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Movie Reviews

Das Boot  

Most foreign films banish themselves to somewhat weak distribution or treatment, simply for the fact that these films have those damned subtitles on the bottom of the screen. The companies which dare to release them to the world are either small yet devoted companies, like New Yorker Films, or small subsidiaries to larger corporations, like Disney`s Miramax. The films themselves usually do not get preferential treatment, such as expensive remastering, either, for the small companies, due to the cost of such an undertaking, or, for bigger studios, due to the belief that it would be a waste of time to work on a film which nobody will see anyway.

This cannot be said of the new edition of the 1981 German film Das Boot. Not only is it a remastered film, but it is also reissued by Columbia Pictures. Such a thing is possible, no doubt, because the director is Wolfgang Peterson, responsible for In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, big action hits. Watching this reissue is like watching any other reissue by the Hollywood studios, as it contains a lot of technical improvements, such as a new sound mix, and a general cleaning-up of the picture. Das Boot looks brand new, and, befitting an action/war film, almost as slick as numerous Hollywood releases. If it weren`t for the subtitles, it might have been a hit. The most significant improvement in this reissue is the addition of one hour of new footage, never before seen in theatres. This massive amount of new footage is possible because Das Boot was actually a six-hour German TV mini-series, which tells us that this "director`s cut" is still not complete.

The film recounts the German experience during World War II, specifically the crew of a German submarine. The storyline is almost entirely focussed on the mission of this crew, as we are witness to the agony and the terror, as well as the frequent boredom, of underwater combat. There is an actual witness of sorts, in my view, at least, and that is in the character of the Lieutenant, who is introduced as a person invited by the sub`s captain to see and record what a real underwater mission is like. The lieutenant, a rather uptight and squeamish sort, ends up experiencing much harsher events than he would have expected. Besides the lieutenant, there are other characters on the sub who personify a cross-section of the types of people who are thrown into war.

I must admit that I was a bit weary during the viewing of this picture. The film`s length (3 hr. 30 min.) is somewhat unusual for what is generally classified as an action film, and not everyone will want to read subtitles for that long either. The film does tend to drag, during the first half, at least, even as it does successfully capture the intense boredom followed by agonizing attacks in which there is no guarantee of survival. The action scenes are also a bit unusual at first, since they are not "exciting" or "exhilarating" in any way that I (as one who spends more time with foreign or classic films than with action flicks) am used to. Most of the action set-pieces are very long, filled with shocks, surprises, and panic, yet without the sense that they merely exist to give us a charge. Perhaps it may be because there is no guarantee that our heroes will win.

Now, "heroes" is a very interesting turn of phrase, since we are dealing with German soldiers in the worst war known to humankind. But, of course, this film is not pro-Nazi, or even very patriotic. It`s not even pro-Allied in any clear sense. It is purely defeatist. The film gives us the facts first: most of the soldiers on German subs died in the war. And the story suggests that many of these soldiers really had no choice but to fight and die for someone as evil as Hitler. The older, world-weary participants of war know this, and feel only pity for the young men who actually believe that they are fighting for something noble. An old drunken captain, at the soldier`s get-together, probably sums it up best when he sarcastically claims that the abstaining, womanless Hitler is the greatest war strategist in the world. To go further, he could say that Hitler is responsible for what occurs in situations like the ones in this film. He is responsible for the lives uprooted in order to fight for his cause. He is responsible for putting many lives in constant, painful jeopardy. And he is also responsible for creating the situation where Germans are forced to kill people from other countries, total strangers, just so the German elite have something to brag about.

As I`ve said, the film tends to drag a bit from time to time. But Das Boot still manages to present both a well-produced war picture and a depiction of the ultimate hopelessness and tragedy of war.

David Macdonald

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