Das Boot
(West Germany, 1981)

Two versions of Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot are available, and each is a masterpiece in its own right. The original domestic version, released theatrically in 1981, is 2 1/2 hours of white-knuckle suspense. The director's cut, which arrived in theaters in 1997, edits back in an hour of footage which adds depth and breadth to the characters, and consequently, emotional resonance to the entire production. My personal preference is the longer version, especially for home video watching. All of the suspense is still present, but there's a lot more to savor and absorb. Which ever version you choose, however, there's no arguing that Das Boot is the best submarine movie ever committed to film, trumping everything from Run Silent, Run Deep to The Hunt for Red October to U-571. The claustrophobia, the paranoia, the suffocating sense of approaching doom, the nearly unbearable tension, and the bitterly ironic ending nothing comes close. Petersen's direction of this movie so impressed Hollywood that the Americans came calling, and he has continued his career on this side of the Atlantic. But, nothing he has done since has approached what he achieved with Das Boot.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The bulk of the film takes place within the boat, and follows a group of characters as they are transformed from the clean-shaven, energetic individuals who enter to the scraggly, dispirited men who eventually emerge. We see the story through the eyes of a German war correspondent (Herbert Gronemeyer) who is on board the boat for a single tour. The men are presented as he views them -- a cadre of competent sailors united by bonds stronger than family or blood. The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow), an officer of great intelligence, experience, and compassion, has earned the respect of every man under his command. However, unlike in many war movies, this leader is not a tactical genius. He can, and does, make mistakes -- some of which are costly. The crew is comprised of a diverse group of individuals, including a party member, a chief engineer on the verge of a breakdown, and a young man who longs for a reunion with his French fiancee.

In addition to being a great thriller, Das Boot also makes pointed statements about human nature and war, and the visceral eloquence with which they are expressed highlights the film's power. War is one of the great dehumanizing experiences -- it becomes "us" against "them." In Das Boot, the victims of the U-boat's attacks remain faceless entities until one wrenching scene when the crew is forced to confront the terrible ramifications of their actions. The battle scenes don't define the film; superlative acting, top-notch writing, and exceptional direction do. Throughout the history of motion pictures, there have been many fine movies set in the cramped confines of the submarine, but none approaches the impact achieved by Das Boot. This film takes all of the drama and suspense inherent in a submarine-based story and delivers it in a near-perfect package, establishing Das Boot as not just a terrific adrenaline rush, but one of the best movies ever made.

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