Every submarine movie in the last 40 years is just commentary on Das Boot.
Before Wolfgang Petersen came to the US to make thrillers like Outbreak, Air Force One, and The Perfect Storm he made movies on his native heath in Germany. The Neverending Story is a solid enough for any director to be proud of it, even if it’s not quite a great film. I would be hard-pressed to imagine any director that wouldn’t give his eye teeth to have directed Das Boot. It pulls off the remarkable feat of being a German film about German submariners from their point of view set during World War II and yet it gets you to sympathize with them almost from the start.
Though the 3 hour plus director’s cut feels a bit long in a couple places, the movie manages to maintain an almost unbearable tension for most of the run time. The movie begins with U-96 and its officers and crew preparing to go out on patrol and kick up Bob’s-a-dying one last time on the eve of their departure. The bulk of the film is the patrol itself and concludes with their eventual return to port after a moderately successful cruise. Jurgen Prochnow as the Captain shepherds a crew of little more than boys through the dangers of the Atlantic and attacks on Allied convoys and retaliation by the escorting destroyers. The audience is helped along by the presence of a new officer and a naval war correspondent who join the boat for the first time in this patrol. Despite the patriotic enthusiasm each has to start, they slowly grasp that reality is far more grim and dark than the shiny propaganda they have been fed.
The initial days of the patrol drive home the monotony and boredom of the undersea routine. The boredom and tedium of daily life is compounded by the intensely cramped quarters shared with dozens of other similarly frustrated men. But the peace of those first days are sorely missed once a convoy is found and combat is begun. The terror of waiting and listening to the propellers of enemy ships about which they can do nothing but hide, and wait, and pray is broken only by the complementary terror of hearing the explosions of the depth charges. From moment to moment the next sound could be the one that sounds the death knell for the boat and her whole crew. The previously fawning admiration and slightly bewildered respect of the new men transforms into understanding and resignation.
Their suffering is heightened and hammered home when they resupply from a makeshift sub-tender and they see their former ignorance repeated in the luxurious life of the merchant marine officers. The respect and honor given them by men who do not truly understand what their heroes experience might well give pause to anyone who has flippantly told a veteran that their combat service is appreciated and honored. It may well be, but such praise and commendation perhaps falls hollow on the ears of those who know that gratitude without understanding is something else again. This was also the point in the film where I realized I had begun sympathizing with the crew so gradually I had not even noticed when it began.
I’ll not spoil the conclusion of the film, but I’d say it was remarkable and surprising. It represents, apparently, a dramatic departure both from the book on which the film is based and on the true fate of the U-96. The end is one that also manages to rise above the genre films that surround it and succeeded it. It’s not just a foreign film, nor a submarine movie, nor even just a war film. It rises above to be a great film about men in difficult circumstances and what the human spirit is able to withstand and overcome and what it cannot.
There is a great deal of profanity (they are sailors, after all), some frank conversations about sex, (though the only women appear at the beginning when they’re out dancing and drinking prior to shipping out), and all the violence is fairly impersonal. Regardless, it’s certainly not for anyone younger than an older teen if for nothing else than the sheer intensity of the plot. But it’s worth watching even if you don’t think you like any of the categories into which it is often placed.