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'Das Boot': Too Much of a Good Thing

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 4, 1997

The original 145-minute version of "Das Boot" portrayed the drudgery of war with a nail-biting verite that few other combat dramas have approached before or since. Under the false impression that more is better, Wolfgang Petersen has added another hour of footage to the film for its 15th-anniversary re-release.

If "Das Boot" was like being there, the director's "ideal cut" is like being there longer. The story line's the same and so is the message, but Petersen's sacrificed the urgency of the original in favor of a greater emphasis on the dreary domesticity of life in a German U-boat, a World War II vessel resembling a giant colon. Perhaps bloating was inevitable.

Vienna sausages have more privacy in their can than the seamen found in the sweaty confines of U-96, one of the infamous German subs that prowled the North Atlantic in search of British naval targets. Along with 50 men and a mess of torpedoes, each boat was crammed with the food needed for a long mission.

Sides of beef, salami and ribs all swung from the submarine's infrastructure, and loaves of bread, lemons and other foodstuffs filled not only every spare nook and cranny but also one of the boat's two heads.

The men are obliged to share one head for most of the six week-journey, a period characterized by stormy weather and repeated bouts of seasickness. As if that weren't enough, there is an outbreak of crabs and somebody forgot to load the toilet seat covers.

Unlike Hollywood's hygienic undersea dramas, "Das Boot" graphically depicts the nasty intimacy of a long mission. The misery mounts when the U-96 takes a hit from an enemy destroyer. The sub rocks like a granny on steroids, and everything -- food, fuel, oil and human waste -- mixes together in one stinking broth. If any of the boat's boyish new recruits had any delusions of glamour, they are soon as far behind them as the girls and mothers they left ashore.

There's valor here, too, and plenty of action, including U-96's victorious sneak attack against a British convoy, followed by a game of cat-and-mouse with an enemy destroyer, and the ingenuity of the chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann) as he fights to keep the battered boat alive. Like "Star Trek's" Scotty, he's a master jury-rigger, capable of working miracles with spit, wire and rubber bands.

"Das Boot" is hardly ancient, but like George Lucas, Petersen wanted to bring it up to state-of-the-art standards. Along with a new, more richly colored print and new subtitles, the film's Oscar-nominated Dolby soundtrack and musical score were redigitalized and augmented with new material.

On revisiting "Das Boot," what hits you is not the way technology has changed the moviegoing experience but how computers have made war an antiseptic, impersonal experience. In only a decade and a half, life aboard U-96 has acquired the patina of an antique.

Das Boot is rated R for violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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