Watching Wolfgang Petersen’s Hollywood movies Outbreak and Troy can make you wonder what all the fuss about him was in the first place. Even at their best, those films scale the heights of lowest-common-denominator adequacy and might just as easily have been done by a John McTiernan — or with a little bad luck, a Renny Harlin. But then, seeing Das Boot, the film that launched Petersen’s immense reputation as a world-class filmmaker, reminds us of what he is capable of doing, or was.
It’s a shocking object lesson on how good for your art a lucrative Hollywood contract can be — rather like seeing Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man right after you’ve watched Showgirls. It’s also a reminder of the fascinating perversity of Tinsel Town hiring original talents and trying to turn them into cookie-cutter directors.
When Das Boot was originally released in the U.S., it ran 145 minutes and was considered something of a masterpiece. It has since been extended to a 210-minute director’s cut, which possibly makes it a little too much of a good thing, though that has become the version currently in circulation. Too long it may be, but if the extra footage doesn’t necessarily improve the film, neither does it seriously detract from the amazing accomplishment — both technically and thematically — of Das Boot‘s engrossing story of the mission of a German U-boat in WW II.
Petersen’s film manages the not inconsiderable feat of being consistently cinematic in a very confined setting, capturing the impression of being on a submarine; the film brilliantly conveys the claustrophobic confinement and eerie sense of isolation. At times the film is almost suffocating in its sense of entrapment. Das Boot is also unusual as one of the few antiwar films that doesn’t succumb to speechifying, but lets the horror and futility of the situation speak for itself. The scene of U-boat commander Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jurgen Prochnow) looking on helplessly as the men on an Allied destroyer burn to death is one of the grimmest in any war film.
A must-see filmic experience.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke