The American moviegoing public has never been especially enthusiastic about foreign-language films, but every now and then, a subtitled movie does cross over from the arthouse to the mainstream. The 1981 submarine thriller Das Boot was one of those movies. Written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen—who later transitioned to Hollywood blockbusters like In The Line Of Fire and The Perfect Storm—Das Boot adapts Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel about a German submarine crew fighting to survive World War II. In other words, it’s a story about the bad guys, which asks audiences to root for a crew of enemy sailors as they weather explosions, storms, oxygen-depletion, and a descent below “hull-crush depth.” A large number of people worldwide have been willing to make that sympathetic commitment; Das Boot has been released and re-released at multiple lengths and in multiple formats over the past 30 years, and remains near the top of the list of the best war movies ever made.
The new Blu-ray edition of Das Boot contains Petersen’s 209-minute 1997 cut: an hour longer than the original theatrical release, and 80 minutes shorter than a version that ran on TV in the ’80s. It also features cleaned-up image and sound, such that Das Boot is even more like the big studio production it was originally intended to be. (The project was developed as an American film; Petersen inherited many expensive sets and models that had already been built.) The action and suspense sequences are especially gripping: the surfaced submarine U-96 racing through the spray; the boat torpedoing a tanker; the crew sweating out each “ping” as they navigate around depth charges; and so on. And Klaus Doldinger’s rousing score, Hannes Nikel’s rhythmic editing, and Jost Vacano’s nimble cinematography in tight spaces all work in concert throughout, lending a seafaring adventure the proper wartime gravitas.
But what really made the original cut of Das Boot work—and what’s improved in the director’s cut—is the development of the characters, who range from craggy captain Jürgen Prochnow to an assortment of Nazi ideologues and career sailors. The reason audiences have found it so easy to relate to the Germans in Das Boot over the years is that the movie is so open about the realities of war: how it draws in both people committed to a cause and people just doing a job. And it helps that Petersen makes U-96 itself into a character, detailing how its narrow corridor and creaky valves create an environment where dissension gives way to cooperation—or death. After all, only one person at a time can maneuver through the center of the boat, so everyone has to agree about who has the right of way. The larger issues fall away as men in a cramped metal cylinder busy themselves with getting through the next minute.
Key features: A Petersen/Prochnow commentary track and lengthy retrospective featurettes, many with nifty behind-the-scenes footage showing how the special effects were achieved.