This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Das Boot (Review)

Let’s play an imagination game.

Imagine climbing into a steel tube slightly wider than your outstretched arms, and so low that a tall man will have to stoop. The inside of the tube isn’t smooth either; its studded and hung and fitted with a myriad of projections and wires and levers and gauges, reducing the space available still further.

There are walls between parts of this tube, with hatches separating them, which you have to bend double to pass through. But you must pass through them, and often at the double, because your life might depend on it.

Fine so far?

Crawl into this tube down a ladder and shut the lid behind you. Breathe in the canned air, and look around in the dim artificial light. This will be your home for a couple of months or so, and therefore, learn to know it well.

You aren’t alone in this tube, oh no. You’ve got the privilege of sharing it with about forty other human beings, all of you crammed into this tiny space, sharing one toilet, sleeping in shifts because there are only about half the number of bunks as there are men and one person gets a bunk when another gets up (this charming idea is known as “hot bunking” because the bunks never get a chance to cool).

Remember that you must also share the space with the personal effects of those forty other humans and food for all of you, the food being hung and crated in every nook and cranny, there being no refrigeration facilities. And since there is no bathroom, there is no bathing either. Also, since part of the tube is filled with a pair of large and oily diesel engines, you can add the smell of diesel fumes to those of stale rebreathed air, unwashed bodies and rancid food.

All right, then we imagine that someone takes this tube out to sea and…nothing happens. Those forty-odd men and you all wait together in this small tube, tossed around by storms, seasick and homesick, drenched by freezing water whenever you open the lid for a few minutes. Boredom, rotting food, tempers pared down to the quick by the constant contact with too many other people in too confined a space. Got it?

Then this someone – a force, one might say, independent of those forty-odd men - plunges the tube beneath the waves, so that it, and everyone inside, becomes virtually blind and deaf. Now this sadist takes several large steel drums full of explosives and blows them up at random all around the tube. Due to these explosions everyone is tossed all over, lights go off, smoke hangs in the air, and at any moment the tube wall might break and water might come pouring in.

And when it at last stops, the forty-odd people are supposed to pick themselves up and continue trying to fulfil a mission none of them believes in anyway.

That, in essence, is the story of “Das Boot”, a film I finally managed to get hold of (I downloaded it off the web). Actually, I got the director’s cut, the 3 hour 15 minute version (there is a shorter movie version and a six hour TV series). The version I have is the original German with English subtitles, and for reasons I’ll explain I needed those subtitles.

“Das Boot” has been called the “greatest submarine movie of all time” as well as one of the greatest war films ever made, and for once I don’t think the claim’s been overhyped. It certainly is the best sub movie I’ve seen, better than “Hostile Waters”, better by far than “K19 The Widowmaker” and quite infinitely superior to “U 571” and “Crimson Tide” (although to be fair it's difficult to make a sub movie worse than "U 571"). And although I haven’t seen all war movies, I’d call it the best anti-war movie I’ve seen, better as a film than the (1978 version of) “All Quiet On The Western Front”.

I’ll give a brief account of the story, without too many spoilers. A young war correspondent, Lt Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) is sent by the German Navy to go on an operational cruise with the U 96, one of the hundreds of Type VIIC U-boats that took part in the 1941-43 Battle Of The Atlantic. He is taken to an officer’s club by the submarine’s captain, (unnamed but known as the “old man” by the crew, since he is all of 30 years old) and by the 27-year-old Chief Engineer. There are German officers and sailors getting drunk and running riot on their last night before a cruise from which they know they might not return alive. In the course of a conversation with another U Boat captain, we realise that both captains are strongly anti-Nazi.

The next day the sub leaves harbour and settles down to a routine of mindless boredom. Werner gets to know the ship’s crew, some of whom are crude and rather vulgar, others withdrawn, some frankly resentful of his landlubberly presence, and at least one (the Chief Mechanic, Johann, played brilliantly by Erwin Leder) who is quite frankly bizarre in his fetishism for the diesel engines. He even sleeps with them and listens to them with a sort of stethoscope.

As tensions run high between crew members and the captain’s anti-Nazi views find more expression (mostly directed at the First Officer, a robotically correct young man who is the only Nazi on board), the sub gets caught in a storm and then attacked by a British destroyer. Somehow managing to avoid destruction despite being heavily bombed by depth charges, the sub then manages to catch a British convoy and torpedo three ships including a tanker before the escort vessels again attack with depth charges and force the sub to a previously unheard of depth (almost 250 metres). So intense is the depth charging that Johann, veteran of nine combat patrols, cracks up and tries to abandon ship in one of the best scenes of the movie. Again, the sub manages to escape after the attack and surfaces near the blazing hulk of the tanker they had torpedoed. The Germans are horrified to find the British crew are still aboard and are jumping into the sea (covered with burning oil) and swimming towards them in hope of rescue. Unable to take survivors on board, they back off.

Expecting orders to return to base, the sub is instead sent to a neutral Spanish port to resupply. There they find an interned German ship full of decadent Nazi officers who treat them to a sumptuous meal, ask voyeuristically about their war experiences, and pass on to them orders that are virtually a suicide mission – they are to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar to an Italian port. Attempting to sneak past the British defences at Gibraltar, they are attacked by aircraft and destroyers and plummet out of control until they land on a sandbank on the sea-bottom – at 260 metres. Valves and hatch seals begin to give way under the weight of water, and toxic fumes begin to fill the boat. Somehow, working against time (their oxygen will run out) they fix the boat, Johann redeeming himself by doing vital repair work, and head back to their French port – where fate has one final twist in store for them.

The cinematography is brilliant. The making of this movie requires a blog in itself, and is too lengthy to mention here. For now I’ll just say that this movie actually defined how a submarine movie should be made. For one thing, since the crew of a sub can hardly know what’s going on outside, almost the entire action happens inside the sub, from the crew’s point of view. When the depth charges go off, you can sweat with fear along with them, since it’s obvious that this isn’t a feel-good Hollywood war movie and you have no idea when some spectacular catastrophe will supervene.

The acting is beyond brilliant. There are no fifth wheels in this movie – everyone is wonderful, even those who have no speaking part. From the human and fallible Captain to his quiet and disciplined Lieutenant Engineer, to his Nazi First Officer, the vulgar and cheerful Second Officer, the foul-mouthed Boatswain, to the radio officer who shares the captain’s taste in music, and the crazy Chief Mechanic – not to mention the centre of all this activity, the observer Lieutenant Werner – you can’t say of any of them, “this man is dispensable”. Hell, even the pressure gauge showing the depth of water is virtually a character in its own right.

The film was made in German, French and English. I have the German version. Although I speak German, I was defeated by the poor quality audio of the downloaded version and by the vernacular German with strong regional accents (I never could understand Austrian German anyway), so the subtitles came in handy.

I can’t recommend this film enough (I don't give out 5 stars easily, you know that). Even the slow patches are vital to the storyline and unmissable. Go see it.

(PS For those who watched it already, I’ve thought a lot about the ending. Like many others, I initially wondered if an alternate ending would have been better. But I finally came to the conclusion that the ending, though historically inaccurate, would have been the best way to end this particular flick. It was much the best ending in keeping with the theme, if you know what I mean.) 

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