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COMMENTARY

New, Improved 'Das Boot' Surfaces

The landmark German film is longer and has upgraded sound--and it still might be the most convincing war film ever made.

April 03, 1997|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Saying that the remarkable German film "Das Boot" is back, bigger and better than ever, is to not only fall victim to cliche but to strain credulity as well. Yet it happens to be true.

At two hours and 28 minutes, the original 1982 "Das Boot" was pretty big to begin with. A crew of 250 labored for two years on this story of life aboard a German submarine cruising the wartime North Atlantic, spending the equivalent of $40 million in today's dollars, to this day the biggest budget for a German film.

The results, however, justified every expenditure. With its rigorous attention to both physical and psychological realism, "Das Boot" became a sensation domestically as well as the highest overseas grossing postwar German venture. Even more impressive for a foreign language film, it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best screenplay, best cinematography and best director for Wolfgang Petersen.

But "Das Boot" was made under special circumstances, simultaneously shot, to the tune of more than 1 million feet of celluloid, as a theatrical motion picture and a six-hour miniseries for German television.

Now Petersen, who went on to direct "In the Line of Fire," "Outbreak" and the forthcoming "Air Force One," has traded on his increased industry clout to go back and in effect combine the two versions, making what he calls his ideal "Das Boot." Improvements include pumping the running time up to a hefty three hours and 30 minutes and bringing the all-important sound (which got two of those Oscar nominations) up to today's technical standards.

With the new footage adding texture to the psychological portraits of the men of the U-96, the new version of "Das Boot" (which opens Friday at 17 theaters nationwide, including the Royal in Los Angeles) reaffirms the film's position as perhaps the most convincing war movie ever made, complete with tension that wrings you dry and an overpowering sense of verisimilitude.

It does this despite the handicap, at least for American audiences, of being about our enemy in the Second World War. But the film's script (adapted by Petersen from Lothar-Gunther Buchheim's widely read, semiautobiographical novel about a journalist's U-boat experiences) does such an excellent job of humanizing the crew, of creating an almost John Fordian sense of male bonding, that which side anyone was on doesn't seem to matter.

Excellent ensemble acting, of course, was a factor, and the all-male group that plays U-96's crew is close to faultless. Jurgen Prochnow, for instance, forged an international career (he's currently in "The English Patient") as a result of this completely commanding performance as the boat's captain, a pragmatic, humanistic, thoroughly professional warrior whose crew would do anything he asked.

Prochnow's co-stars--including Klaus Wennemann as the chief engineer, Hubertus Begsch as the only true believer on board and Martin Semmelrogge as the mischievous, redheaded second lieutenant--have gone on to strong careers in Germany. And Herbert Gronemeyer, who plays the visiting journalist, has become one of the country's top pop stars.

Set in 1941, at a time when Germany was gradually losing the naval war in the North Atlantic, "Das Boot" follows the U-boat on one extended voyage. The crew endures boredom, chases convoys, attacks ships, gets attacked in return by thunderous depth charges, all of it happening with a level of crushing realism that, if anything, feels stronger now than it did 15 years ago.

The reason for this success is that though Petersen has since been typed as an action impresario, his background before "Das Boot" was as a director of intense character studies. And he turned out to be especially good at building tension on board, in capturing the hellish, almost unimaginable chaos of a submarine under attack.

What remains the most vivid and unsurpassed about "Das Boot" is this ability to thrust us on board the submarine with absolute assurance. Cinematographer Jost Vocano, who shot more than 90% of the film with a hand-held Arriflex rigged with a special steadying gyroscopic mount (in effect a precursor to the Steadicam), creates a sense of physical verisimilitude strong enough to be overpowering.

Helping this was several decisions Petersen made. He refused to let his actors take other jobs during the nine months of shooting and wouldn't even let them go out and spend a day in the sun for fear they'd lose their pale faces. And he did the filming in sequence, so that by the finale those faces reflected the toll of living and working in a terribly cramped space.

For though the full-size model of the U-96 was constructed, Petersen said in a 1982 interview, with retractable walls that allowed "someone to sit back comfortably in a chair with a cigar in his mouth and say, 'Action,' " the director insisted on shooting in the enclosed space to ensure reality.

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