Sunday 21 April 2013

Das Boot (1981)

It was a lovely, sunny day yesterday, so I stayed in and watched 'Das Boot'.  There's a whole genre of submarine films, apparently, and I've seen a couple of them, but 'Das Boot' is the only one that has so far won my affection.  By dint of not being set in the 80s, it doesn't get in on the old almost-firing-nuclear-missiles schtick, and so refrains from melodrama.

When it was first screened in America, I'm told some of the audiences applauded the slide at the start declaring that, of the 40,000 U-boat sailors in the second world war, only 10,000 survived.  I have a dislike of war-films, or of the older, more jingoistic sort of war film that the 40s and 50s produced, which invite the viewer to cheer the goodies and shout condemnation at the evil villains.  'Das Boot' is something very different, as it shows us the men of a German submarine, not as villains, but as people.  We see them going about their everyday lives, which just so happen to take place on a u-boat, and involve the pursuit and torpedoing of British freighters.

The inside of a German sub is a setting that's entirely alien to me, but it's rendered so believably here, and apparently so true to life, as to be quite revelatory.  This is what cinema is for, or is one of its functions at least.  As for believability, well, this is a beard film.  That is to say, if you find beards interesting, you'll find delight here.  Since the film was shot in the order that we see it, the crew of the submarine start clean-shaven and grow full beards over the film's three hours.  One particularly officious character apparently keeps shaving until the film and the voyage are almost over, giving in and growing stubble only when survival becomes improbable and his spirit is broken.

At one point, the u-boat makes a stop in Spain, and thereafter
bananas and pineapples linger at the back of each shot.
It's long, claustrophobic and at times extremely tense.  There are few rooms, and small, in the submarine, and a lot of crew.  Long stretches pass without shots of the water's surface or the outside of the submarine.  We get to know the characters very well, as most of their time is spent waiting, for orders to come, for ships to be sighted, or waiting in silence for the enemy destroyers overhead to stop depth-charging and move away.

They're good men, quite ordinary, very genuine.  Not, as one might imagine from their pursuit of Nazi Germany's military aims, evil killers.  Like the British, or like any nation, these sailors are just men doing their job, fighting for their country in a time of war.  At one point they torpedo a British freighter, then hide under water for six hours until the area clears of enemy ships.  When they resurface, the ship they shot is still burning, and its un-rescued sailors cry out for help and jump from the burning deck, hoping the German submarine will rescue them, as their own forces haven't done so.  It's a harrowing scene, and the sub's officers are clearly distressed by this, but know they can't take any prisoners, so the Kapitänleutnant gives the order to drive away, leaving the British sailors to burn or drown.  Towards the end, the sub's dishevelled officers are called ashore in a Spanish harbour, where smartly dressed officials hail them as heroes, and throw an embarrassing buffet, giving fancy fruits and accolades to men who need, instead, rest, consolation and peace.

Several times, the submarine and its crew come close to obliteration, being fired on and depth-charged, sinking too low, to where the pressure outside threatens to crush the ship entirely.  Theirs is a truly perilous, often awful life.  After getting very close to the crew, and seeing how they suffered and how much exhausting work they put into their ship and their survival, I became very upset when I first saw this film, the shocking injustice of its conclusion.  They survive so much, work so hard to scrape escapes from grim and desperate situations that when the terrible end comes for them at the close of the film, it seems entirely unfair.  I'm won't spoil the end for you, but I will say again, when it came it was so far from my hopes for the characters that I was troubled for a long time.  It seems ridiculous to wish a better fate for fictional characters, but I know their real-life counterparts, our enemies, must have had very similar stories.

A brief note on 'Das Security Bathroom' (2006):

I find I spend a lot of time advocating 'Das Boot'.  It's a favourite film of mine, and like so many films I care about, I try to persuade people it's worth the watching.  To date, I don't believe I've been particularly successful, but I did the next best film, and made a tribute film to it.  That's right: when I was at university, and before I saw this fine movie, I wrote and directed a short film called 'Das Security Bathroom', which I based on what I thought 'Das Boot' would be like.  It's a Biblical submarine epic set entirely in a bathroom, and is full of water, shrieking and very-obviously-ketchup blood.  Watch it on Youtube, if you dare!

P.S. 'Das Boot' isn't pronounced like 'boot', but like 'boat'.  Having once heard this fact, I've found it's taken a lot of time to adjust to.

'Das Boot' is a fine film, and, since sound is so hard to record inside submarines, the audio was all added in post production, so when the actors recorded their dialogue in the original German, the same actors recorded an English soundtrack, meaning that even those of you most opposed to subtitles or foreign-sounding films can watch this film, if you've the time to do so.

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