Das Boot: The Director's Cut


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Das Boot
"The greatest submarine movie ever made."

Das Boot: The Director's Cut is a triumph. It makes the tedium, the abject terror and the drama compelling - mixing heroism with stupidity, madness and sheer human resolve. Locked inside an iron lung for days on end breathing others' recycled stink isn't fun. Wolfgang Petersen's masterpiece is rewarding as a great movie, and shares a poignancy with us.

Das Boot opens with the crew of a fleet of U-boats, The Grey Wolves, entertaining themselves at La Rochelle, awaiting their next assignment. The story tells of a near-suicide mission to disrupt shipping lines in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. War correspondent Lt. Werner is the audience's surrogate, viewing the proceedings with a degree of mild enthusiasm, and shares our viewpoint as matters turn bleak.

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The 1997 restoration of Das Boot adds more than an hour to the stories, fleshing out the support characters, adding more conflicts, hammering home the nature of life at war - weeks of tedium sharing stinking, pubic-lice ridden bunks with others. Petersen stretches time like a blade, as destroyers pummel the boat with hundreds of depth-charges and the captain tries to outmanoeuvre and outflank their explosive doom.

The craft of suspense is never better revealed than in these scenes. Petersen makes the horror of being forcibly made to stand while faceless enemies take pot-shots at you far more real than we'd like it to be. The sailors onboard hold their breath in horror, and their plain-as-day faces reflect the proximity of abject and imminent death as destroyers' propellors tear up the water above them. They might as well be churning the audience's stomachs at the same time. Terrifying and thrilling in equal measure.

The actors look scared because they are. The entire submarine set was 45 feet in the air on a giant gimbal which could throw them any which way. During the storm and depth-charge scenes we see them take falls, slam into metal pipes and injure themselves. The way the characters evolve from smooth kids into mile-stare, bearded men is a rite of passage for them and for the audience, and the director's cut makes it all the more so. The war gets a good drubbing, with the questionable choice to take no prisoners, and the Nazi pretence of patriotism amounts to little as the crew inaugurate their captain with very fresh piss.

Paul Verhoeven's usual director of photography Jost Vacano shoots the movie from the hip, using a hand-held stabilised camera with an attached gyroscope to keep shots fluid. (This became so noisy that all the lines had to be relooped in post-production.) It works well, especially as the camera floats between members of the crew, never being allowed to travel through a space that anyone onboard would not, keeping an intimacy with the boat's crew. And indeed, the blazingly fast signature shot of the men running through the boat to try to tilt it for a quick dive is sensational in its choreography.

Also, the film has been remixed for theatrical SDDS, in 7.1 surround (five fronts, two surrounds and baby boom). This downmixes well to home Dolby Digital and DTS surround formats, and I'm stunned at the results. It transforms the home soundstage into a dripping, wet, creaking, pressurised tin can. The 5.1 stereo mix's use of ambient surround sound is astonishing, mildly reverberating well-recorded voices, the thunderous creaks of water pressure crushing the vessel.

Startling use of high frequency range panning is also obvious when bolts begin bursting from their sockets. Guaranteed to make you rocket out of your seat, especially when the film has you wound up in terror. And, of course, the subsonic bass that just pours out of the subwoofer when those depth charges go off! It's one of those movies that demonstrates just how essential excellent surround sound is. (It's probably best to note that this superb remix only applies to DVD versions of The Director's Cut. It does not apply to the original miniseries released recently as The Original Uncut Version.)

Das Boot is the greatest submarine movie ever made. It is a seminal picture, which mixes action, blind terror and humanity brilliantly. U-571 and others are mere imitators by comparison.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2006
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The claustrophobic experiences of an inexperienced U-boat crew trying to survive.
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Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Writer: Wolfgang Petersen, based on the novel by Lothar G Buchheim.

Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, Hubertus Bengsch, Martin Semmelrogge, Bernd Tauber

Year: 1981

Runtime: 293 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany


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