The term ‘sensory overload’ is tossed about frequently. Audiences invariably seek to become fully immersed in the media of their preference, but to describe your senses as being completely overwhelmed is often hyperbole. Ari Aster and Gasper Noé spring to mind as two exceptional geniuses who flirt with the line between engrossing and unbearable, utilising hyperstylised visuals to subvert expectation while maximising trauma. However, their films are a sprint in relative terms compared with the marathon that is Das Boot; a movie famed for its realism and tactility.
Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece follows the crew of a German submarine U-96 during WW2. As they patrol the seas and oceans, in the midst of the Battle of the Atlantic, we are treated to a character study which reinforces the tedium of life at sea, whilst simultaneously amplifying the horrors of battle. That’s it, that’s the plot. Like Mad Max: Fury Road’s famously basic narrative, it focusses solely on the characters that participate in a journey, and the details of their surroundings. A journey not only through the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, but to the edge of the human mind.
As we approach its 40th anniversary we take a retrospective look at its effect and influence, particularly regarding sight and sound. Released in 1981, the same year as Raiders of the Lost Ark, visually it looks as though it could be 20 years older than its contemporary. This is tribute to its deliberately antiquated and anachronistic cinematography; one of the many examples which highlight its timelessness. The often grainy and frantic visuals serve to amplify the confined submarine, closing in on our protagonists when they are desperate for breath. Das Boot’s lasting influence can be partially attributed to its pioneering use of light and sound when generating tension.
Far removed from the shaky camera used almost universally today, DOP Jost Vacano developed his own filming device which allowed it to swing in pendular movements. This gives the impression that the camera is hanging from a rope, building intensity as the submarine is under siege. Oscillating with every storm current or depth charge, the camera tracks longitudinally under hammocks and loose fittings, battling the shadows to create a visceral, claustrophobic nightmare. Crudely, it films like a colonoscopy; tracking shots down a cylindrical container, avoiding all the shit in its way. Handheld features such as Rec and Cloverfield utilise similar techniques to generate horror in modern film.
Jürgen Prochnow plays the battle-hardened captain of the sub. He typifies the sea-weariness and disenchantment exhibited by the whole crew, but manages to hold things together despite the mental exhaustion. He is typically found eating at the officer’s table, with crew squeezing to get past, or in the comms room overseeing navigation. As the pivotal character, it is his movements which subconsciously reiterate the claustrophobia. The beaming light that exposes him creates the illusion that he is constantly pinned in a corner, giving orders to extract a means of escaping, extricating himself through command. This type of cinematography and manipulation of light is clearly seen in claustrophobic thrillers such as Oxygen or Buried, and all manner of horror films from Devil to Panic Room to The Descent.
In addition to its visual triumphs, there is an emphatic focus on surround sound. It revolutionised basic effects to create unparalleled depth, leaving the viewer in no doubt that the crew must be 100s of metres underwater. With every sonar ping in the comms area and mechanical whir from the engine room, you are immersed vicariously in the crew and their battle for survival. Praying, that the bolts hold strong and the exterior doesn’t crumple under the increasing water pressure or hydraulic shock from Allied charges.
Das Boot is undoubtedly an epic film, but subverts the genre so it’s almost unrecognisable. It replaces spanning landscapes with intricate crew-quarters and immense scope with fitted periscopes; and it does this without sacrificing any spectacle. Elements of this have been replicated in many of the recent space epics such as Gravity, The Martian or Interstellar, where the lead characters occupy a small portion of a seismic expanse for the majority of the movie. However, these films open up into immense panoramas to provide the audience respite from the suspense. Such luxuries in Das Boot are few and far between.
This is as much an endurance test as a cinematic experience, both for the crew and the viewer. Whether the first feature film (149 mins), the 1997 Director’s Cut (208 mins) or the uncut original version (308 minutes), the experience is heightened with each elongation. Succinctly, it provides much needed downtime in between battle sequences, allowing breathing space for characters to develop and emotions to mature.
Petersen battles for authenticity in every shot. He informed the cast they weren’t allowed to sunbathe for fear of gaining a tan, in order to maintain the pale, emaciated appearance of men struggling for survival under the sea. Their deathly pallor and increasingly unkempt, bearded faces were easy plot devices to affirm the crews’ torment. However, the audience will only believe the story in front of them if the world matches the people, and in the case of Das Boot, said world is the U-96.
An exact replica of a WW2 German U-boat was constructed and overseen by Petersen, right down to the same bulkhead screws. The attention to detail transforms a hulk of metal into a fully-fledged character. An inanimate vehicle brought to life, groaning with its crew and creaking under the pressures of war. The titular vehicles Red October and Fury are both offshoots of the U-96 in subsequent films; machines of war which protect as they destroy. These protagonists play just as integral a character as the humans they encase.
Critically, the internal characters are Nazis and are fighting for Axis forces under Hitler’s direction. However, after about an hour’s runtime we identify with them as humans, disillusioned with their orders and outlook but resolute in their comradery. This achieves two integral points, firstly that you empathise with a group who are known to be on the ‘wrong side of history’. This is a ploy utilised by All Quiet on the Western Front and subsequently with Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of our Fathers, the revealing Letters from Iwo Jima. Secondly, it consolidates our empathy with rare sightings of the film’s antagonists. Faded ships seen through periscopes and planes that appear suddenly are the tools used to highlight a largely unseen enemy. Nolan uses this technique in Dunkirk, reaffirming that a hidden enemy is scarier than a visible one.
As strong an anti-war sentiment as Paths of Glory, as suspenseful as 1917 and as humanising as All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot is a definitive entry in the war genre and comfortably its most authentic. Like its acclaimed predecessors and benefactors, it attempts not only to paint a realistic portrait of war, but a realistic depiction of people. Unlike many ‘anti-war’ films, which serve to glamourise events and therefore hinder their message, Das Boot is unapologetically aligned with opposition to violence in all it serves to portray.