It’s true that I couldn’t resist the visual pun above, but yes, I am aware that the German word boot is more of a homonym with its English translation, “boat,” than with the thing a cowboy puts on his foot. For those of you who haven’t guessed, my subject today is Das Boot, adapted by writer-director Wolfgang Petersen from the autobiographical novel by former German war correspondent Lothar G. Buchheim, who presumably served as the basis for the character of Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer). I read the book years ago, and found it strangely dull (ditto the source for another classic submarine movie, Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep, so maybe I just don’t care for sub novels), so this will not be one of my famous page-to-screen comparisons.
Today I want to focus on the fact that Das Boot has been made available through the years in three different versions, including the two-and-a-half-hour 1981 theatrical release that made such a big splash, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the U.S.; I remember it did bang-up business when I was working at Cinestudio. Later on, this was expanded by an hour for the so-called director’s cut, which is actually a bit of a misnomer, because the whole thing was actually whittled down from a German miniseries, running about five hours if you omit each episode’s credits and recapping footage. I understand the miniseries is on DVD, but since I already own the other two versions, I wasn’t about to buy that, so I leaped at the chance to see it at last when Starz showed it recently.
This did, however, present a problem in two ways, one of which was how I ought to go about comparing all these various versions without actually having to sit down and watch eleven hours of footage—some of it in triplicate—over a relatively short period of time. The other was the perennial question of how to introduce my daughter to the film, having only seen it up until now in the theatrical cut, both subtitled (which, purist that I am, I prefer as a rule) and in its dubbed U.S. version, The Boat. We have that cut on laserdisc, with all the bells and whistles of language options and subtitles, and the director’s cut in an as-yet-unviewed VHS version, albeit one that is letterboxed and subtitled, whereas Starz showed the miniseries panned-and-scanned and dubbed.
For once, the dubbing was pretty much of a non-issue, since I already knew The Boat to be the best-dubbed movie I’d ever seen, which I later learned was partly because most of the cast spoke English and dubbed their own lines. Jürgen Prochnow, who plays the captain, is the only one to have established himself outside of Germany (e.g., in The Keep and as Duke Leto Atreides in the underrated Dune), and has a very distinctive voice, so to dub him with another actor would have been ruinous, but even with cast members otherwise unknown to me, you can feel it if the voice doesn’t match the actor. The fact that the characters are usually shown in the dim and cramped confines of a U-boat also masks any discrepancies between the dubbing and the lip movements.
We finally decided that I would watch the miniseries by myself and then, after an interval short enough that it would be fresh in my mind but long enough to avoid a total been-there-done-that feeling, the three of us would watch the director’s cut when Alexandra came home from Ithaca for a week. That way, I could fill them in on any major plot points they’d missed, presuming that the only way to cut such a drastic amount of footage would be to remove entire sequences (à la Matheson’s The Martian Chronicles, butchered from six hours to four in reruns), rather than with nips and tucks. But incredibly, they appear to have done just that, because I vividly recall seeing every major sequence from the miniseries in the theatrical cut that is literally half as long.
As brilliant as ever, the film depicts a single tour of duty by a German U-boat in 1941, capturing the nail-biting suspense as well as the skull-cracking boredom that must surely be part of a sub-mariner’s life, with Klaus Doldinger’s superb score capturing both extremes and every emotion in between. Although Buchheim had some quibbles (perhaps partly stemming from the fact that his own script was rejected), it is widely praised for its overall accuracy and realism, with much of the shooting done inside a full-scale replica built from actual U-boat plans, and no cut-away walls to facilitate filming. Unusually, it was shot mostly in sequence so that the cast’s increasing facial hair, corpse-like pallor and generally strained, unkempt appearance would be legitimate.
The selection of this particular point in time to watch the miniseries was no coincidence, because one thing I promised myself I would do while working on the page proofs of my book is to keep up with my daily 15 miles on the exercise bike, partly because I knew physical activity would help keep me sane and partly because I’m very close to breaking my record of 48 days without missing a workout. I didn’t want to have to worry about whether the end of my ride coincided with the end of a particular picture, and the miniseries structure seemed to lend itself to watching it in installments. The aptness of undertaking a grueling marathon of proofreading and indexing while watching these men go through their considerably greater ordeal was also not lost on me.
I don’t pretend to know what was in the mind of Petersen, who went on to impress me with In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, and Troy, but I do know that Das Boot stunningly dramatizes the fact that courage and heroism know no country, wear no uniform. With the exception of the first lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch), these are not committed Nazis but ordinary Joachims, many of whom—especially the captain—openly question the war, and their extraordinary performance under pressure, in more ways than one, is amazing by any yardstick. I look forward to rejoining these well-rounded, believably human characters and their heart-wrenching sacrifices when my family and I sit down all together to watch the director’s cut sometime over the next two weeks.