RogerBW's Blog

Das Boot 15 October 2021

1981 war, dir. Wolfgang Peterson, Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer; IMDb / AllMovie. In late 1941, U-96 goes out hunting Allied ships…

One of the interesting things about this for me is how much knowledge it assumes, or does without. We don't really know where the submarine is, other than "the Atlantic", but a lot of the time neither do they. The version of the Battle of the Atlantic in popular culture has "wolfpacks" in it, but they aren't here and they're never mentioned (radio interception was making it more difficult to coordinate attacks). The Type VII that we see here is one of the last submarines to be basically a surface ship that can submerge briefly; the Type XXI that would replace it from 1944, and all future submarines, are designed primarily to be submerged and only to surface when absolutely necessary.

But this is a war film that manages to show heroism without being glamorous: this is clearly a very tough job that requires significant courage, but it's also deeply unpleasant and fundamentally pointless, and they all know it. One might admire the people but without wishing to emulate them.

This is also a film largely without technical errors. The sets are right (partly because of Petersen's obsessive insistence that they be right, assisted by a custom gyrostabilised Arriflex camera to allow filming in close quarters); all the things that happen are things that could plausibly happen. Many films get technical details wrong, either through carelessness or because they restrict the sort of story one can tell; this is proof that you can still tell an exciting story about real life without having to change the complicated things.

Some of the depictions are a bit rough, though – until CGI came along, water tank models never quite looked right, because water behaves differently at different scales. The periscope and binocular views across the surface of the water looked distractingly wrong to me, perhaps because everything else looked reasonable.

I haven't been aboard a Type XIIC, but the close quarters seemed about right by comparison with the proto-Type II that I saw in Finland. Earlier submarine films like We Dive At Dawn and Run Silent, Run Deep had been set aboard Allied submarines and had much more open sets; here, particularly because the vast majority of the film is inside the boat, there's a constant sense of claustrophobia and the single corridor becoming the entire world.

And I'm not talking about plot or character. Well, there isn't really an overarching plot; it's a series of incidents with only loose connections between them. There are effective portrayals of the way it feels when what had been a remote war, turning dials and pushing buttons, suddenly becomes a matter of actual screaming dying people; there are the crew of the resupply ship, healthy and out of danger but desperate for heroes to tell them the war is going well; but there's also an effective portrayal of the hours and days of boredom and discomfort between the moments of terror.

The characters are perhaps types more than individuals; many of them are nameless, and have only a few traits (the one worried about his wife, the one writing to his girlfriend, the one coming apart under stress who nonetheless manages to pull off some heroic engineering). On the other hand they have a much more diverse look than a Hollywood cast can manage (not in skin colour, obviously, but they haven't been filtered for a particular sort of attractiveness the way most US actors have), because Petersen went looking for actors who had the typical appearances of various German regions (as tended to happen in the actual Kriegsmarine, and in earlier German maritime tradition), and their accents match. (They did their own English for the dubbed version – but actually even the German version is dubbed, because of the noise made by the camera.)

Lothar-Günther Buchheim's book was much more explicitly anti-war, and he wasn't at all happy with the filmed version, feeling that it was too propagandistic and shallow. Well, it is a film, even the 300-minute miniseries, and doesn't have the space for development that a book does. The book's ending is retained… though to be honest I think it might be worked better as a loop, to finish with the same shots as in the beginning, the weary crew going off to get drunk and laid again before going out on one more patrol…

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

See also:
Finnish Submarine Vesikko

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