Das Boot (1985) TV Version

Das Boot

I love this movie. I can’t believe I didn’t rewatch it earlier. When I started this blog I wrote a Top 10 favourite war movies list and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot was one of them. I’m glad to say that after rewatching it, it’s still among my Top 10, even among my Top 3. I don’t think war movies get any better than this. Or, I’d even say, movies don’t get any better than this. I’ve watched the longer TV version. I’ve not seen the Director’s Cut, so it’s hard to compare but I really love the slow build-up of this version.

Das Boot starts in 1941, in La Rochelle. We see a U-Boot crew leave the harbour. They are cheering, singing and looking forward to their mission. The crew members are mostly young, in their late teens and early twenties, only their captain is thirty years old. This time, they have a war correspondent on board, Lt Werner (played by German singer/songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer). He’s a lieutenant but inexperienced in combat, as it seems, and has never been on a U-Boot. We see a lot of the story through his eyes, and, as usual, when we have a young journalist/writer character like this among the crew, the movie is to some extent about the loss of innocence, the futility of war etc. But that’s the topic of many war movies, what makes Das Boot so outstanding is how carefully it’s been filmed, how accurate it is. After watching this, without ever having been on a U-Boot, you’ll have a good idea of how claustrophobic this must have been and of  how helpless the crew must have felt at times.

The first half of the TV series doesn’t do much more than introduce the characters and the daily activities on a U-Boot. Most of the characters are complex and likable and not exactly Nazis. The U-Boot gets in the line of fire of a destroyer but other than that it’s relatively quiet. The worst thing that happens is a three-week storm. And that is awful. Most of the time the U-Boot doesn’t dive and in a storm it’s even shaken more badly than many other ships. The captain lets them dive occasionally for an hour or two, just to give the men some rest.

The second part of the series, is much more action packed. They encounter destroyers and are shot at by planes. When they think they can finally return to La Rochelle after a few weeks, they are sent to Vigo in Spain, to resupply, and from there to Italy. The most exciting part is when they have to pass the straits of Gibraltar, get hit and sink rapidly. The fight for the boat and, ultimately, for their lives, is one of the most gripping scenes in war movie history. But as suspenseful as this is, there’s another scene I like even better. It takes place just before they leave Vigo. The captain and his officers are invited to dine with the officers stationed in Vigo. Spain is neutral territory and those stationed there have probably not seen any combat. They are well-groomed, well-fed and beyond clueless when it comes to the battle in the Atlantic or what the crew has gone through. Without ever being openly aggressive or rebellious, the crew sabotages the nice little dinner event by just being themselves— gruff looking, outspoken and past niceties. I loved how this showed the hypocrisy of those officers who were true to the regime but not willing to actually fight for their country.

Most of the action takes place inside but we occasionally see the U-Boot from outside, see how it silently glides through the waters, like a predator. Those shots are dark grey, almost like black and white shots, and I couldn’t help thinking of a wolf, before I remembered that the U-Boots were called grey wolves. Showing this like that is such a minimalistic approach but it works well. Even if you don’t know, your subconscious is going to register it. The music underlines the different elements and changes accordingly.

Sadistic officers abound in many war movies, luckily Das Boot is an exception. The movie gives us one of the strongest positive commanders I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I couldn’t think of a better actor than Jürgen Prochnow for this role.

According to a text following the opening credits, only 1 out of 4 U-Boot crew members survived, which means over 30,000 died. That’s a huge loss of lives. But not only are they in constant danger but they also have to put up with a lot of other dificult things: confinement, lack of space, air and fresh food. No wonder the men look far less cheerful and aged when they finally return to La Rochelle.

If you haven’t watched Das Boot yet, you should do so as soon as possible. It’s one of the very best (war) movies ever made.

For those interested: I’ve attached a music videos of Herbert Grönemeyer under the trailer. He happens to be one of my favourite German singers. His lyrics are simply brilliant.

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The Killing – Season 2 (2009)

The-Killing-Season-2

Strictly speaking The Killing 2 isn’t a war movie but since I reviewed Homeland I might as well review The Killing too. I watched season I first and because I thought it wasn’t bad at all, I went and got season 2 without knowing anything about the topic. Sarah Lund is a pretty unconventional detective that’s why she loses her job at the end of season 1 and is sent away from the capital to some frontier post.

When lawyer  Anne Dragsholm is found dead at a WWII memorial, her husband is arrested. The chief inspector has a feeling it can’t have been the husband and despite everything that has happened in series 1, he calls on Sarah Lund and asks her to come back to Copenhagen. Together with detective Strange, she is to look into the case.

At the same time Raben, an ex-soldier held at a detention facility, escapes and a young politician is made minister of justice. Soon after this, two other ex-soldiers are killed and other murders follow. The young politician is also looking into the case as it is possible that Islamic terrorists are at work.

Raben served in Afghanistan and after a few days of investigation it’s clear for Sarah Lund that he knew Anne Dragsholm and the dead soldiers. Very possibly something happened in Afghanistan which led to the killings.

If you are familiar with season 1 you know that Sarah Lund is unconventional but extremely clever and determined. She doesn’t leave any stones unturned. She even flies to Afghanistan looking for traces of a mysterious officer who is said to have killed civilians.

Like in the first series there are numerous red herrings, twists and turns, many suspects and the end is unexpected.

The season plays in a political and military environment and touches on personal and political themes. The tone is bleak and melancholic, the story gripping and the characters are all flawed and complex. This series is about more than just solving a murder, it includes sociological and political themes, portraits of dysfunctional families and a lot more.

I really liked this season. Much more than the longer season 1. I recommend it to anyone who likes thrillers and to those who like movies with military themes.

Klemperer – Ein Leben in Deutschland – A Life in Germany (1999) German TV Mini-Series

When Klemperer was first aired on German TV, I watched the first episodes but because I was moving I had to stop after the fourth. I always meant to re-watch the beginning and finally finish the whole series which consists of 12 episodes.

I had really liked the beginning at the time and now that I have finally re-watched those first four episodes I’m glad I still like it, maybe even more and I’m keen on watching the rest. However it’s very depressing. I didn’t remember it to be this upsetting but maybe it’s just me and I’m in a funny mood.

The series is based on Viktor Klemperer’s war diaries, 8 volumes of several thousand pages (here in English Viktor Klemperer’s diaries and in German here). The diaries are a fascinating document. I’ve read the first and it’s breathtaking. Klemperer was a professor of French literature, highly intelligent and with an amazing knowledge which all goes into the diary. He was also Jewish. The amazing thing in the series and the diary is the fact that it shows a man who is incapable of seeing what is going on and that we witness an amazingly intelligent person’s blindness. I find it must have taken a lot of guts to publish this diary because while it is very human it is still such an incredible flaw to be this blind.

To watch the series is eerie. It starts in 1933, just after Hitler was elected. At first there are just a few warning signals. Klemperer isn’t allowed to test non-Jewish students anymore, later he will not be able to publish anymore, they will remove him from certain classes and finally he will be fired. While many of his friends leave Germany very early, he doesn’t want to leave, he always thinks that maybe he will be exempt from the next measures only to find out that he wasn’t. His wife is not Jewish and since he himself isn’t religious, he always thinks they will make an exception for him. They even start to build a house.

Klemperer’s wife is an amazing character as well as she is so flawed and naive. She still moans about not being able to go on holidays when he has already been fired because he is Jewish.

As I already mentioned, the series is quite long. There are 12 parts of 45 minutes each, which means they have taken a lot of time to show the whole story and include a lot of details. I already know that the Klemperers will end up being sent to a camp but survive. Because it spans such a long time, 1933 – 1945, it really feels at times like having been there, having experienced some of it.  It is one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. It has been very carefully executed and with Matthias Habich and Dagmar Wenzel, they have chosen two of the best German actors. Habich is one of my favourites, and one of the rare I like almost as much as Bruno Ganz.

A far as I know, there is no version with English subtitles available which is a pity. At least the diary is available in English too.

Homeland (2011- ) US TV Series starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis

I’ve finally got a chance to watch the first few episodes of The US TV series Homeland.

Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) went missing in Iraq eight years ago, one of his friends who was there with him was found dead. His return causes quite a commotion. Not only among the public, journalists and the CIA but also in his family. He left a young wife and two small children behind when he went missing. His wife is having an affair with a friend and superior, the children are almost teenagers and estranged. And then there is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), an intense CIA officer who thinks that he has been turned by his captors and is plotting a terrorist attack on America.

Mathison made a lot of mistakes in the past and the CIA would like to get rid of her. Nobody believes her suspicions at first, she doesn’t get funding and decides to act on her own, breaking one federal law after the other, installing surveillance cameras in Brody’s home, following his each and every move, trying to catch him making contact.

The series kicks of well, it’s gripping and suspenseful, the premise, a US soldier who may only have survived captivity because he was turned, is interesting. Still, I had a few reservations. I wonder whether it is that realistic, to free someone from an eight year captivity and to push him right away to face journalists, politicians, CIA and the masses. The other problem I had, was the character Claire Danes played. She is driven and ambitious and a bit of a lunatic. On top of that she pops pills. We learn later that it is clonazepam – in other words a benzo – a heavy antipsychotic which is often used for unspecific or atypical psychosis. Hmmm…. Not sure what to think about that. Usually I have problems with the depiction of mental illness in movies and books. But I haven’t seen enough yet, so maybe they will get it right. It’s obvious that they want to make us doubt the character. It’s not an easy role, whether it will be believable in the end or not, and I think, Claire Danes does a great job.

Carrie is also tracking one of the most important terrorists, Abu Nazir. When she interrogates Brody she asks him whether he has met him during his captivity and he lies and says no.

As said, it starts quite good, quite intense but I couldn’t tell yet where it is going or whether I will really like it or not. But it’s certainly worth trying.

The Monocled Mutineer (1986) A British WWI TV Series

Mention WWI and TV series together and you will get my full attention. I had never heard of the four part BBC series The Monocled Mutineer before ordering another WWI movie and seeing this one mentioned as well. I’m particularly keen on movies on WWI and generally fond of made for TV productions. Plus reading how much controversy this show created, making it the most controversial British show ever, I was even keener on watching it. It has not been shown on TV again since its first and last airing in 1986. Pretty astonishing. Here is a review from IMDb by a user named dunkah.

The reason this drama has not been repeated is that after the first broadcast the BBC came under fire from the government and were banned from screening it again. This was due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, i.e. Percy Toplis and the mutiny at “The Bull Ring”, a harsh British Army training ground in Etaples, France. There is a lot of mist around Percy Toplis who was finally tracked down and killed some years after the end of the war. No one truly knows the events that transpired at the Bull Ring for certain and we won’t know until 2017 when the files on the event will finally be released. Until then all we have is this drama and I think there should be a demand that it should be broadcast again, some 18 years on.

The series starts with the shooting of Toplis that’s why the quote above isn’t a spoiler. It then rewinds and tells his whole story from his childhood, to the trenches and from there to the forest and finally back to England.

Toplis (Paul McGann) comes from a modest background, a mining town. Being a miner is not the type of occupation he sees himself in. From his early childhood on he figures he is better than his working class upbringing. Delinquent at a young age, he spends time in prison and finally when WWI breaks out he joins up. At first he’s doing his bit as cannon fodder but he’s the insubordinate type and gets into trouble more than once. Still he survives several offensives and while not keen on danger and the trenches, he isn’t bothered too much. What bothers him is the way he is treated and the way the officers treat his comrades.

He witnesses executions for no other reason than fear in battle. He observes cruelty and sadistic behaviour. But not only abuse infuriates him, it’s also clear that the British high command makes many bad decisions which cost lives.

Toplis is a tall and very handsome man and he is capable of speaking like and officer. This gives him the opportunity to live the life of an officer in the evenings. With a stolen uniform and pretending to be of high rank, all the doors are open.

When he’s finally had enough, he deserts and lives with a bunch of other deserters from different countries. They instigate a mutiny and create quite a commotion. Although many people are involved in these acts of insubordination it’s finally Toplis who is the most wanted man.

I can understand why there was reluctance to show this series again. Despite the fact that it has very slow moments, it’s excellent and I’ve hardly ever seen a British production in which the officers and high command were criticized like this. Watching this made me really furious more than once. Pair incompetence with arrogance and you will have a total disaster. The way the officers treated the soldiers was appalling. No respect whatsoever for the so-called lower classes.

Toplis is a fascinating character. He isn’t exactly a likable man, he cheats and lies and betrays wherever he can and very probably if he had been born noble he wouldn’t have cared much about those below himself. His character just exemplifies that all it took to pass for an officer was a uniform, manners and a certain size. He is one of those charcaters we usually find in novels. There are many like him in literture, Felix Krull, Bel-Ami, to name but two.

As I said before it has a few slow moments, still it’s highly watchable and interesting.

Birdsong (2012) Part II of the WWI Drama

This is just a very quick post, an update really. I watched Part II of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s novel, on the weekend.

Here is what I wrote at the end of post I.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.

Well, here are my final impressions. While part one was heavy on the romance element of the story, part two is much more about the war. The story is still told alternating flashbacks and episodes in 1919. Stephen has been at war for the whole duration of the war. Part II managed to change my view of the whole series completely and I have to say, I liked it a lot. I even thought that Eddie Redmayne was after all the perfect choice for this role of a heartbroken man trying to survive the horrors of the trenches.

Don’t miss it if you get the chance to watch it.

Birdsong (2012) Part I of the WWI Love and War Drama

I finally managed to watch Part I of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s excellent eponymous novel. They chose to tell the story moving back and forth between 1910 and 1916.

Stephen is fighting in the trenches and thinking back on how he meet Isabelle, in France, in 1910. He stayed at her house and helped her husband, a factory owner, develop new machines. Those machines were going to make a lot of the workers lose their jobs.  The marriage is an odd one. The children are from a former wife, Isabelle and her husband have no children together. At night Stephen hears her cry, during the day he watches her sneak around. She tells him later that she brings bread to the worker’s families.

Isabelle is clearly what the French call a “mal-mariée” – a woman unhappy in her marriage. Stephen is much younger than her husband. He is kind, caring and very attentive. We can’t blame her for falling in love.

All this is shown in flashbacks while Stephen is fighting in the trenches. He is a Lieutenant and has the reputation of being very quiet and superstitious. He seems to have no family, friends or a sweetheart. The trench they are in is above a tunnel system dug out to lead under the German trenches where they could be blown up. The diggers hear that the Germans are digging on the other side as well and are quickly approaching. Usually miners were sent down, not infantry men, but the commanding officer decides that Stephen and his men have to go down as well. Stephen had a problem with one of the miners before and now he is sent down with him.

I’m looking forward to part II as I have forgotten the rest of the story. Or at least the rest of the love story. When I read the book I was much more impressed with the parts on WWI. Although the movie starts in the trenches, it still is much more of a love than a war movie and can’t even be called a war romance as I would only call a movie “war romance” when the romance is set during the war.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.