A Matter of Life and Depth

Fiona’s always intended to see Wolfgang Petersen’s DAS BOOT but somehow never got around to it. She’s not to keen on confined spaces, water, watery graves or icy death, so I reckon she had to steel herself a bit. Thirty-eight-odd years after the film was made, she felt more or less ready, so we popped it in the Panasonic and for the next two and a half hours her face was a horrified rictus.

It’s still far and away the best things WP has made — now, I haven’t seen the full WP filmography, but would it be fair to say that apart from IN THE LINE OF FIRE he hasn’t made anything remotely defensible? I wonder what his early stuff’s like.

We were reminded that the film was sitting there unwatched when a friend mentioned it and remarked on the crappy music and special effects. I had totally forgotten this aspect of it. In fact, I had a fairly specific memory of the very beginning and the very end, and in between just a general, but very sensorial impression of crawl-out-of-your-skin claustrophobia and creaking bulkheads that want to kill us all.

The special effects are, in fact, sort of adequate: everything underwater is kind of OK (no giant bubbles the size of weather balloons), the stylised depth charges are pretty cool actually, the process shots of Jurgen Prochnow and his chum up top are unconvincing but we just went with it, and there are some periscope views and other stuff that fall short of what’s needed.

The music is a different problem: composer Klaus Doldinger has furnished a stirring main theme, which we hear a lot. Maybe TOO stirring? One of the film’s interesting discomforts is the way it makes you root for the wrong side, kind of, but to do this just by putting the audience in their position is OK, but actively manipulating us with a romantic naval-martial score is pushing it a bit. It’s also cheap and synthy in its execution, something that never works. Despite the film being set in the forties, an actual shameless synth score could have worked — think DARK STAR — since we spend so much time in an artificial, dieselpunk environment. But synths trying to sound like orchestras never work, as I’ve learned to my cost in the world of no-budget short films.

The miracle is how little this all matters, since Petersen’s big choice, to eschew flyaway walls and treat the U-boat as a real location, or even a huge, film-engulfing prop, makes everything so solid and real and tactile, and the rushing shots that race the length of the ship, Jost Vacano’s camera operator risking a fractured skull at every hatch, somehow never get tired. And, having just endured 1917, I admired the way Petersen just cuts when he feels like it, even breaking up what were evidently sustained single-takes, short inserts dropped in as required. No long-take fetish, but I can see why David Lynch picked up the captain for DUNE — he must have loved the hissing, dripping, pinging industrial hell of this environment.

DAS BOOT stars Duke Leto Atreides; Robert Schumann; Faber; K, the psychopath; Fritz Knobel; and Guy of Gisbourne.

12 Responses to “A Matter of Life and Depth”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I prefer Sam Fuller’s “Hell and High Water”

  2. Fuller’s mission was to get away from the static wide-proscenium approach of early ‘Scope films, but his long crab-dollies through his ship make it feel like an open-plan “exploded diagram” like the one in The Life Aquatic. Which is fun. But Petersen’s forward movements through enclosed space make his the most inescapable sub ever filmed.

  3. I thought the submarine in Hell and High Water looked VAST, not claustrophobic at all. And I got a bit fed up with the crew gawping at/complaining about the bad luck of/having fistfights over the female character played by Bella Darvi (who had a sad but interesting life – jailed under the Vichy regime, bad gambling habit, Zanuck’s mistress, bisexual but, alas, also suicidal)

  4. I talk about Darvi in my video essay on H&HW and three other Fullers, which you can experience as part of the Fuller at Fox box set from Masters of Cinema.

    Her name comes from Darryl + Virginia (Darryl’s wife). She was their daughter’s friend, they practically adopted her (she moved in) then she became Darryl’s mistress…

  5. I’m still waiting for my Fate of Lee Khan and the other discs Masters of Cinema said they were going to send me! (I’ve had a change of address since then, but don’t think that’s the reason I haven’t received anything.)

  6. I’m just sending a reminder to Jon. Is he the right person?

  7. Yes, Jon should be the right person. I’ll look into this too.

  8. For me René Clément’s THE DAMNED / LES MAUDITS scoops Peterson’s real sub/claustrophobic trucking shots in 1947, only they’re not quite as fast. Have you seen it? it’s really strong, a great story. No miniature effects – they blow up a real sub! Don’t understand your remark about the high adventure music ‘approving’ of the ‘bad guys.’ It’s war, everybody’s trying to murder everybody else, and we can’t help but admire the determination and stamina of men way out on a limb. It’s really daring to have the Nazi ideologue turn out not to be the typical sniveling coward/hypocrite as seen in U.S. war films. I love the Fuller film, but it’s so ‘out there’ silly, it might as well be a comic strip: Scrooge McDuck Goes Atomic. Among genre fans DAS BOOT can do no wrong. Hi David, continue to enjoy your blog every day.

  9. Thanks, Glenn! Yes, The Damned gets there first in a lot of ways:
    My feeling about the music is that while it’s OK to let us feel what the bad guys feel and thus, quite literally, “sympathise”, it’s wrong to encourage that musically. I’m not sure if I can really justify my feeling, but it’s like some tricks are fair and some are dirty pool.

  10. I thought the interior scenes in Run Silent Run Deep (1958) were also very good, and claustrophobic — the sense of being cramped and of being likely to hit yourself every time you have to make a rapid move through the submarine was very well done. The effects were a bit hit or miss, though, especially anything involving splashing, where the scale often seemed all wrong.

  11. Yeah, you need really BIG miniatures for that kind of stuff to stand any chance. Das Boot’s model sub was steered by a frogman inside it!

    I haven’t watched Above Us the Waves but I quite liked We Dive at Dawn. But I can’t see any Brit films of the era combining claustrophobia with DYNAMISM.

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