Das Boot gives an intense portrayal of life and work aboard a World War II submarine — a German one, to be precise, although that doesn’t matter much in the context of its story; the filmmakers must have known that an audience is likely to identify with any humane cast of characters. The distance between the destroyers looking to bomb them — and the submarine’s targets, for that matter — is too great for the sight of flags, and politics are kept out of the scenes on-board, aside from the seemingly universal resentment of authority figures who make impossible demands from comfortable desk positions.
What matters is the experience of the submarine itself, the mental and physical endurance needed to survive aboard it. Almost the entire film takes place here — a single, long, cramped tube; and yet, although the director’s cut version I watched runs 208 minutes, I never felt it start to drag, which is a small miracle: there is a limited amount of space, but an endless variety of things to see. This maximal use of limited resources extends to the camerawork as well: although the sets include visible ceilings, there was apparently enough room to work in lighting equipment for delicate shadings of color which seem to come from natural sources but are more carefully controlled than that. Since the usual practice is to have open ceilings and put all the lights up there (and even with that room, the work is still difficult enough), the achievement is remarkable.
So is the sustained organization of non-technical elements; the all-important sense of pacing in a story this long, which reached the 80-minute mark before I felt it had begun its middle section. It walks the line between basic and blockbuster sensibilities, giving off a sense of the sailors’ monotony, especially in the beginning, but balances stretches of their boredom with scenes of action; breaks stillness and confinement with their exhilaration at being on the ship’s surface, its bow joyfully crashing through waves in the suddenly open space. And there are times when the silence and quiet of the deep becomes fraught with tension that explodes into alarm; often these scenes are either without scoring or accompanied simply by low-volume, layered strings which slide higher and higher — the very sound of nauseating fear.
As the story continues its long run, certain type-characters and cliché scenes come to be more obvious, but perhaps the direction of an undertaking this enormous will inevitably have aspects that seem more like general gestures; perhaps, in summoning such heavy absolutes of tension and emotion as the ones mentioned previously, the film is made more of pastel colorings than careful shadings. The omission of a patriotic sense in most characters — exactly why they are fighting and what for — contributes to this, but that choice was probably deliberately made to gain a larger audience; such is the nature of high-budget undertakings. The film is not perfect or revolutionary, and certainly doesn’t make any great advancements on the story front, but “great for what it is” means more with some films than with others.