Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Das Boot

I went to a screening of Das Boot at the Viz Cinema in July. The screening was co-presented by Berlin and Beyond and the Goethe-Institut of San Francisco.

Berlin and Beyond has announced the dates of its festival. It will be held October 20 to 26 at the Castro Theater.

Das Boot starring Jürgen Prochnow; directed by Wolfgang Peterson; German with subtitles; (1981) - Official Website

The version screened on this night was the director's cut which ran 208 minutes. The "film" was projected from a Blu-ray disc. The original US version was about 150 minutes. Jürgen Prochnow was in the audience and took Q&A before the film. He mentioned the original version was a five hour miniseries which was televised in Germany and the BBC. Berlin and Beyond Festival Director Sophoan Sorn moderated the Q&A. Prochnow spoke at length about the model submarine they filmed on and the special cameras used. He also mentioned that the full length miniseries gave more time to the backstories of the characters and how they came from all over Germany and beyond (the first officer grew up in Mexico). This can still be detected in the various German accents spoken by the cast. Like regional American dialects, one's origin can be determined by the accents of German speech. Anyone who watched Inglourious Basterds would know this and that Germans cannot detect fragmented Italian spoken with distinct Southern drawl.

As I've stated before, I cannot resist a well made submarine film. They are almost formulaic. They have to include the depth charge/torpedo explosion rocking the boat & crew as well as the sub unable to stop its descent as it approaches (and usually exceeds) rated crush depth. Das Boot had those scenes so it falls within the confines of the genre. What is unique about Das Boot is how it goes for long periods with ignoring the most salient fact about a WWII film - the protagonists are Nazis. Actually, they weren't all Nazis. Not all German military members were Nazi party members as well. Towards the end of the war, being a party member gave a boost to one's career or was crucial to certain postings. Set in the 1941, the U-Boaters were surprisingly anti-Nazi in their comments and cynicism.

I found myself empathizing with the Kriegsmarine's submariners even as they attacked Allied shipping and attempted to impose Nazi dominion on freedom loving people of the world. In films and life, I'm never able to fully sympathize with German soldiers, sailors and aviators due to the cause they were fighting for but Das Boot came close. The beauty of the film was the way the sailors were humanized. They certainly suffered as their sub seemed more like an underwater coffin but so did the sailors on the ships they torpedoed. However, the film is about a German U-Boat crew, not a Allied shipping convoy.

Jürgen Prochnow won fame as the U-Boat captain. His performance was the center of the film but it was the supporting characters who I found more interesting. Erwin Leder as Johan, a veteran CPO who has a nervous breakdown but ultimately redeems himself, delivered the standout performance. Director Wolfgang Peterson went on to a successful Hollywood career including directing In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood and The Perfect Storm with George Clooney.

Das Boot is an outstanding submarine film but by telling the story from the German point of view, the film transcends the genre. It humanizes the enemy through realistic portrayals of the men and espouses an anti-war stance which is dramatically conveyed in the finale. Das Boot is a powerful and great film and you don't have to be a submarine film freak like me to appreciate it.

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