Womb and Coffin
I don’t know exactly why but naval warfare always fascinated me quite a bit and I always loved to see it in movies. It must be the fact that you’re constantly combating the forces of nature as much as the enemy forces, so the sense of danger is always present. Then the machinery that is as much a home on the ocean as it’s a prison. The balancing act between discipline and insanity of the officers and the crew in such harsh living conditions - there are numerous elements that make the Navy life instantly dramatic and cinematic. And very few films capture all that drama even amongst the ones that deal with naval warfare, but last night I watched “Das Boot” and it’s a film that seems to capture it all.
“Das Boot” is directed by Wolfgang Petersen, a man I always considered an able craftsman and this is easily the best film of his career. After “Das Boot” he managed to make an impressive career for himself in Hollywood, but none of his efforts ever came close to the quality of this film. The films he made after this one are generally entertaining films, but not much more than that.
Anyway, what makes “Das Boot” so great is, for one, the fact that it’s a German film focused on a German submarine during WW2. There is something very special about this, as I mentioned in my “Cross of Iron” post, since we very rarely get to see the war from the “enemy’s” point of view. However this film is very a-political as there is only one Nazi-sympathizer on the ship. The Captain himself (Jurgen Prochnow) is openly cynical towards the Nazi regime and the rest of the crew seems to be very unconcerned with such matters. But what this brings, together with the films stunning set, costume and production design, is a sense of unparalleled authenticity.
Furthermore the fact that the majority of the story takes place within a submarine gives the film an overbearing sense of claustrophobia. Everything is damp and dirty, the men trapped inside this tin-can look ragged and exhausted, and most of all bored. The sense of boredom as they spend weeks on open sea without an encounter is brought out wonderfully and it thankfully never makes the film itself boring. It just makes the conditions of serving on a submarine seem even more grueling and mind-numbing.
And of course once something does happen it creates a wonderful aesthetic and dramatic juxtaposition because in a blink of an eye all hell is breaking loose as the crew rushes through the tight corridors to their stations or huddles together in crushing silence and tension as the enemy is barraging them from the surface. Tension and drama is something that this film does extremely well but none of it would really work if the film did not have such a wonderful casting and cast of characters.
Jurgen Prochnow is so good and iconic in the role of the captain that it not only gave him an international career, but he also pretty much became the go-to guy when in American movies you’re casting the (usually enemy) submarine captain. The funniest (and most damning) reprisal of this role is probably in the horrible sci-fi videogame adaptation of “Wing Commander”. Ultimately it’s a pity that such a talented actor was relegated to this typically Hollywood type-casting. But that’s Hollywood for you. Anyway the rest of the cast is impressive as well, and it’s easy to feel for even the seemingly least important seaman on the ship. After the already mentioned set and production design the casting is easily the films strongest asset as they feel very authentic.
And this authenticity is also brought out by the fantastic storytelling decision not to tell the film from the point of view of a single character but multiple, as this method covers all the facets and features of the ship – from the periscope to the engine room. Actually I’d argue that this makes the crucial point of view the one of the ship itself, and this proves to be true if we only consider that the ship is the star, the setting and ultimately the heart of the film. It’s also the main dramatic force of the film as very survival depends on it. It can be both the womb and the coffin for these men.
I think the greatest testament to how great “Das Boot” is, is the fact that it practically created a genre of its own. The traces of “Das Boot” can be found in pretty much every submarine film that was made in Hollywood in the last 30 years. But no other submarine film really touches the magic and atmosphere of this film, so it’s relatively easy to say that “Das Boot” is not only a great submarine film but also one of the best war films ever made.
Juergen Prochnow - Der Alte
Herbert Groenemeyer - Lt. Werner
Klaus Wennemann - Chief Engineer Fritz Grade
Bernd Tauber - Kierschbaum
Erwin Leder - Johann
Original language: German
Das Boot on IMDb