Wolfgang Petersen’s breakthrough international hit “Das Boot,” a gripping, impressively detailed account of one harrowing voyage by a German U-boat during World War II, is the latest film to be refurbished for re-release in a “director’s cut.” Unlike with some recent examples, however, an enormous amount of work has gone into creating what the director considers his “ideal” third version of the picture; more than an hour of footage has been added, and the soundtrack has been completely revamped digitally, with stupendous results.
Pic was originally released in Germany in 1981 and in the U.S. the following year by Triumph, Columbia’s then-classics division. Domestically, it generated a muscular $11 million gross, ranking it seventh on the all-time list of foreign-language films, and was considered a surprising success for a film about the war from the German perspective set almost entirely within the cramped confines of a submarine.
But Petersen proved his mettle with many scenes of breath-shortening suspense in his recounting of the several-months voyage of U-96 as it journeys from its home berth in La Rochelle, France, into a stormy North Atlantic in autumn 1941. Following a long period of waiting with no targets in sight, it makes a victorious hit on a British convoy, followed by prolonged skirmishing with a destroyer that nearly knocks it out with a succession of depth-charges. It then visits the Spanish port of Vigo, makes a perilous passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, undergoes a long struggle to recoup from damages while resting on the ocean floor, and finally returns to La Rochelle, where a bitterly ironic fate awaits much of the crew.
Theatrical version originally ran 145 minutes, while a German TV miniseries occupied six hours. New cut plays out at 207 minutes (almost 3-1/2 hours), which will limit daily showings, probably restrict release to special exclusive engagements and even make some fans of the original think twice about whether they want to re-immerse themselves in “Das Boot” for such a long spell.
The story arc and significant incidents on display are the same in both theatrical versions. At times in the new version, especially during the two or three passages in which the crew is desperately trying to make repairs to the damaged craft, the action does seem distended and overly generalized. Lengthier cut will also even more fully validate the affectionate jokes that the film really does make you feel what it was like to be stuck in a submarine for a long time.
But the picture remains an intense, superbly crafted work, with the huge new plus of a soundtrack that could scarcely be more finely tuned and significant to the impact of the film as a whole. Artistically, the attention to sound, noted back in 1983 with two Academy Award nominations, can be validated as an important subjective correlative to the crew’s inability to see anything outside their narrow metal tube. Viscerally, it generates tremendous tension, with the sounds of the engine humming, clocks ticking, water dripping, depth charges going off at various distances, the pings of the enemy’s ultrasonic detection system closing in and, above all, the silences looming before the unseen threats that, when unleashed, cause instant chaos to break out, all combining to startling effect.
Jurgen Prochnow again impresses in his charismatic, career-peak performance as the world-weary, authority-snubbing captain stuck with a bunch of green recruits. Second lead, a naval war correspondent played by Herbert Gronemeyer, is the stand-in for novelist Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, who himself was a sketch artist on board actual U-96, skippered by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, who sank 183,223 tons of Allied ships to rank sixth among all Nazi U-boat captains.
With Ortwin Freyermuth as director’s-cut producer, Petersen worked closely with original editor Hannes Nikel and cinematographer Jost Vacano on the new version. Print looks pristine, with no trace of aging, and Vacano’s hand-held work within the tight quarters — in pre-Steadicam days — remains a tour de force.
Hindsight also makes even clearer the film’s shrewd use of the men’s irreverent, battle-fatigued attitudes, as well as their eventual hippie-style hair and beards, as ways to distance them from conventional Nazi identification and make it much easier for audiences to feel sympathy for their predicament.