"Das Boot"

War is hell; war underwater is worse. A new version restores every shake, rattle and roll of the German submarine epic.

Published March 7, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"Das Boot"
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge
Columbia/Tristar Studios; anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of featurette, additional footage, director's commentary

In "Das Boot," Wolfgang Petersen's direction is inseparable from Jost Vacano's groundbreaking camerawork. Together, they create a submarine film so viscerally effective that you occasionally find yourself struggling to breathe. The two would go on to big Hollywood productions like "Air Force One" and "Starship Troopers" after this 1981 German breakout, but they did their best work here.

In 1941 a gaunt U-boat captain played by Jürgen Prochnow sets out to sea with a crew of fresh recruits. He's an Ahab warrior-hero who taunts Allied destroyers as they drop depth charges in his lap. A war correspondent (Herbert Grönemeyer) is our guide into submarine life. He has volunteered for the voyage to document the "gray wolves" of the German navy, but the glorious fantasy of undersea hunters melts away as he witnesses the terrible pressures of war and ocean survival.

A title card tells us that 1941 was the turning point in the naval war, when the U-boats faltered against a better-armed Allied effort; this crew spends more time seeking the solace of deep water than in pursuit of new kills. By the end of a monthlong voyage the crew is a gaunt, bearded ghost of red-ringed eyes and shattered nerves.

It's absolutely devastating filmmaking that makes you simultaneously feel the glory and the absolute futility of war. "Das Boot" shares that subject matter with movies like "Saving Private Ryan" but it's a much more elegant proposal: Sitting on the bottom of the ocean waiting for the oxygen to run out gives you lots of time to think through the shock and claustrophobia into the disgusting nature of war.

In the commentary track Petersen takes great care to note the many additional scenes included on the DVD, especially those that portray the boredom of living on a submarine and the rugged life of 48 men sharing a single bathroom. Sprinkled into the informative commentary are little gems of trivia: "Das Boot's" submarine model did double duty for Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; Grönemeyer, the war correspondent, went on to become the Bruce Springsteen of Germany.

The commentary track is also full of technical details about the shoot that cover everything from Vacano's homegrown steady-cam to the many models used in the filming. About the only questions left unanswered are why they made the water look so green and where we can find a copy of the six-hour TV miniseries that came out after the film was released.

The other extra is a "making of" featurette, which is really just a quick ad for the film, the sort of space filler shown between movies on cable. It's not worth much, but it does provide the only behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD. The major addition is the director's cut itself. The extra hour of footage adds nuance at points but can also be overbearing -- sometimes you don't need to experience every shake, rattle and roll to get the point.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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