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Director's 'Das Boot': A Cut Above the Original

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 4, 1997

When A German submarine movie called "Das Boot" infiltrated American waters in 1982, it scored an unlikely, direct hit. One can only assume that this European, subtitled film about Hitler's U-boat denizens earned money (and six Academy Award nominations) because audiences responded to its humanistic message, its antiwar sentiments and its superb movie making.

Director Wolfgang Petersen always felt, however, that "Das Boot" (originally intended as a six-hour epic for German television, with a shorter, commercial film version) had been clipped too short.

With the help of Columbia Pictures and his trusted crew (including editor Hannes Nikel), Petersen has made "Das Boot: The Director's Cut." The movie, which has been refitted with digitalized sound, additional scenes, re-recorded sound effects and improved subtitles, is now a whopping 3 1/2 hours. But it never flounders. In fact, it propels itself through your consciousness with even greater power. This is a masterfully recomposed film.

The story once again: When wet-behind-the-ears German war correspondent Lt. Werner (Herbert Groenemeyer) comes on board the U-96 in 1941, his purpose is to write an uplifting account of U-boat heroes. But this idealistic agenda runs aground almost immediately.

As the sub's (unnamed) captain (Juergen Prochnow) and his veteran cohorts know only too acutely, the odds are stacked against anyone returning alive. British destroyers have become an awesome force to contend with. The U-boat fleet is spread thin. But young men are still being sent out to sea. (According to the film's preface, 40,000 German sailors undertook U-boat missions in World War II; only 10,000 returned.)

"I feel ancient," the captain tells Werner. "Like I'm on some children's crusade."

The magic of this film still comes from its original thrust. Petersen (who wrote the script based on the real memoirs of war correspondent Lothar-Guenther Buchheim) paid attention to the smallest (and largest) details.

The production, a two-year enterprise, featured a 250-person crew and employed two authentically reconstructed, full-scale submarines, three smaller replicas and a 16-foot-high rocking machine (dubbed the Whipler), which simulated adverse underwater conditions. Forced to undergo the claustrophobic, nausea-inducing conditions as their fictional counterparts, the actors exude palpable tension.

But with its extra scenes, "Das Boot: The Director's Cut" has become one of the richest, most humanistic depictions of wartime life since Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion." You're drawn in powerfully as the crew members experience a psychologically maddening cycle of lull and storm. In the noncombative moments, the increasingly bearded men joke with one another, sing the popular song of their enemies ("It's a Long Way to Tipperary"), and play pranks on the greenhorn correspondent, as well as on a Hitler Youth representative (the Frank Burns of this outfit) who's overly obsessed with hygiene and military decorum.

But when they run into the English, all hell breaks loose. The only thing worse than one destroyer, these young men discover, is two. Even the strongest minds give under the pressure. With the fuller soundtrack, the noises are more impressive, of course. But so are the silences. It's excruciating to sit with the sweating, praying Germans as they hold their breath -- for fear of being detected by the enemy's newfangled, ultrasonic detection devices. You emerge from this experience rather like a returning U-boat crewman -- drained, blinking in the light, but oddly triumphant.

DAS BOOT: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT (R) Contains nudity, profanity and violence. In German with subtitles.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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