Das Boot - The Mini Series Review

There are many films which have shown the hardships that the ordinary soldier has to undergo and there are many that show that their efforts are not as glorious and heroic as they are supposed to be, but there is only one film that shows in such depth the tedium of waiting for orders, the long drawn-out anticipation of imminent attack, the sheer terror and helplessness of being trapped in small confines when those attacks occur and the ultimate cost and waste of lives. Das Boot is one of the best films made about war, and in its full 5-hour version, it is even more impressive.

After one of the most raucous drunken debauches ever committed to celluloid, as the soldiers prepare to leave their base in France, the fresh-faced U-Boat crew depart on a mission whose destination is unknown, but whose ostensible purpose is clear – to attack and destroy British convoy ships in the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) and his command crew have a little more experience to know not to swallow the propaganda put out on the airwaves. They know that the tide of war is turning against them, that they haven’t got the support of air and sea forces like the British ships, and they know that their own chances of returning from this mission are slim.

The narrative structure of Das Boot is no more complicated than this: the crew depart on their mission, they carry out the orders that are given to them, attacking British ships in the North Atlantic on their way to their secret destination and try to survive the pursuit of Destroyers in the aftermath. But the film’s real narrative strength is not in the plot, but in the characterisation and in its depiction of the environment and the circumstances in which the crew co-exist. A diverse menagerie of men – the young Nazi idealist, the naïve journalist, the single men, the family men, the troll-like machine-room crew – all live together in cramped quarters, sharing one toilet, submerged in a tin-can in the ocean, vulnerable to any attack. All have something they have left behind, something that they really believe in, something that gives them a reason for fighting – to stay alive to return home to those they love, and not for the “fat pigs” in uniforms giving orders. The film captures superbly the camaraderie and the inevitable hostility of living with 50 men in cramped quarters under such circumstances. It is through the eloquent observations of the young reporter on board, that the outsider is drawn into this world – the heightened tensions, the interminable boredom, the mounting dread and the terrifying actuality of the attack.

The camera work is also astonishingly effective. It may seem like a cliché, but in this film more than any other comparable submarine action film, you really do share those cramped quarters, swoop through the narrow corridors and you almost feel like ducking to avoid having your head bang off lamps and other objects hanging from the ceiling. Anyone who has seen the theatrical version of the film, recently restored to DVD in a 200 minute director’s cut, will know how successfully the film captures the intensity of the experience. So do you need to upgrade to the TV version? Well, it depends on how much you like the film. It’s true that the film version is well-paced and already contains everything of importance that happens. There are no sub-plots or additional episodes in the TV version, but it does go deeper into the characters’ lives, into their thoughts, feelings and frustrations, examining more deeply the psychological effects of U-Boat warfare, the secret silent missions, the forced intimacy and the claustrophobic terror. And as this is the principal achievement of Das Boot, the 5-hour version can only add to the tremendous power of the film.

Columbia Tristar have released the TV series version of Das Boot as a two disc set, rather curiously split over a 1hr 44min single-layer first disc and a 2hr 57min dual-layer disc, with extra features also on disc 2. While originally shown as six 50 minute episodes, there are no such divisions on the DVD version, the whole film flowing as one, apart from a rather abrupt ending on disc 1.

The print quality is extremely good, but there are a few problems with the transfer. Colours are magnificent and are well presented on the DVD – beautiful graduated tones, showing a wonderful level of detail in the crystal sharp picture and a natural warmth. Skin tones and the red/blue lighting of the darkened submarine interiors are detailed and accurate. There are dust spots visible now and again, one serious scratch down the middle of the frame during some early scenes and a fair level of grain in some shots, particularly above-sea submarine footage. I didn’t see any edge-enhancement, but edges seem to have a slight bleed in colouration at times. The main problem with the transfer seems to be down to compression causing macro-blocking artefacts, visible as waves of shadow in one or two scenes and as a faint flicker and shifting of the image. A better division of the material across two dual-layer discs would probably have prevented this, but by cost-cutting to one single-layer and one dual-layer disc it seems the film has been overly compressed on both discs. It’s not a major problem, though it is slightly disappointing, but overall the level of detail is superb.

There are a choice of four soundtracks on the disc and I think we can dispense with the English dubs immediately – though I’ll come back to them in a moment. There are two versions of the German soundtrack, the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Obviously, considering the nature of the film, the surround mix would be more appropriate, if not essential, to the enveloping conditions of being in a submarine or undersea, as is evident from the re-recorded and remixed to DTS (with the director’s approval) 8-track surround mix on the SuperBit edition. That soundtrack isn’t present on this TV version, but rather a straight up-mix of the original stereo to 5.1. The surround mix works well within the limitations of the original soundtrack, but the limitations are evident in a general thinness and harshness which squeezes of most of the sound to the centre channel. However the overall effect, particularly in the U-Boat interiors, is reasonably effective, if well below what you may have heard on the SuperBit version of the Director’s Cut.
The English dub is pretty much worthless, failing to match in voice-acting terms and going even as far as making up its own dialogue for some scenes. Try watching an early scene where the crew discuss erotic fantasies in the English dub with English subtitles and you have two completely different scripts.

English subtitles are provided and are clear and optional. They must be selected from the main menu as they are not selected by default.

Behind the scenes of the original Director’s Cut (6:04)
A brief feature, but it gives us an excellent account of the amount of detail and the level of authenticity that the film crew and cast aspired to. There are brief soundbites from interviews with Prochnow and Petersen and some behind the scenes footage showing how it was made without going into unnecessary detail. If only other ‘Making of’ features were as concise and informative as this.

Theatrical Trailers
Trailers are included for Das Boot: The Director’s Cut, In The Line Of Fire, Black Hawk Down and The Bridge On The River Kwai.

An absolutely marvellous film, one of the best war films ever made, Das Boot only gains from the added psychological detail and characterisation in the full TV cut. There’s a slight loss of the quality that is apparent in the theatrical and director’s cut versions, partly down to the limitations of the original material, partly down to the authoring on the DVD – but here you can see the film more or less fully as it was intended to be seen. If you can watch the whole 4 hours and 40 minutes in one go, the effect is phenomenal – a total immersion authentic war experience like no other.

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