We caught up with the 1981 movie, Das Boot (The Boat) last night, on Maori Television - the channel that actually shows good movies, and not just re-run 'blockbuster premieres.' When I say we caught up with it, we actually missed the first twenty minutes or half an hour; I don't know exactly how long it was. But that didn't cause too much problem in following who was who and how it all fitted together. It probably would have helped to know a bit more about the characters, but ce la vie.
This was one of Wolfgang Petersen's big hits: even though it was German-made, and shown with subtitles, it was seen worldwide. After The Neverending Story, and a TV series based on Das Boot, he went onto work in Hollywood, producing In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm and other well-known titles.
Das Boot has a somewhat meandering storyline, and a host of characters, and yet is full of tension. The big set pieces are very well done: the torpedoing of a group of freighters and being chased by a destroyer; the unexpected dive to the bottom of the sea in the Gibraltar Strait; the ending which pulls the rug from underneath our expectations. But in the midst of all these is the quiet interplay between the Captain and the various officers and sailors, the warmth and humour, the generosity and courage, the creative thinking, the strength of working together for a common cause.
It's hard to think how men in one of these U-boats could have survived the continual stress of months at sea - when two of them are due to be off-loaded for leave, the leave is abruptly cancelled. One character, Johann, who's seen nine voyages on the submarine, has a mental breakdown during one of the crises; it's surprising more of the men don't go off the deep end. The confined space is brilliantly captured: there's hardly room to turn around in some of the areas, and the ordinary sailors live and sleep in a narrow bunk room with hardly space enough for them to sit down. In a couple of scenes they're all seen lying asleep, exhausted, on the floor, curled and entwined around each other, none of them able to sleep with their legs out straight. Several times absolute quiet is required: only the Captain can see through the periscope, and even that view is limited; the rest have to wait and listen, unsure of what's going on outside their metal walls.
The cast is uniformly good, though thirty years down the track one or two of the performances seem a little too large for the cinema (maybe more so for the TV screen). And the detail in the direction is superb, quite apart from the hugely exciting moments when the camera races through the sub following one or other character desperate to fix yet another part of the sub that's come apart.
Reading the information on the Wikipedia page for the movie is very informative. Apparently the TV series used additional material that had been cut from the movie. The original release came in at 150 minutes, but the much later director's cut is another half hour longer. There are fascinating details about what the actors endured during the course of making the movie, and the way models and various versions of the sub were used (at one time the mock-up of the sub disappeared overnight; Spielberg had been given permission to use it for Raiders of the Lost Ark). It's also interesting to read that the scene in which one of the characters calls out 'Man overboard!' was unscripted: the actor who went 'overboard' had actually fallen, and broken ribs. He was also concussed, and had to be brought from hospital for some of his later scenes. There's a great deal more, for those interested.