Nominated for six Academy Awards on its initial release, Das Boot is a prime example of how crowd-pleasing a foreign film can be when it refits an old genre with new earthiness and an alien accent. It's the kind of man's man, World War II adventure in which the only females are strippers or girls left behind, and the flashiest sex talk employs torpedoes as phallic symbols.
In The Cruel Sea (1953), British warship captain Jack Hawkins braved the elements and German U-boats and dared to show the sweat above his stiff upper lip. Das Boot is The Cruel Sea pushed underwater, lubricated with piss and vinegar, and the heroes and villains (for us, anyway) jarringly reversed. It pays tribute to the intense, taciturn captain (Jurgen Prochnow) who faces tough moral challenges and bucks up his crew throughout a dangerous, wearying sea patrol, spending months in quarters so cramped that one of two toilets serves as a larder. During a pursuit of a destroyer and a three-week storm, an attack on a convoy and a broken-sea run through the Strait of Gibraltar, Prochnow is a model of glittery-eyed yet terse and modest command, capable of moving even the most xenophobic Yankees to declare (pace Walt Whitman), "O Captain, Mein Kapitan."
The other characterizations are equally familiar from our own Second World War extravaganzas. The war correspondent (Herbert Gronemeyer) gradually sheds his heroicizing glee to become one more hardworking cog in the military machine; the chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann) keeps everything in apple-strudel order without losing his stoicism, even when the U-boat runs aground 280 meters under. There's also the obligatory wistful drag scene; a fresh-faced sailor wrought over his French lover's pregnancy (the Resistance will persecute her when they realize her baby's half-German!); and the first officer who attempts to be a proper by-the-book fascist. Having this true-blue Nazi on board is the cleverest of ploys: He makes the captain, in contrast, look like a humanist fit for that most honored of current movie entities, The English Patient's International Sand Club. In this year's Oscar-winner, Prochnow plays a sadistic Nazi; here, he's anything but. And, after all, war is war--even Jack Hawkins made some questionable calls in The Cruel Sea.
Right from the beginning, director Petersen shrewdly establishes his heroes as military men, not ideological Nazis. This allows English and American audiences to relax and take voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing enemy operations while feeling that ol' reliable antiwar-film twinge: Yes, indeed, they're ordinary people, just like us. With this positioning, it's easy for Allied audiences to bond with the captain and his men when they belt out "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." (Presumably, German audiences would find it equally touching and hilarious to hear the heroes of a movie called The Sub singing "Lili Marleen.")
Once he lays down the moral and political ground rules, Petersen concentrates on putting the moviegoer in the same perilous spot as these undersea swabbies. Sending his camera hurtling with his men down the gangways, between bunks, through the engine room and command post, the captain's mess and the galley, he does a solid job of communicating the physical strain of their journey, as well as the psychological strain of worrying if the water pressure will loosen electrical connections, weaken the hull and send rivets flying from the walls like nails from a nail gun. Petersen gives you the illusion that you know what the captain is doing when he chases or eludes convoys or tries to salvage his battered ship, but at the end you won't be any closer than you initially were to understanding how the sub actually operates.
Despite the movie's war-is-hell patina, it exists to give you the feeling that You Are There as the captain takes charge and prods the men into purposeful action while water spouts into the cabin and bolts whiz by like missiles. Especially in the burnished new prints with Sensurroundlike sound, Das Boot accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's as if, once you step into the theater, you sign up for a hitch, or you're drafted; if you're conscious by the end, you earn your stripes.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; with Jurgen Prochnow, Erwin Leder and Herbert Gronemeyer.