by Kenneth Turan

Genre, a perceptive man said, is just another word for stealing. But there is stealing and there is stealing, petty larceny as well as the grandest of theft, and into that enticing latter category falls Das Boot (The Boat). This story of men at war under the sea has hardly a newly minted plot device or character trait to its name, yet rarely has familiar material been put together with such verve and dash. A very traditional war movie done with the most rigorous attention to both physical and psychological realism, Das Boot is the submarine movie to end all submarine movies, a genre film that, like a child thriving under discipline, makes more out of its inherent limitations than less restricted movies manage with all the freedom in the world.

Based on Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s widely read, semiautobiographical novel about a journalist’s experiences on German U-boat 96 cruising the North Atlantic in the autumn of 1941, Das Boot‘s most obvious departure from the norm for American audiences is that it makes do with Them instead of Us as heroes. But except for a single shot of drowning English-speaking sailors — done in by one of the U-96’s torpedoes —we are never aware of the sub’s crew, who are mostly apolitical or anti-Nazi to begin with, as the enemy. How could we be? The brave, enigmatic captain, his loyal No. 2, the psycho in the engine room, the shared terror of attack by pesky depth charges, and enough male bonding and hearty camaraderie to fill a year’s worth of Boy’s Life — it’s all so familiar from all those American and British films with pleasantly poetic titles like Run Silent, Run Deep, Above Us the Waves, and The Enemy Below that the switch in nationality is hardly noticeable. What really separates this film from its predecessors is not country of origin but a pair of creative decisions — one distinctly European, the other traditionally American — made by the film’s German producers to give their conventional material as high a gloss as it could stand.

The American approach is, to be blunt, the spending of money without shame. Das Boot cost more than $12 million, not eye-catching by domestic standards but enough to make it the most expensive German film ever made. And that sum was not spent on star salaries but in pursuit of verisimilitude, to purchase the kind of technical skill that used to be the exclusive domain of Hollywood. In addition to two full-size submarines, for instance (one used for exteriors, the other for interiors), three fully detailed scale models were built, including a thirty-five-foot oceangoing job that could cruise as well as dive on remote-control command. The result is a series of vivid outdoor action sequences that will deceive even the sharpest eye.

Most of the money, however, was spent on the creation from scratch of that U-boat interior. While movie submarines have invariably looked like hotel rooms with periscopes in the middle, this one is fanatically authentic, down to the last rivet. And though the boat was constructed so that its walls could be pulled back to allow, in director Wolfgang Petersen’s words, “someone to sit back comfortably in a chair with a cigar in his mouth and say, ‘Action,'” he insisted on shooting in the enclosed space to ensure reality. “I wanted to force the cameraman to shoot the whole film in this tube — I wanted the audience not to see this as decoration but to feel that we are all totally in this boat for months and months.”

Hiring someone like Wolfgang Petersen to direct Das Boot is the European factor. Though he’s had experience with logistically complex TV movies, his feature background is largely in intense character studies like The Consequence and Black and White as Days and Nights, and picking him to direct the biggest budget, mass-audience film in his country’s history is a bit like choosing John Cassavetes to direct Jaws. Yet Das Boot is elevated above the usual by nothing so much as that choice; it is Petersen’s abilities as a director of actors, his insistence on crushing realism, both mental and physical, that underlie the film’s success.

U-boat 96 is 150 feet long and 10 feet wide; a man with outstretched arms could almost touch both sides. In this cigar tube, where the concept of “bath” exists only as a word in a crossword puzzle, forty-three men live for months on end, sharing a single toilet, sleeping in shifts for lack of space, and trying not to go crazy from the alternating boredom of pointless cruising and the chaos of sudden attack. Petersen and director of photography Jost Vacano, who shot more than 90 percent of the film with a hand-held camera rigged with a special steadying gyroscopic mount, so immerse us in the oppressiveness of this tiny tin that we are practically overcome by the fetid stink of the ripe salamis hanging from the walls. Except for Jürgen Prochnow as the captain, a Clint Eastwood type with the face of a suffering Christ, the actors are largely unfamiliar even to German audiences, and director Petersen went so far as to cast people off the streets if they looked right. And he did the nine months of filming in sequence, so that by the finale those faces reflect the toll of living and working in that terribly cramped space.

Petersen has also been a sensitive enough director to emphasize the plain and ordinary humanity of the crew members, using letters, photographs, snatches of music, bits of dialogue, so that when they find themselves in danger we care very much about their survival. And the perils U-96 encounters would mortify John Wayne — depth charges are the merest beginning for this lot, and each time the boat survives an ominous threat it is only to confront another one even more potentially deadly.

Petersen is especially good at building tension in these traumatic episodes and in capturing the hellish, apocalyptic, almost unimaginable chaos of a submarine under intense attack. There has been talk of Das Boot being an antiwar film because of the way it details the horrors of that claustrophobic maelstrom, but that is a bit much. Das Boot succeeds because it is classic filmmaking with a vengeance, its appeal the timeworn one of storybook heroism, albeit in a realistic frame and for a cause even the heroes seem to despise. It is a film that plays it straight, taking care not to betray our expectations with coyly modernistic plot twists, and it teaches the pleasant lesson that even the most melodramatic material is susceptible to quality control.

Source: California Magazine, April 1982