27 February 2011

Das Boot vs U-571 [War movies part 2]

My knowledge about Submarine movies does not stretch beyond a handful of films - though I find most movies I've seen in this genre to be quite OK. I don't know if it has to do with the cramped locations forcing the cast to overperform or if the situations the submarine crews usually find themselves in are so thrilling that you look beyond the minor flaws.

Out of the movies I've seen and can remember, if you can look beyond the ridiculous fake Russian accents "The Hunt for Red October" was OK (I think Sean Connery was great and Sam Neil likeable as always). And I really liked "K-19: the widowmaker", I thought it was quite suspenseful on a different level - with the crew being in mortal danger from the broken down nuclear reactor more than enemy ships. "Crimsom tide" was half decent. But, the only WW2 themed Submarine movies I've seen are "Das Boot" and "U-571".

I remember going to the cinema with a friend to watch U-571 when it premiered - I was fortunate enough to have seen Das Boot before doing so - but it also made my expectations quite steep.

The German movie Das Boot is truly an epic. It chronicles the submarine warfare of a German crew through the eyes of an attached reporter who is to write about the submarine crews for propaganda purposes. Opening scenes have show the crew as a bunch of shitfaced drunks enjoying their R&R in France – there are a few very fun scenes at this very beginning of the movie. Of course, just a few minutes into the movie they are called back and assigned a new mission. The attached reporter knowing very little about submarine warfare is very enthusiastic and he really serves as the character that guides the audience into this world. As the submarine leaves the docks, band playing and all, he starts taking pictures of the sailors – whereupon the captain tells him to wait until after the mission, as most men will have grown a beard by that time and not look so young.

The initial excitement of the reporter turns into the dull monotonous routine of submarine patrol, with long periods of nothing, storms, low morale and shitty food.  Far from the glamour he was intended to report.  Finally the crew get a message about enemy trade ships and race towards the destination to intercept. Morale gets a boost, and as the submarine sneaks up on the enemy merchant ship the tension aboard the submarine is thick. They manage to sink the merchant ship but get attacked by an enemy destroyer almost immediately which gives us a long submarine hunt with depthcharges scaring the shit out of the crew as they explode all around the ship – causing minor damage, water leaks and makes one of the officers go hysterical. These scenes are just fantastic as everything is shown from the perspective of the crewmen and you rely on sounds from the sonar, and motor sounds from the surface. The scenes showing the depth charges exploding all around the submarine are also very well done.

Not to go into too much spoilers about this movie, sufficient to say the life of the submarine crew is not really what the reporter thought it would be. Life on a sub is miserable, dull, dangerous as hell and conditions are terrible – in other words not much to write home about.

As the movie ends you can see it in the face of the reporter after what he has been through, that he might as well wipe his ass with that propaganda article that was intended to draft more men into the “Kriegsmarine”.  And honestly, there was no branch of the German warmachine that suffered heavier losses. This movie portrays why it was so perfectly, not only is it a very exciting movie, the acting from the German cast is superb. Once again the movie score is a chilling piece of music that really fits the atmosphere perfectly – and just as with Stalingrad you really feel that it was “all for nothing” at the end of the movie. I highly recommend watching the director’s cut version of this one which is 3 hours and 36 minutes long. That is pretty much the length of the special edition of “LoTR:Return of the King” – and if you could sit through that (and all the 15 endings) you will have no problem watching this movie. It’s a masterpiece and one of the best “war movies” out there.

U-571 is Hollywoods take on the WW2 submarine warfare, released 20 years after Das Boot. I’ll start of saying that it is an OK movie with decent entertainment value. But it has a few things that will piss people off – and rightly so. The movie is about capturing the German coding device “Enigma”, a glorified typewriter used to send coded messages to/from the  German submarines which made life hell for the allies during the early stages of the war since the codes could not be cracked the Germans had a serious upper hand. The allies focused their efforts on trying to decipher the codes, this was done in England by mathematicians, and capturing a working Enigma machine and code books out in the “field”. The hard part was to capture the machine without the Germans knowing about it or else they would just change their codes or tweak the Enigma.  Long story short, the Enigma machine was captured by the British – and the codes were finally cracked at Bletchley Park in England. This is what the main point of the entire movie is about, but it tampers with history, to make it look like the US navy were the ones capturing the enigma and thus helped solving this coded message problem of the Allies.

This history falsification is totally pointless and just makes the entire movie seem stupid. Sure, at the end credits you have a brief text telling you that the British were the ones capturing the Enigma and code book, and giving the one account where the US navy did so as well – the thing is the US navy captured the Enigma towards the end of the war when it was no longer of any importance. This fact just keeps nagging me as I watch the movie, and people who may not be well versed in WW2 history will get these fucked up ideas of actual historical events. Even the writer of this movie later admitted it was a stupid thing to do.

The other thing that bothers me is not that it’s about the US navy, I actually welcome that – but I think it would have been a greater service to the men who actually fought as submariners if the movie took place in the Pacific against the Imperial Japan where the majority of the US subs were operating.
U-571 starts of really damn good actually – depicting a German submarine sinking a merchant ship and getting depth charged in a brutal fashion, killing the engineers and destroying their diesel engines – virtually making the sub useless. The German captain is played by the same actor who played the Lieutenant in Stalingrad (Thomas Kretschmann, gotta love this guy), and he is great as the main villain of the movie if you like to call him that. The German crew also speak German which is quite welcome. This German sub is now a sitting duck in the middle of the Atlantic ocean while waiting for replacement parts. In the meantime, in a  similar fashion to Das Boot the protagonist crew are on shore leave back in the US. Similar kind of leave with drinking and enjoying  themselves, they are soon called back into service for a special and very secrets mission . Their US sub have been remodeled to look like a German submarine and their mission is to intercept the damaged German sub before it receives the replacement parts, take over it and capture the Enigma machine without the German command knowing about it.

The premise, might sound silly but is actually quite OK. As opposed to German submarines the US ones are inferior and very old. This is shown by the many leaks and rusty pipes pretty much as soon as the sub submerges. The cast has it’s high and lows, and a few odd choices. Bill Paxton plays the US submarine captain, he does good except for one cliché scene in the middle of the movie. Mathew  McConaughey plays the second in command – never really cared for him as an actor as he always seem to have that surprised/amazed and mouth wide open unintelligent facial expression. Harvey Keitel does a good job as being the crews old fart chief who is a WW1 veteran submariner. For some reason Jon Bon Jovi is in this movie as one of the officers, can’t really understand why he is in this at all since he has very few lines, does nothing important and just disappears halfway into the movie.

There is also the cliché black guy, who in true Cuba Gooding Jr / Pearl Harbor fashion helps out through political correctness. I can’t blame the actor who I think does a good job, but I kept wondering “how accurate is this?”.

The US submarine finds the German one, and again without spoiling too much of the movie, the US crew manages to take over it. This leads to a submarine hunt, almost identical to the one in Das Boot (though really how much can be done with depth charges and submarines in terms of variety?). These scenes are quite OK, but I still find the ones in Das Boot more chilling and suspenseful. The crew also show the superiority of the Germans subs by diving beyond what the US subs would be able to.

This movie is filled with weird shit though, that keeps distracting someone who has any knowledge of WW2 history. What it does is basically take Das Boot, and inverts the action scenes. Instead of a German sub being hunted by an allied destroyer – we have an allied sub hunted by a German destroyer. No German ships actually travelled that far out into the Atlantic as it would have been suicide passing through the English channel and dangerous to go around the British isles. The Germans mainly kept submarines in the Atlantic. There is also one scene with a German fighter attacking the captured submarine – again, there was no way in hell a German fighter would be able to fly that far into the Atlantic (during the Battle of Britain the fuel of the German planes was barely enough to cross the channel shoot some and turn back). And the Germans did not have any carriers to bring fighters far out to sea.

There is another scene that is “cool” but silly at the same time. Where two subs are firing torpedoes at each other. While submerged. That might work on modern subs, but back in those days – it just wasn’t really possible or intended to fight subs with subs. There is one exception, this being once again a British submarine who was shadowing a German submarine which had become damaged. The German submarine was making a zigzag maneuver and was unaware of the British following her. The British captain made some calculation and was able to predict the speed and direction of the German sub , and with huge amount of luck they actually managed to sink the German submarine. Though inU-571 we have two subs firing at each other from the front and not really being able to know depth or direction of their opponents. That just makes for silly popcorn action I guess.

So, I would give Das Boot 9/10 and U-571 about 6/10. Again the German movie has a more mature and authentic feel to it that does not include “glory” music or high praise for heroics. Instead it shows, just like Stalingrad – the danger and tension of being a submariner during WW2. I would still advice on watching U-571, at least for the scenes with Thomas Kretschmann, the German submarine captain, as he is quite good in this one.

As a side note, there is one fantastic PC game – it has a few years on its back, but it is still the best Submarine simulator out there imo. Check out “Silent hunter III”. It has a campaign mode stretching from 1939-45, with you taking part as a German submarine commander. It can be played with various options turned on/off, making it more realistic or more arcade style depending on your preference and willingness to learn the controls. It has great management aspects where you have to rotate the crew, assign medals and promotions after successful missions and as the campaign progresses you can upgrade your submarine or change model/area of operation from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  This game is as close as you will ever get to relive the tense scenes of Das Boot. Especially as the campaign is historically correct and ups the difficulty as the years go by and the allies start to form convoys with escorting destroyers and having planes and torpedo boats guarding the coats of the British islands. It’s a fantastic game. So check it out!

Next week, Der Untergang vs Inglorious Basterds. Der untergang actually  includes Thomas Kretschmann in one of the supporting roles.

1 comment:

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