In The Belly Of The Beast

Film School RejectsSource: Film School Rejects

“Mildew is good for you. It’s the next best thing to fresh lettuce. Be thankful for what grows down here.”

By Meg Shields

Many anti-war films feel like horror movies. With nary a reanimated corpse or vengeful spirit to be found, some of the most harrowing, butt-clenching cinematic frights come courtesy of anti-war films. Case and point: Das Boot. Directed by the late Wolfgang Petersen and originally released in the fall of 1981, Das Boot follows the German submarine U-96 and its crew of inexperienced mariners as they fight in a war whose victor is all but decided. As in Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 German novel of the same name, these men are not cartoonish, mustache-twirling Nazis but ordinary, humanized twenty-somethings caught in the gears of a war machine that could care less if they died at sea.

While a lengthy, expensive, and troubled production frequently threatened to sink Das Boot, the film’s commercial and critical success abroad saved what was a potentially sinking ship. Das Boot was nominated for six Academy Awards, the current record for any German-made film. Partially green-lit and financed as a miniseries, Das Boot also easily (if unfairly) lays claim to the title of “greatest made-for-tv-movie” of all time. Comprised of a cast of unknowns — including welders, students, and auto mechanics sourced from across Germany — Das Boot attempts, as best it can, to obliterate any of naval warfare’s propagandistic glamor. U-96’s crew oscillates from agonizing boredom to abject terror; from overindulgence to gut rot. They spend their days sweating and festering in a steel trap, fearful of the uncaring pang from the radar system signaling another ship has found them.

Das Boot’s strength is in its nuance. We spend hours with these men (nearly five hours, to be exact, if you’re watching the 2004 “Original Uncut Version,” which you should be). And in knowing more about U-96‘s crew, we can’t help but feel compassion for what they’re going through. Crucially, a driving force in selling the audience on this empathy-charged specificity is the true star of the film: the titular boat….

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