(Just a single rule: mix-tape-style, no more than one film per director. You know, because otherwise the whole thing would be pointless.)
(#43) Das Boot
War • dir. Wolfgang Petersen • 1981 • Germany
The last time I was unemployed, about four years ago, I figured a giant nonfiction book would be just the thing to pass the time. I went for a single volume history of World War II by the military historian John Keegan (600-odd small print pages: perfect). What did I really know about those six apparition years that haunted every family, everywhere? Of the German prison camp where my great uncle spent several years? The V-2 rockets that fell at the end of my grandmother’s street, the desert war my paternal grandfather fought in Egypt, and the Arctic convoys my maternal grandfather served in the Royal Navy to assist? After all, but for the brute fact of it, it’s almost impossible to believe that such a war ever happened. It was too recent, too vast, and too inexplicably full of death.
The book was certainly instructive – full of details, dates, strategies, and names. But seeing Das Boot felt decisively like cutting to the chase. Why? Because while most films add artifice to pack a greater emotional punch, and strip it away for the sake of ‘realism,’ Das Boot makes a shrewder calculation: as far as war is concerned, the choice is a false one. Where there is war, there is necessarily conflict. Where conflict stirs, so does tension. By the end of its three-and-a-half hour running time (director’s cut), Das Boot stops being a story about one particular war to become, instead, one about war as a whole. Its German protagonists end up fighting not for any remote cause but simply for their own lives – conditioned only to accept that their survival is inextricably yoked to the downfall of (unseen) others. Bodies may fall into an indifferent sea, but it’s a larger event that truly swallows all. War is the ocean heaving overhead and, in the midst of it, the odds have everybody drowning, whether friend, foe, or something in between. There are countless films about war, but I can’t think of a better one.