war films, from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Paths of Glory” to “Platoon,” this film shows with masterful subtlety and sledgehammer definitiveness how these young men were used and abused by the German war machine.

What are your typical expectations of a war film, and how does “Das Boot” defy those expectations?

  • Most war movies employ spectacular set pieces, elaborate special effects, relentless action, and a fast-paced plot to make their statement and keep your attention.
  • In Das Boot, very few battles or actions sequences occur; most of the film is about quiet, stillness, despair, and waiting for doom.
  • Many war films are patriotic, flag-waving exercises that support the rightness of the side the characters are fighting on. In Das Boot, some of the leaders are critical of Hitler’s regime and complimentary of the enemy.
  • The characters aren’t cookie-cutter predictable stereotypes.
    • For example, the captain isn’t a brilliant tactician—he makes mistakes.
    • The Nazi officer (mocked as a “Hitler youth”) isn’t depicted as a complete monster who gets his comeuppance.
    • The engine room mechanic Johann proves to be unreliable but then redeems himself.
    • The war correspondent Werner becomes less of a distant observer than an equal among the crew as a human being.
  • Victories aren’t won on the battlefield in this film; triumph is felt when the men strive to fulfill their duties and make the captain they love proud.

“Das Boot” has been called a masterpiece of thrilling suspense. How do the filmmakers build tension and grip the audience without an overreliance on special effects or excessive action?

  • The vast majority of the film takes place within claustrophobic confines of this 10-foot by 150-foot submarine.
  • The filmmakers very rarely show any external views of the sub or even shots outside the vessel.
  • The film is comprised mostly of close-ups and cramped two-shots and three-shots to heighten the claustrophobic feeling. The movie is an intricate study of the human face and its many expressions.
  • Sound is arguably the most important element in this film; the diegetic sounds of life on a sub (sonar pinging, depth charge explosions, pressure on the hull, men sniveling and coughing) and lack of sounds (silence) interplay to heighten the realism and ratchet up the stress
  • For the set, the filmmakers created a replica of U-boat and shot within those tight quarters.
  • The filmmakers chose to shoot linearly, in chronological order, which is rare. As a result, the actors were forced to spend weeks confined to this claustrophobic set, grow natural beards, and go without sunshine or outdoor exposure.
  • The camera work is technically quite impressive and documentary-like, employing handheld camera techniques that follow the men and their actions closely. Point-of-view shots add to the realism, too.

What is the turning point in this film, the moment that makes it a definitive anti-war, humanistic statement that tries to change our perceptions about war?

  • When they surface to finish off the tanker, only to find the British sailors burning to death and drowning in the water.
  • They are forced to confront the consequences of their actions—the terrible destructive impact of war on human beings that is rarely seen from a periscope or a far distance away.
  • This scene depicts the frustration of the moment: The Germans couldn’t help the doomed sailors if they wanted to because there wasn’t enough room on their U-boat.

How do you interpret the bleak, sudden ending of the movie?

  • It’s important that it happens suddenly, unexpectedly and quickly.
  • Ironically, they survive all these other impossible situations and life-threatening scenarios only to be wiped out upon returning home to the admiration of their fellow countrymen.
  • It’s as if the pomp and circumstance and glorious flag-waving and saluting that greeted the sailors was a portent of doom to come. Remember early in the film that the captain says Germany was looking for heroes to worship and salute; the Motherland got its heroes in the form of this returning crew but at a terrible price.
  • This conclusion, of course, reminds the audience that Germany lost World War II.

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