“Das Boot” (1981) 4 / 4 stars - by Jeff Mitchell - It is Autumn 1941, and the British Navy begins overtaking Germany’s presence in the Atlantic, and in turn, the Germans lean on their U-boat fleet to fight back against the ever-growing number of British destroyers patrolling open waters.
Enter Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jurgen Prochnow), a steely-eyed veteran of the German Navy, to lead a large group of mostly kids to war in a U-96 U-boat.
This is the premise of director Wolfgang Petersen’s 3-hour 29-minute gripping WWII masterpiece, which is quite frankly, one of the best war films you’ll ever see.
Petersen certainly devotes plenty of screen time to that famous saying, “war is hell,” but more importantly he depicts life on a submarine in the 1940’s with all the claustrophobia and grit which comes along with it.
The sailors sleep and eat in the same cramped narrow quarters, and 50 men share one bathroom.
Finding places for bunches of bananas, loaves of bread and cuts of meat for the long journey ahead seem more of chore than actually preparing meals themselves.
Even the captain isn’t immune.
When he and his staff sit for a meal, some have to stop eating and stand up in order for other crew members to pass.
And if leaks spring from the hull, dripping water from pipes or puddles of water add to the collective misery.
Let's set aside the lack of pleasant creature comforts, this isn’t a luxury liner, it’s a war ship.
War is what the captain’s green crew will face.
One crewman says, “Damn this waiting. Will we ever see some action?”
As eager and as fresh-faced the crew appears at the beginning of the film - drinking and causing ruckus in a dance hall on dry land - they will soon enough realize their journey will be no party.
Other war films certainly depict the story of “fresh-faced kids turning into different people” once the fighting actually begins (“Full Metal Jacket”, “Born on the Fourth of July”), and Petersen does this equally as well.
Plus he gives us something more: a look at war from the German solider (sailor) perspective and a real sense of life on a submarine.
The aforementioned claustrophobia is ever-present, but we also experience the terror of enemy destroyers hunting them down from above.
When the U-96 first leaves La Rochelle harbor, Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock smiles and says to war correspondent Lt. Werner, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a submarine...and a sailboat.”
We realize right away the highly respected captain enjoys command, but a lonely sailboat captain is what he longs to be.
This nearly three and a half hour epic shows us why.