Few war films are more potent than Das Boot, the surprisingly dynamic German submarine epic that launched director Wolgang Petersen into the international film scene. Though it debuted in theaters, Das Boot has at least three notable versions: the original theatrical cut (149 minutes), a roughly five-hour TV mini-series version (293 minutes), and the 1997 Director's Cut (209 minutes), the basis for this review. The ultimate submarine movie, Das Boot makes sweaty, high-tension virtues of its cramped quarters and stifling air.
Who says history is written by the victors? As the film's writer, Petersen takes a well-rounded approach to his WWII adventure from the perspective of the losing side. The film cleverly begins with a pair of scenes that definitively undercut any notion of archetypal heroic nobility, showing quite the opposite: on the eve of a U-boat launch, a nightclub plays host to drunken misbehavior in the extreme, as well as cynical mistrust of military leadership, all the way up to the Führer. That's not to say that the sub's crew is unsympathetic—quite the contrary. The brooding captain (Jürgen Prochnow) at one point says, "All you need is good people,” and the crew comprises naïfs and cynics, skilled men and novices. None ever seems as small as a type, and Petersen shows they're capable of a variety of realistic emotions: grim determination, elation, nervousness, crippling fear, boredom, stir-craziness, and out-and-out madness. The close conditions lead to an outbreak of crabs, and multiple singalongs of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary," butalso more delicate psychological moments, like one crew member's poignant escape into photographs.
Thanks to Petersen's collaboration with director of photography Jost Vacano (Robocop), Das Boot is best known for its virtuosic, Oscar-nominated camerawork, which usually gives the impression that the viewer is walking (or running) through the sub, getting the eye-level tour, even turning his or her head to see more (though an infamously claustrophobic film, Das Boot works in a couple of other sequences outside of the sub, and farther than the conning tower). Sound is equally important to the you-are-there effect, whether defined by a raucous crew, pinging sonar, or the breathless tension of pin-drop quiet (Milan Bor, Trevor Pyke, and Mike Le Mare also got Oscar nods). Hannes Nikel achieves masterful editing in the action sequences (at one point, explosive flashes of red filling the screen with each depth charge), and Prochnow lends the film rich gravitas at the head of a strong ensemble. Das Boot has plenty of reflective moments, but it also carries its gripping suspense—about the fates of these men—all the way to the final fade-out. Of course, we all know how the war turned out, and the film begins with an unpromising statistic: three-quarters of the 40,000 men who served on U-boats were killed in action. Were it not for films like this one, few Americans would contemplate their perspective on WWII.
Das Boot gets the deluxe treatment in its Blu-ray debut from Sony: a 2-Disc Collector's Set that includes both the Director's Cut and the Original Theatrical Version. Though the film's sheer size presents a compression challenge even to Blu-ray, the results here are up to the Sony standard: the film source is clean, detail has improved considerably over standard def, color appears accurate, and the image looks completely natural and decidedly film-like (some shots look a little softer than others, but that appears to be due to the source material rather than the transfer). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix on the Director's Cut is outstanding: few films are more reliant on sonic immersion and ambience as this one is, and this lively mix delivers in spades (make note: the Original Theatrical Cut comes with a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, despite some inaccurate listings).
Bonus features—including several new ones—are excellent and plentiful, beginning with a candid and amazingly thorough audio commentary by director Wolfgang Petersen and actor Jürgen Prochnow, in conversation with Director's Cut producer Ortwin Freyermuth (Director's Cut only).
In the new "Wolfgang Petersen-Back To The Boat" (44:46, HD), writer & media historian Gundolf S. Freyermuth interviews Petersen, and they visit Bavaria Film Studio, where Prochnow joins them on the sub set. Also brought back onto the set is art director Götz Weidner, and the doc includes sit-downs with assistant director Maria Petersen, international sales agent Mark Damon, and Freyermuth.
The Going Deeper section includes "Maria’s Take" (9:16, HD), an intriguing chat between the Petersens, and "The Perfect Boat" (13:02, HD), a look at the creation of the Director's Cut with Petersen, Freyermuth, and supervising sound editor & re-recording mixer Michael Keller.
In “Captain’s Tour – Inside the Boat” (8:12, HD), Prochnow walks us through the sets in seven parts: Rooms Overview, Entry Conning Tower, Torpedo Room & Crew Quarters, Captain’s & Officers’ Rooms, The Control Room, Petty Officers’ Room & Galley, and Diesel & Electric Motor Rooms.
Historical Material includes two vintage documentaries: "Behind the Scenes (1981)" (1:00:20, SD) is a look at the making of the film with set footage and interviews, while "Battle of the Atlantic (1983)" (40:16, HD) is a history documentary exploring the Germans' ocean-faring role in the war.
War-movie buffs will not want to pass up this outstanding Blu-ray set.
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