2014 Blind Spots Series: Das Boot (1981)

The title translates as “The Boat”, a World War Two film that I have known about for years. For some reason I never managed to see the whole film, except a few scenes here and there. So that, and the fact it’s considered among the best submarine films of all-time, made it a great choice for Ryan McNeil’s 2014 blindspot series blogathon.

Das Boot is based on the German book of the same name by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, who in turn based it on his own experiences.
Originally made as a miniseries for German television. Das Boot received a theatrical run in the early 1980s and was then re-released for the cinema over a decade later in the form of a longer director’s cut.

I watched the director’s cut, which apparently gives you more characterization, so you care a bit more about the crew. It is odd that we should empathize with the Nazis, but you don’t even think about that after a while, and just look at them as people. I suppose that was partly the aim, to humanize the characters, and show they are just like you and I. As far as I can remember, we never leave their side the whole movie. The anti-German coalition is only visible from a distance.

The audience is the extra passenger on the submarine, we are in the same shoes as the journalist, observing events. It does feel very realistic and authentic, the camaraderie on board, and how claustrophobic it must have been. As a reviewer said on letterboxd, the key to these films is not just the realistic portrayal of war, but the realistic portrayal of people.

The film does a good job of emphasizing the importance of singing and music to lift their spirits during hard times. I loved the main theme, beautiful and epic.

There’s lots of drama and tense moments, but the story is fairly vague. It was not clear to me what their actual mission was(besides the obvious of torpedoing enemy ships), and why they needed to go to Italy via Gibraltar? Perhaps the crew was uncertain what the next move was, so that vagueness could have been intentional. I did read about it afterwards on wikipedia, and that helped me figure out a few loose ends.

There are memorable scenes, when they witness the burning ship at sea. Also when the crew visit the Nazi group, and are offered an elaborate meal, with the hope that they in exchange will tell war stories. There’s also a well-acted scene where the chief mechanic, Johann, loses it, and goes into a panic. I don’t want to give away important plot points, so I’ll refrain from mentioning other stand-out scenes.

Its high production cost ranks it among the most expensive films in the history of German cinema. The director Wolfgang Peterson is German, and thanks in part to Das Boot, would later have a career in Hollywood. Notable films in his resume are The Neverending Story (1984), Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000), and Troy (2004).

If you don’t like subtitles, you can watch the film dubbed in English, which worked fine for me. All of the main actors are bilingual in German and English, and when the film was dubbed into English, each actor recorded his own part. The German version is dubbed as well, as the film was shot “silent”, because the dialogue spoken on-set would have been drowned out by the noise.

Author of the book, Lothar-Günter Buchheim, uttered concerns about the end result, and felt that unlike his clearly anti-war novel the adaptation was “another re-glorification and re-mystification” of the German World War II U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism. He called the film a cross between a “cheap, shallow American action flick” and a “contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II”.

Rating 4.5/5

Agree or disagree? Have you watched Das Boot? Which are your favorite submarine movies?

26 thoughts on “2014 Blind Spots Series: Das Boot (1981)

  1. Sounds like this one lives up to the hype Chris! I should check this one at some point. I saw a Blindspot pick of mine this weekend too, It Happened One Night. I'm glad that one also lived up to my lofty expectations.

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  2. @Ruth: I think Das Boot does live up to the hype, although I wish I had seen it on the big screen.
    It Happened One Night, happy you enjoyed it, one of Clark Gable’s best performances for sure. Few weeks ago I watched Red Dust (1932), he was great in that also.

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  3. This is a film that I really want to see as I also heard that the director's cut is the definitive version though I also heard some good things about the miniseries version. Which one should I start with?

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  4. @thevoid99: Have not seen the TV mini-series, so can't really say if you should see it. According to wikipedia, clocks in at 4 hours 53 minutes. It's called “Das Boot – The Original Uncut Version (2004), and is available on dvd.

    The director’s cut is what I watched, and really liked(3½ hours).

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  5. I watched the director's cut too and I think it was neither too long nor too short – but of course I don't have anything to compare it to. I'm so happy you checked this one out, Chris, it's one of my all-time favorite movies. I also don't think it's weird to sympathize with the Nazis since mot of them really were just ordinary soldiers serving their (lunatic) country.

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  6. @Mette: Didn't know it was one of your favorites! Agree about running time, though I did read on IMDb message board that the reason they go to Italy is included in dialogue in the TV mini-series, which was a bit unclear in dir cut.

    Yeah, all Germans are not evil, it’s so easy to be prejudice. They were just regular people serving a lunatic leader.

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  7. This was an impressive movie, especially the camera work in these cramped spaces. If I remember correctly Paul Verhoeven decided to work with that cameraman because he liked it so much. Good to see you also enjoyed watching it.

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  8. I've seen both the theatrical cut and the director's cut. I like the director's cut in part because it feels like it's the same length. This is a film that is evidence of the maxim that no great movie is ever too long.

    This is a hard movie for me to watch because I'm prone to claustrophobia, and this is a movie that trades on that feeling. I tend to pace while watching it because I like to reassure myself that I can. I find it interesting that it's so easy to go into the film expecting to hate everyone (they're Nazis!) and, by the end, want nothing more than for them to get home (they're just regular guys!).

    Regarding your third question, this is the greatest submarine film ever made, hands down.

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  9. @Nostra: I agree the camera work in the submarine was impressive, I still don’t know how they achieved that.
    Well, if I was a director, I might want to look up that camera man too 🙂

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  10. @SJHoneywell: It doesn’t feel like 3½ hours, that’s true. Oh, that sounds pretty terrifying, that you are claustrophobic. That’s brave of you to see it twice! I’m only that way if it’s in a real life.
    I wanted them to get home too, because they are just normal people in a difficult spot.
    So far, every submarine movie list I’ve seen, Das Boot is top dog.

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  11. Like Steve I've seen both theatrical and director's cuts and recommend the latter. And I also agree with him that this is the best submarine movie ever made. It's not even close.

    I do feel the film tried to separate these men from Nazis themselves. The party scene you mentioned is one such time. They were shown more as being loyal to their country than to the National Socialist Party.

    I'm glad you liked this one after all the hype you heard about it.

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  12. @Chip Lary: Interesting what you say about the party, I hadn’t thought of it that way, about separating themselves from the Nazi’s. Probably there are other scenes too, that do that, as you allude to.
    I had heard about Das Boot in passing over the years, so I’m happy it lived up to expectations!

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  13. I had Das Boot on my initial project list but cut it when I decided to scale back on the epics. I would still love to see it though, especially after your positive remarks. Interesting that the actors recorded an English dub, too. Never heard of anyone doing that before.

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  14. Eric @ The Warning Sign: Shame it didn’t make the cut, maybe you can include it for next year’s project.
    Sometimes dubbing is a distraction, I never had that problem with Das Boot, it was fine.

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  15. @Ruth: Red Dust (1932) takes place on a rubber plantation, and is based on a play. The emphasis is on dialogue and relationships, and not on things exploding 🙂 However there are racist notions, but that was also the case in Gone With The Wind from that era, so don’t let that dissuade you.

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  16. I have Das Boot copy in my drawer, but the there are about 3 VCD discs (60-90 minutes each maximum duration), so I thought it looked kind of heavy. But seems to be about music too? Nearly perfect score, that's a sign must see.

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  17. @Andina: Well it’s got the crew singing a couple of times to keep their spirits up in the submarine. I like the score too. Das Boot is kind of long, but in a good way, where you are not bored.

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  18. You've actually touched on an interesting phenomena for me – a film I've seen, but only once, and so long ago that I have forgotten so much of that it's almost drifted back into my blindspot. The one thing I do remember is the long stretch where things get super quiet, because the first time I watched it I nodded off…only to be startled awake by the scream of “a-larrrrrrrrmmmmm!!!!”

    PS – Where DAS BOOT is concerned, I always think back to one of my favorite episodes of Andrew Robinson's podcast…it might have even been the first episiode I ever heard:

    http://www.gmanreviews.com/2010/01/29/the-unnamed-movie-podcast-episode-44-das-boot/

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  19. @Ryan McNeil: Ha, yeah, can become blind spots again, if we haven’t watched them in years. I feel that way about a few Hitchcock films.

    I have that too sometimes, though it’s usually the louder end credits music that wakes me out of my stupor 🙂

    I didn’t know about that podcast episode, so thanks! Will check it out this weekend.

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  20. The material only really comes into its own in the miniseries. Massive as a Bruckner symphony, and long stretches which are just as slow. This is where you get a real semblance of the torture of seemingly endless weeks of boredom inside that cramped, smelly, shaking steel tube, which in turn heightens the intensity when all of a sudden all hell breaks loose.

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  21. @Radbert Grimmig: The feeling of being with characters for endless weeks is tricky to achieve in a film. You make me want to watch the mini-series with your comment.

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