#71: Das Boot (1981)

When and how did I watch this?

December 5th and 6th, 2016, on Amazon Instant Video.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

Very little, but it’s a title on the list I’ve been curious about since the beginning.  It’s a German World War II-themed film taking place on a submarine, which has been re-released multiple times.  The only version available to me was the 1997 Director’s Cut.

What do I know about it now?

What is so intriguing about World War II?  It’s a haunting reminder that humanity should never head that direction again, of course. But it happened nonetheless, and we’re forced to deal with its aftermath. The vast scope of the war brings numerous stories  — some told countless times (D-Day, concentration camps, various battle fronts), and some told in rarity (The Bridge On the River Kwai, The Best Years of Our Lives). This one feels unique. I’m aware there are other submarine movies, and I have no real frame of reference because I’ve never seen another, but it captures the tension, the contrast between the seasoned man and the fresh recruit, pride and fear, like few films can.  The enemy is never actually seen. All we get are fractured perspectives outside of the tight quarters — a shadow just under the surface, a silhouette poking above the waves, distant bodies flailing as they dive from a burning war ship. Throughout the film, we’re forced to wait along with the crew.  We probably wait 30 minutes, but it feels like a torturous 15 hours. Attacks are jarring; a man yells “alarm!” and we’re thrust into chaos as the crew flings themselves through narrow passages, manning every foot of the perimeter, fighting surges of water and shouting commands as they desperately repair the damage. There’s an unnerving theme: they all wonder, to various degrees, if the next attack or mishap will be the demise of them all. So you hold your breath underwater along with them. Depending on which version of the film you see, you’re talking about 2 to 4 hours.  That’s a long time. And then there’s the depth gauge — it appears early in the film, almost in a mocking fashion of “how much pressure the boat could handle”, and becomes a paramount theme in the film.  We end up watching it just as intensely as the occupants do.

What are some themes in the film?

WWII, marine warfare, pride, corruption, chain of command, brotherhood

Did this affect me personally?

Numerous scenes are haunting and emotional.  The scene involving the British survivors abandoning their sinking ship and the Germans, based on their wartime policies, having to leave them behind was particularly difficult.

Why is this ranked #71?

The film appropriately depicts the horrors of the war from the perspective of the enemy, who in this case is just a collection of enlisted men, many of which have no Nazi ties.  Viewers can empathize with them despite the protagonists fighting for the “other side”.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She watched nearly the whole thing, despite warnings that it might cause anxiety in her.  It did.

Would I watch it again?

Probably not.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

If you like war films with a different take besides guys-with-guns, this is a nice alternative.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Yes. Considering everything put into it — from the sound acting, cinematography, and graphic storytelling — this film ranks among the best. It is difficult to accurately depict the raw desperation and claustrophobia associated with manning a German sub, which suffered the highest casualty rate among servicemen (I think I read 75%): the waiting, the unseen peril, and the inevitable toll on the psyche is well-illustrated and unforgettable.

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