By Charles Taylor
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TV programmers and film distributors must be hearing the Call of the Deep. How else to explain the near-simultaneous presentation of two small-screen versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a three-and-a-half-hour director's cut of the 1982 nautical spectacular Das Boot? Could this reflect some mass Oedipal desire to get closer to Mother Earth's core as the millennium approaches? Perhaps. But there's nothing vaguely feminine about Das Boot, the kind of man's man World War II adventure in which the only females are strippers or girls left behind, and the flashiest sex talk employs torpedoes as phallic symbols.
Nominated for six Academy Awards on its initial release, Das Boot is a prime example of how crowd-pleasing a foreign film can be when it refits an old genre with new earthiness and an alien accent. In the 1953 film The Cruel Sea, British warship captain Jack Hawkins braved the elements and German U-boats and dared to show the sweat above his stiff upper lip. Das Boot is The Cruel Sea pushed underwater and lubricated with literal piss and vinegar, and the heroes and villains (for us, anyway) jarringly reversed. It pays tribute to the intense, taciturn captain (Jurgen Prochnow) who faces tough moral challenges and bucks up his crew throughout a dangerous, wearying sea patrol, spending months in quarters so cramped that one of two toilets serves as a larder. During a pursuit of a destroyer and a three-week storm, an attack on a convoy and a broken-sea run through the Strait of Gibraltar, Prochnow is a model of glittery-eyed yet terse and modest command, capable of moving even the most xenophobic Yankees to declare (pace Walt Whitman), "O Captain, Mein Kapiton."
The other characterizations are equally familiar from our own Second World War extravaganzas. The war correspondent (Herbert Grsnemeyer) gradually sheds his heroicizing glee to become one more hard-working cog in the military machine; the chief engineer (Klaus Wenneman) keeps everything in apple-strudel order without losing his stoicism, even when the U-boat runs aground on a sand hill 280 meters under. There's also the obligatory wistful drag scene; a fresh-faced sailor wrought up over his French lover's pregnancy (the Resistance will persecute her when they realize her baby's half German!); and the first officer who attempts to be a proper by-the-book fascist. Having this true-blue Nazi onboard is the cleverest of ploys: He makes the captain, in contrast, look like a humanist fit for that most honored of current movie entities, The English Patient's International Sand Club. (In this year's Oscar-winner, Prochnow plays a sadistic Nazi; here, he's anything but. He may back off from rescuing survivors of an Allied destroyer, but he's tortured about it. And, after all, war is war -- even Jack Hawkins made some questionable calls in The Cruel Sea.)
Right from the beginning, director Wolfgang Petersen shrewdly establishes his heroes as military men, not ideological Nazis. This allows English and American audiences to relax and take voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing enemy operations while feeling that old, reliable antiwar film twinge: Yes indeed, they're ordinary people, just like us.
Once he lays down the moral and political ground rules, Petersen concentrates on putting the moviegoer in the same perilous spot as these undersea swabbies. Sending his camera hurtling with his men down the gangways, between bunks, through the engine room and command post, the captain's mess and the galley, he does a solid job of communicating the physical strain of their journey, as well as the psychological strain of worrying if the water pressure will loosen electrical connections, weaken the hull and send rivets flying from the walls like nails from a nail gun. Petersen gives you the illusion that you know what the captain is doing when he chases or eludes convoys or tries to salvage his battered ship, but at the end you won't be any closer than you initially were to understanding how the sub actually operates.
Despite the movie's war-is-hell patina (including an ironic, tragic ending), it exists to give you the feeling that "You Are There" as the captain takes charge and prods his men into purposeful action while water spouts into a cabin and bolts whiz by like mini-missiles. Especially in the burnished new prints with Sensurround-like sound, Das Boot accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's as if, once you step into the theater, you sign up for a hitch, or you're drafted; if you're awake by the end, you earn your stripes. The movie plays more gracefully and clearly with the hour of new footage in this director's cut (drawn from the six-hour German TV version). If 60 more minutes of underwater rocking and rolling from depth charges and flooding seems like an extra dose of punishment, that's part of what the film's fans expect and want. Their experience would be capped only if they were handed "I survived Das Boot" T-shirts. For the rest of us, Petersen's film's plodding realism is more grueling than pleasurable. I was thankful for the gaudiness of Erwin Leder's performance as "The Ghost," the mechanic who tends the engine and teeters on the verge of crackup -- his red-rimmed eyes are possibly the film's eeriest effect.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. With Jurgen Prochnow and Herbert Grsnemeyer.
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