I watched this film in what couldn’t have been a more stressful situation. Das Boot is a German war film about life on a Nazi submarine, and what’s the first thing you associate with a film about submarines? Those incredibly tense and all but silent battle scenes. Where was I watching this film? In my room in China, with a ruddy great big construction site outside, the workers resolutely drilling through the Earth’s inner core despite the thundering rain slamming against… well everything really. Amuse yourselves for a moment imagining me furiously attempting to catch the whispered dialogue having fruitlessly turned the TV set to full volume, then launching myself across the room as a torpedo hits and I’m deafened. Not fun.
Needless to say, this less than ideal viewing experience somewhat dampened my enjoyment of what would otherwise be a great watch, if you have the time. Das Boot is long, longer than I expected a movie with one set to be, and emotionally taxing too, in the sense that it’s just so darn tense. (Of course, my fear of the torpedo was nearly as great as the mariners’, replacing the lost tension of the drill-covered silences). Director Wolfgang Petersen gives much screen time to characterisation and the building of “atmosphere”, meaning that we begin to understand the sufferings of the crew in their squalid living conditions. The terror on screen is all too believable; it’s all rather draining.
Unfortunately and infuriatingly for me, I couldn’t figure out how to work the Chinese DVD player and was left watching the dubbed version, which rendered the Nazi Officers as perpetually drunken idiots with bad German accents. Without this ridiculous situation I might have felt more compassion for the crew of U-96, but nobody can love someone with a fake German accent. As it is, the characterisations seem fair to me, the Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) perhaps a little too valiant to be believable, and the lengths to which Petersen went to ensure the realism of the filming is laudable.
This didn’t satisfy the novelist Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, however. Petersen wrote the screenplay based on Buchheim fictional work but the author was very vocal about his disappointment in the realism of the final product. However, when you read the list of complaints he seems overly pedantic and to be missing the angle Petersen has taken. The latter aims to portray the struggles and sufferings of the crew on the submarine, the physical, mental and emotional strains put on these men for a regime in which they do not wholly believe. Constantly, they risk their lives and sanity to defend the power of those they cannot respect. It’s a sobering thought.
If I was a mariner of any sort then perhaps I would find issues with the realism of Das Boot too. As it is, I have never been on a submarine or fought in any kind of war, so instead I feel rather indebted to Petersen for the insights he has given me into life on a German U-boat, not to mention the fact that he gave me a lot to think about as I sat trapped inside by the storm.