April 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Das Boot: The Director's Cut

Current Status
In Season
Herbert Gronemeyer, Jurgen Prochnow
Wolfgang Petersen
Wolfgang Petersen
Drama, War
We gave it a B+

A few months ago, when Star Wars became a smash hit the second time around, the only ”surprise” was the number of Hollywood executives who claimed to be surprised. Audiences, eager to reexperience the collective high of the first mall-era blockbuster, seemed almost destined to turn out in droves. Yet could another movie duplicate Star Wars‘ redux success? As the current rerelease of The Godfather has proved, even the greatest movies don’t necessarily stir up a mass hunger to be seen again. They don’t compel us to come back because, in the age of video, they never really went away. My hunch is that only two more films will prove exceptions.

When Saturday Night Fever is rereleased this fall (as is tentatively scheduled), it’s likely to provoke a wave of nostalgic ecstasy — for the young John Travolta and for the spangly hedonism of disco, a music that, in all likelihood, was mocked by many of the people who’ll now look back at the Bee Gees and the Hustle with a fondness they couldn’t have then imagined. And in the era of The X-Files and the Heaven’s Gate cultists, the timing could hardly be more right for a 20th-anniversary rerelease of Steven Spielberg’s eerie extraterrestrial bliss-out Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Plans for a rerelease in September have yet to be finalized.) It’s seriously doubtful, though, that audiences would line up for many of the other popular landmarks of the last two decades. Jaws? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Rocky? Grease? Raiders of the Lost Ark? Top Gun? They’re all too familiar, too there. There’s no mystery to their magic — nothing, indeed, that needs to be rediscovered.

Still, that hardly means the trend is fading. Increasingly, smaller movies are being spiffed up, repackaged, and remarketed on a national level — movies that have no chance of becoming deja vu blockbusters but are simply ripe to be seen again. Movies like Das Boot, the 1981 German submarine thriller that’s opening this month in a ”restored” three-and-a-half-hour director’s cut. Or Pink Flamingos, the 1972 shock-comedy classic that’s receiving a similar major-city relaunch to commemorate its 25 years of midnight-movie mayhem. In effect, rereleases like these convert your local theater — or, at least, one screen of it — into a makeshift repertory house. And that, to me, seems a trend worth celebrating. With all the plastic product around, an evening spent at a film that has, for one reason or another, stood the test of time can prove a nutritiously entertaining event, a reminder of why we all started going to the movies in the first place.

Anyone who ever saw Das Boot probably hasn’t forgotten the scene in which the title vessel, a Nazi U-boat crammed with sausages, gizmos, and German soldiers, as packed and oppressive as a rat’s nest, sinks deeper and deeper into the gray-soup ocean as it evades the echoey beep of an enemy warship’s sonic detector. As the sub descends, 10 ominous meters at a time, the water pressure builds to an unbearable degree. Bolts pop out of the welding like bullets; the entire ship seems to be imploding. A few of the men start to vibrate with tension, and so, in its way, does the film. Thrillers set aboard submarines are usually sleek technological affairs, with the sub itself portrayed as an invincible sci-fi womb. Set in 1941, Das Boot, the great anti-high-tech submarine movie, might be described as the world’s first ”inaction” thriller. Sweaty and claustrophobic, exciting and horrifying at the same time, it never lets us forget we’re riding aboard a giant, primitive tin can, a hunk of industrial machinery that mingles the illusion of omnipotence with the reality of a floating prison cell.

Writer-director Wolfgang Petersen, who went on to make such Hollywood thrillers as In the Line of Fire and Outbreak, has expanded Das Boot from 145 to 210 minutes by adding some acrid mess-hall exchanges featuring Jurgen Prochnow’s taciturn, heroic captain, and by stretching out a number of the slow-build attack sequences to greater existential density. The new Das Boot feels rawer, gloomier, more pungently authentic than it did before. Mostly, though, it feels longer. Bracing as it is to see this film on the big screen again, there’s little reason why a movie set almost entirely aboard a German submarine need be quite this protracted. Prochnow, wary and ravaged, as crafty in his intelligence as Tommy Lee Jones, creates just about the only character worth rooting for. The younger soldiers are a mangy frat-house crew; their lack of heroism is meant to be the revisionist point, but it’s a point that may mean more to modern German audiences than it does to us. Still, seen in its full, indulgent form, Das Boot remains a quintessential movie experience, with a rivetingly squalid, you-are-there realism unmatched by that of any other war film. B+

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