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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10 War Mini-Series You Must See

When I wrote my post on ANZACS the other day I realized that there are quite a few great war mini-series out there. There are certainly more than 10 but out of all those I’ve seen or heard of, I would say, the 10 that I mention below are the ten you should really not miss. They all cover different wars or different aspects of the same wars. Many of them are better than most movies. My favourites are Band of Brothers, Hornblower, Sharpe and Generation Kill.

Wings (1976) WWI Air Combat. I must admit, I haven’t seen this yet but it has a great reputation among air combat fans and should be a nice companion to the WWII based series Piece of Cake.

Danger UXB (1979) WWII – Bomb disposal unit. I liked this series when I watched it quite a bit. It gives you a good feel for what a bomb disposal unit had to go through during the Blitz. All the different types of bombs. The characters are appealing and we get a good impression of civilian life during the Blitz as well. Here is my review.

Das Boot 1985 – WWII submarine. Das Boot exists in two versions. One is the cinema the other the TV version which was twice as long. I have seen the cinema version which is one of the best war movies there is. Some people prefer the longer TV version. It’s worth checking out.

ANZACS (1985) WWI. Infantry combat. I just reviewed the final episodes of this excellent mini-series that follows the ANZACS from Australia to Gallipoli and from there to the Somme and back home again. Great combat scenes and a nice “band of brothers” feel. It also contrasts British command and Australian insubordination in a funny way. Here is my review.

Piece of Cake (1988) WWII Air Combat. The series follows the men of the Hornet Squadron during the early weeks of WWII. It shows how inexperienced boys become excellent fighter pilots.

Sharpe (1993 – 2008) – Napoleonic wars. Infantry and cavalry. Based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell this is a very elaborate and suspenseful series. In its center is the character Sharpe an enlisted man who is such an excellent soldier that he is soon raised to the rank of officer. This is problematic as he isn’t an aristocrat. He faces injustice and adversity. Sean Bean stars as Sharpe. It’s one of the best roles of his career. Here is my post.

Hornblower (1998 -2003) – Napoleonic wars. Naval combat. This is another extraordinary tale of one man’s ascent. Ioan Gruffud stars as Horatio Hornblower which might explain why I hear this series mentioned quite often by women.  If you like Master & Commander, you will love this. It’s like a very long version with an appealing central character. It is based on the books by C.S. Forester. Here is my post.

Band of Brothers (2001) WWII. Infantry combat. This is one of the most amazing series. Based on the book Band of Brothers it follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from 1941 – 1945, starting in the US until the freeing of the KZ’s. The characters of this tight-knit company are very well depicted and you really care for all of them. Seeing them die or get wounded is harrowing. Some of the episodes, like the one called Bastonge, are so intense, they still overshadow most other WWWII infantry combat scenes I’ve seen before or after.

Generation Kill (2008) Iraq. Special unit. This is a series that is hard to get into, especially when you are used to others. It has a very slow build-up but after two episodes I really appreciated it. It achieves a very authentic depiction of modern warfare and shows how problematic it is to send a generation used to war games into combat. It shows how much is absolutely boring, just standing around and waiting. At the center of the unit is the “Iceman” Sgt Brad Colbert played by Alexander Skrasgard. The Iceman is an amazing character and even more so because he is based on a real person. This guy really always keeps his cool. The series is based on the account of an embedded journalist. Here’s the link to the book. And here is my post on The Iceman.

The Pacific (2010) – WWII. Infantry combat. If you do not compare this series to Band of Brothers, you will like it. It’s less the story a group of people than individual stories. The soldiers are also shown during their leaves and some love stories are incorporated. However the combat scenes are even grittier that those in Band of Brothers. Not pretty at all. My favourite episode is Rain on Cape Gloucester. Here is my Pacific short review.

U-571 (2000) US Sub on a Secret Mission

If you are a fan of the war movie  sub-genre U-Boot and submarine movies then you might consider watching U-571. It’s not great, it’s not innovative, it’s corny at times but it’s decent and gripping enough – despite an anti-climax towards the end – and offers two hours of entertainment. The cast is well-chosen (Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Thomas Kretschmann, Jon Bon Jovi), the story is somewhat stretched in its plausibility but not totally far-fetched either.

The American submarine U-571 is sent on a secret mission to capture the Enigma machine on a German submarine. They will achieve this by diguising the boat and the crew as German.

While the initial part of the mission works out – they get on the boat – , they are not able to return to their own sub and have to stay on the German boat that has been damaged badly before. There are not many survivors of the German crew apart from the character played by Thomas Kretschmann. Kretschmann is one of those actors who will always be casted in a newer war movie in which there is need for a cool-looking, blond German. He is the prototypical Aryan-looking German soldier, so to speak. I’m generally very fond of him but this isn’t his best role.

Of course all kinds of other submarines will start to chase the U-571 while the boat gets more and more damaged. All the cliché elements of the subgenre are present, waiting for being hit, diving too deep, water leaking in.

Now the truth is that there were far more British missions of this kind during WWII than American ones and the episode shown in the movie is purely fictional. Fact is that Germany sunk far over 1000 Allied ships in 1941 and almost achieved a total blockade of Great Britain. The same year a British crew managed to board a German U-Boot and captured the so-called Enigma machine. The Enigma machine (more of it can be seen in the movie Enigma) was a machine that encrypted messages between the German U-Boots and their high command. Capturing the machine led to a significant breakthrough in decoding messages. But all this is history and little of it can be seen in this movie.

All in all this is a movie for fans of the subgenre and of some of the actors and is decidely more of an action than a war movie.

We Dive at Dawn (1943) A Very Decent British Submarine Movie

I think Das Boot made every, but absolutely every submarine/U-Boot movie redundant. What’s there to say after a final statement? What is there to add to perfection? Das Boot is one of the best war movies and one of the best movies in general and THE best U-Boot movie there is. Why watch and review any others? Because there was a time before Das Boot. And submarines are not U-Boots, guess you get my drift.

We Dive at Dawn came out during the war so it is not surprising that it is propagandist.

The movie starts aboard the British submarine HMS Sea Tiger just before the crew swarms out on a seven-day leave that is aborted after just a few hours. They are sent on a secret mission after the German battleship Brandenburg heading for the Baltic sea. When finally encountering the battleship they are heavily attacked by the destroyers who flank the Brandenburg. We have the familiar elements like crash diving, torpedoing and being depth-charged. They seem to lose the fight and only a very shrewd trick helps them to escape. However they have no clue if their mission is accomplished and when diving up again realise that they have run out of fuel. What to do next? One of the crew suggests to land in Denmark and try to refuel there. Of course that is occupied territory and we get to see some fighting on land.

Submarine movies are interesting for many reasons. The hardware used as an arm is also the living space of the crew. There is an interesting difference in US and UK movies regarding the crew. Let me quote from Under Fire (p.181)

Whereas the American war film will often feature an ethnic and regional smorgasbord of characters, the british version involves Cockneys, Scots and Yorkshiremen like Eric Portman’s hydrophone operator, Hobson, whose marital difficulties are making him a surly chap.

John Mills who is in an incredible number of British war movies of the time stars as the captain of the Sea Tiger (e.g.Ice Cold in Alex, The Colditz Story (so far one of my favourite POWs), Above us the Waves, Dunkirk). He is a good actor. No doubt about that.

All in all this is a decent movie. Interesting characters and side stories, gripping combat (not that land bit, that is so so). We Dive at Dawn is a black and white movie which enhances the atmosphere.

I haven’t seen all that many submarine movies. Once I have had a chance to watch and review a few more I will be able to give a decent evaluation. For the time being, should you only watch one sub movie in your lifetime, then stick to Das Boot but if you like the genre, don’t miss We Dive at Dawn.

I couldn’t find a trailer but added an excerpt instead.