WWII, the Atlantic Ocean. Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock helms a German U-Boat, tasked with striking at Allied supply convoys. During a long and dangerous mission they must seek out their targets, whilst avoiding Allied Destroyers and their deadly depth-charges.


Das Boot started out life as a 150-minute cinema release, then developed into a five-hour mini-series before finding a much more natural and effective resting place as a 310-minute director’s cut, the version we now have here in glorious high definition. One of the many fascinating and insightful extras tells the story of the development of the different versions and how the sound effects, dialogue and soundtrack were all then refined to provide a seamless extended version. And seamless it is, with every element seemingly in its rightful place and no apparent ballast that might have better been discarded.

We open on a drunken party, the assorted officers and rank-and-file in varying stages of inebriation, some utterly incapacitated, some sunken-eyed and others merely world-weary and cynical. We meet the experienced Captain, the youthful officers, the journalist along for the ride to see what life on a U-Boat is like and then we are off. Once the U-Boat sets sail, the claustrophobia and the tension rarely let up. It felt pretty tight and tense on board a submarine in Crimson Tide, but this has none of that film’s slickness, technology or breathing room. The U-Boat is tiny, cramped and ill-equipped for prolonged voyages. There is one tiny toilet, doubled-up sleeping arrangements since one will always be on duty while the other rests, food initially littered everywhere then rapidly ravaged by mould, several crew-members develop unpleasant cases of genital crabs and an awful lack of fresh air when submerged for long periods.

Although the somewhat cyclical pattern of chase, up periscope, depth-charge and escape could easily be tiringly repetitive, it always feels fresh. There is clearly a deliberate point being made about the numbing effects of repetition and boredom and yet Wolfgang Petersen (who has yet to top this film in an undeniably impressive directorial career before and since) manages to portray quiet, stillness and boredom while keeping the audience riveted. The thrilling and exhausting tension of the action sequences is unmatched among war films in general and submarine films in particular and the wonderful sight of up-close detail of every drop of water and bead of sweat is what Blu-ray polishes are meant for. Admittedly the detail afforded by the HD-transfer does draw a little more attention to the shortcomings of some of the model work, but it is never so distracting as to draw you out of the drama that is unfolding.

It might be argued that in such confined spaces, anyone could generate claustrophobia and tension, but it is surely not as straight-forward as that. Petersen sends his camera rushing along the length of the U-Boat, following crew-members as they swoop through from section to section, human ballast trying to serve as a make-weight during diving and surfacing and he then sits his camera in front of the sensationally expressive faces of his cast as their anxiety, despair, fear, frustration and exhilaration play out for us.

Although this is of course a German-made film about (eventually defeated) German forces during WWII, it is surprisingly apolitical. The crew of the U-Boat are presented as neither heroes nor villains, merely men going about their duty with all of the diligence and ability they can muster. At one point they return to fire on and sink a crippled ship, expecting it to be abandoned, only to see that crew members are still on board, plunging into the ocean and even swimming towards the U-Boat for rescue. The Captain is furious with the Allies for not having already rescued the crew and, unable to take on prisoners, the Captain must reluctantly back away.

Success and anything resembling victory is shown to be fleeting or illusory and the captain, officers and crew have to settle for the most part for survival. They are ultimately welcomed back to port as returning heroes, but too harrowed, too shell-shocked to be anything other than numb. It is a fantastically evocative film and though its progress is gradual and its extended running time not for the faint-hearted, it rewards the diligence required to immerse in it and see it through. The much-lengthened Director’s Cut gives the whole film room to breath and succeeds both in conveying the boredom that besets the crew and also in ratcheting up the tension they experience.

An unprecedented six Academy Award nominations greeted the film’s initial release and it has only been improved by being revisited for the Director’s Cut. One to revisit and savour for those familiar with it and discover in all its wonderful quality for those who are not.

Das Boot is available now on Blu-ray. You can buy or rent it here.


Extras: A veritable bounty. Expect to put aside several evenings to get through them all.

Director’s Commentary

“Back to the Boat” Documentary – Wolfgang Petersen considers and discusses all of the different elements involved in making the film, involving his wife (also his AD) and star Jurgen Prochnow

Historical Material – A pair of German-made documentaries about the making of the film and also the historical framework/backdrop, giving moving and fascinating input from those who served and fought on both sides of the conflict and their recollections of war-time life in the North Atlantic.

Tour of the U-Boat – A Jurgen Prochnow-hosted tour of the submarine, giving valuable insight into how desperately basic and cramped it was

Two Further Documentaries – Maria Petersen’s recollections of the making of the film and also the process of forming the Director’s Cut


[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DS7nez1nRpM&feature=related’]

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Dave has been writing for HeyUGuys since mid-2010 and has found them to be the most intelligent, friendly, erudite and insightful bunch of film fans you could hope to work with. He's gone from ham-fisted attempts at writing the news to interviewing Lawrence Bender, Renny Harlin and Julian Glover, to writing articles about things he loves that people have actually read. He has fairly broad tastes as far as films are concerned, though given the choice he's likely to go for Con Air over Battleship Potemkin most days. He's pretty sure that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most overrated mess in cinematic history.