Das Boot

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

1 November

Death of Jacques Piccard, 2008

On this day in 2008, Jacques Piccard, one of the pioneers of really deep deep-sea exploration, died, aged 86. The son of Auguste Piccard, a balloonist who had ascended higher than any other human in the early 1930s, Jacques initially started out working on bathyscaphes as a favour to help out his father, who had switched from high altitude to the depths. Together, between 1948 and 1955 they built three bathyscaphes. But Jacques was only a hobbyist – by day he was a professor of economics. It was only after governments started to become interested in the development of the bathyscaphe that Jacques abandoned teaching to work full-time on the submersibles. By the late 1950s Jacques Piccard had become a consultant for the US Navy and was planning the first of his deep dives. In January 1963, along with Lt Don Walsh, he descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest place on the face of the earth, over seven miles down. The descent took five hours but Piccard and Walsh stayed a mere 20 minutes at the bottom. Piccard abandoned the mission (whose only purpose was to see if it could be done) when he noticed cracking in one of the 19cm thick observation windows. The bathyscaphe returned safely to the surface. Shortly before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, Piccard embarked on another remarkable mission, when his “mesoscaphe” was dropped into the Gulf Stream where the current was strongest. At a depth of 1,000 feet, Piccard and his crew drifted 1,444 miles with the Gulf Stream, a journey which lasted four weeks and which went largely unreported, on account of Neil Armstrong et al’s landing on the Moon. A native Swiss who spent most of his life in the country, ironic considering it is landlocked, he continued designing and diving in submarines into his 80s.

Das Boot (1981, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Das Boot remains the best film Wolfgang Petersen has ever directed, perhaps because as a German born during the Second World War he felt some affinity for the poor saps whose job it was to serve on U-Boats. And it’s as poor saps that he portrays them, the 42 men packed into the tiny space that Petersen cannily shows us before letting the drama unfold. Claustrophobic it undoubtedly is, though this is not a film about claustrophobia. Instead it’s about men toiling together, cheek by jowl, in a precise ballet that only works when everyone is dancing to the same tune. Jost Vacano’s hurtling camera is crucial to the understanding of what’s going on in this tin can as the submarine sets about harrying a convoy of Allied ships with torpedoes. Then the reverse, as the submarine itself is beset by depth charges while the crew sit silent below, knowing that even talk can be picked up on the destroyer up top’s hydrophones. Then finally the situation reverses again as the destroyers move on and the submarine surfaces to finish off a stricken tanker. At the centre of the manic camera, the wild-eyed crew, explosions above and below, is Jürgen Prochnow as the rock-solid captain, the sort of man other men will die for. The film was a hit in Germany (West Germany, as it was then), and was an early instance of the Germans coming to terms with the Second World War (it helped that the U-Boat captain makes it clear early on that he is not a Nazi). In many respects it is a standard submarine movie – a Run Silent, Run Deep for a new generation – but in Das Boot it’s not what happens that’s important, it’s the way that Petersen, Vacano, Prochnow and the actors dressed in filth-smeared T shirts present it.

Why Watch?

  • All that action in such a tiny space
  • To get the claustrophobia right no walls were removed from the submarine mock-up
  • Six Oscar nominations – a record for a foreign language film. It won none
  • Look out for the director’s cut (3 hours 29 minutes) or even the mini-series created from the same original material (4 hours 53 minutes)

Das Boot – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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