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Film: Whatever floats your boot

Movies | Restored U-boat thriller shows the claustrophobia of human ideologies

Issue: "Louisiana's Buy-You-Election," May 17, 1997

It's the fall of 1941. You just turned 18. You're a German sailor on your first U-boat tour. The tides of war have turned against you. Instead of being a hero for Hitler, you sit in steel-encased silence waiting for British depth charges to blast you to pieces. The Nazi propaganda they taught you in school went out the porthole days ago. As your sub drops to the bottom of the North Atlantic, you wonder if you will ever breathe fresh air again. Forty thousand men just like you are serving The Fatherland aboard submarines. Only 10,000 will come home. Welcome to the harrowing world of the recently restored 1981 classic based on Das Boot, a book by former German war correspondent Lothar-Guenther Buchheim. This movie dives deep into the quiet desperation of an Axis submarine crew that sets sail to torpedo British ships and winds up in dire straits. While the babyfaced enlisted men don't realize their impending doom, the officers are bitter and cynical about their ongoing defeats at sea. The British aren't making mistakes anymore, they tell each other. Just before the U-boat launches, the captain (played by Jurgen Prochnow, who later appeared in The English Patient) says that he feels like he is leading a children's crusade. The somber, pessimistic mood builds as the movie progresses. Director Wolfgang Petersen-who supervised the restoration-brilliantly mixes action and suspense into the film's dark storyline while maintaining its gritty pace. The trendsetting Star Wars rerelease added some 8 minutes to the original footage; the rerelease of Das Boot adds no less than 65 minutes, to great effect. The additional scenes, a remixed score, and improved sound effects add realism and emotional intensity to the underwater setting. There isn't much Nazism in the movie's three and a half hours. There are no swastikas to be seen, nor any long diatribes about the master race. All Aryan idealism is quickly scrubbed off the crew early in the first few reels. Hitler's grandiose plans have failed, but the pawns in his game discover the horror and misery that comes when narrow materialism cracks up-like the big metal bolts that break off as the water pressure begins to crush the doomed submarine. Das Boot (German for &quotthe boat") shows the limits of militarism and of an ideology that crams men into the latest technology and sends them off to a watery grave. It is clearly an anti-war movie. Yet the theme isn't handled in the self-serving manner of many American movies of the 1980s like Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July. Das Boot lacks the preachy, self-righteous monologues about the futility of war and makes its point through situations in the storyline. The German sailors in the movie are neither cowards nor gung-ho crazies. They're just ordinary soldiers who struggle in vain to return to their girlfriends, wives, and homes. The updated version develops a riveting picture of life inside a windowless steel tomb as the Third Reich's terrors of the North Atlantic turn into sitting ducks. In doing so, the U-Boat, with its cramped quarters and suffocating sense of enclosure, becomes a metaphor for life in a closed universe, the claustrophobia of a world without God.
Mr. Stamper is a writer in Manhattan.

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