Sunday, June 04, 2017

Movie Review: Das Boot (Director's Cut)


Every once in a while a movie will impress me with all of the ingredients of a perfect storm: a stellar storyline, superb acting, impressive sets and special effects, and a memorable soundtrack. But it's the rare film that has all this plus the ability to hit me hard emotionally in some way. As I've gotten older, such works of art have become all the more rarer, given the way Hollywood is going these days, with its banal, never ending parade of remakes chockfull of sterile characters and overblown CGI.

I knew I was long overdue, then, for a dive into the retro movie vault to remedy this. So when my mother and I saw that our local This TV channel was airing the director's cut version of Das Boot on Memorial Day, we got excited and set the DVR. The movie was a favorite of my late father, a WWII vet that ate up anything on film that had to do with the war. It had been many years since I watched it with him on VHS, and I must confess that I simply could not appreciate it at the time, which must have been when I was in my 20s.

I'm now 45 and despite seeing it before, I was not prepared for how much this movie would affect me. I truly wept at the ending. Then I rewatched the final five minutes the morning after (as if I were in disbelief about the conclusion) and bawled like a baby.

Yes, a German war (or anti-war) movie about a submarine caused me to increase Kleenex's profits. And if this film doesn't affect you on some level like it did to me, I may have to question if you're human. Das Boot is a painfully poignant reminder that in war, nobody truly wins. But more importantly than that, it proves that even the people we perceive to be our foes are no different than us, and war affects all sides in similar ways.

Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and released in versions of various running times in the '80s, is based on a German novel by the same name. It tells the story of the crew of a German U boat (U-96) sent into battle in the Atlantic in late 1941, when Germany was beginning to lose its grip on control of the sea due to British advancements in naval technology. The start of the film tells us that of the 40,000 U boats deployed, only one-quarter -- 10,000 -- safely returned. Virtually all of the characters including their unnamed captain (played by the intense looking Jürgen Prochnow) are based on the crew of the actual U-96 and some of the events in the film are based on that boat's exploits.

Lothar-Günther Buchheim's novel Das Boot was published in 1973 and became an international best seller. It was mostly based on events during Buchheim's real life voyage on a U-boat during WWII while working as a war correspondent for the propaganda unit of the Kriegsmarine. (The character of Lt. Werner, as played by Herbert Grönemeyer in the film, is essentially based on Buchheim himself.) Buchheim later criticized certain aspects of Petersen's movie, taking issue with some protocol that he claims never would have happened in the German navy. Nonetheless, Das Boot is widely considered one of the most realistic war movies made and certainly an extremely accurate depiction of life on a German WWII sub.


And if it makes a difference, the characters in this film are not what you can consider villains nor Nazis in the true sense of the word. In fact, just about all of them hold contempt for Hitler and the war but are fulfilling their duty to serve their country. This is pretty obvious from the get-go, when the drunken captain of another U boat openly mocks Hitler while making a speech in the bordello. When the crew stops in Spain to pick up supplies and are greeted with the Nazi salute by higher officers, the captain refuses to return the gesture. At one point when patriotic German music is being played in the submarine, another character yells at him to shut it off. In fact, only one of the men -- the 1st Watch Officer -- is an ardent Nazi supporter; the rest of the crew can't stomach him and his bourgeois upbringing in Mexico. It doesn't help that he tries to maintain a clean shaven and uptight uniformed look while everyone else descends into greasy haired filth.

Since viewing the film I've learned that the U boat crews were less than enamored with the Nazi regime and many U boat historians maintain that the U-boat navy was the least pro-Nazi branch of Germany's WWII armed forces.

Maybe that's because, as the film shows us, the powers at be just didn't show these men the sincerity, direction, and respect that they deserved. Their mission is sometimes wrought with frustration and boredom as they wait for someone in charge to point them in the right direction so they can do their job. During the Spanish dinner scene it's pretty obvious that none of the senior officers have the slightest inkling what it's like to be stuck in one of these narrow, claustrophobic underwater vessels for weeks on end with 40+ other men without access to a shower. The captain seeks permission to return his crew home and is told no at this point.

They -- their bosses -- don't really care about them. Most of us that have worked in the corporate world can relate. Thus, we as the audience cares. I cared. (I also fell in love with Jurgen Prochnow, but that's another story for another time.)

Oh mein Gott...this man's eyes!
That's what makes Das Boot so darn compelling; you're going to grow to love these guys, even after the beginning where they're stinking drunk and behaving like a bunch of horny buffoons in a French bordello (except for our smooth captain, who explains to Werner that these kids are really scared, and comforting themselves with "women and schnapps.") As we get to know a bit here and there about each young man we realize that they are no different than most of our American boys serving overseas at the time. One of the crew members, who looks like he's about 15 years old, has a pregnant French girlfriend back home. ("You've got problems," a sympathetic Werner says to him.)

Some of the men cry, too, during an intense moment encountering a British ship they've successfully defeated.

Speaking of Werner, he's the character that most of us landlubbers can relate to the most. We see and experience everything through his eyes. As a journalist sent to capture photos for use in Nazi propaganda, he's experiencing a submarine journey for the first time and takes us along for the ride. And what a ride it is. We feel like we're actually in the U boat watching this movie. We can start to feel the claustrophobia and smell the sweat after a while. We jump when we hear bolts popping from the crushing pressure of a dive that goes wrong. We hold our breaths as they navigate one scrape after another, and cheer with them when they triumph.

I would love to see this movie in the theater if it's ever rereleased, because it is a truly immersive experience. One of the most intense moments is when the sub, unable to pull itself out of an emergency dive, crashes onto a sandbank and all hell breaks loose: fires, water spurting, numerous leaks, and chaos. Precious oxygen is being depleted and the sub's engine manager cracks from the stress and suffers a nervous breakdown; will the men be able to rescue themselves from this inevitable metal coffin? You'll just have to watch.


I honestly don't want to give away too many details about the storyline, so let me instead rave a bit about how well this movie was made without CGI. No attention to detail was spared; Wolfgang Petersen insisted that even the screws be perfect copies of the actual ones used in U boats. The amazing set was mounted off the floor and operated by a hydraulic press to give the movement of the sub's interior being shaken, tilted, or rocked. The entire crew were also trained in the proper procedure during emergency dive alarms, where everyone had to move as quickly as possible to the forward torpedo room so the added weight would help the boat dive easier. (I'd love to show you an alarm scene from the movie, but it includes a humorous flash of nudity that goes against Google's policies. You can search for it on YouTube; I like to refer to it as das booty scene in Das Boot. :)

Several detailed models were used to show the exterior of the boat as it moved through water. Don't snicker; these old school special effects work just fine. Some of these models are now on display at the Bavaria Films Studio in Munich; here's a short video of one of them backed by the soundtrack.



As far as the performances go in this movie, there isn't a single bad one. Even if none of the crew members had been based on a real person, they would all still feel extremely real to me. I have a newfound respect for anyone that served on a submarine as a result of watching this film.

Then there's the majestic soundtrack, as composed by Klaus Doldinger. The soundtrack even has a techno cover which went to the top of Germany's dance charts in 1991. (I just had to look it up, but prefer the original version.)



Das Boot has been released in various running times so let me just recommend the ones you want to watch: either the Director's Cut version that I viewed (208 minutes) or, if you can find it, the "miniseries" version that aired on the BBC in 1984 (300 minutes.) You don't want to bother with the original theatrical version of 1981 (150 minutes) as the other ones contain more character development and info about the crew's backgrounds. Don't let the long running times put you off; Das Boot totally engulfs you and just like savoring a great book, the time flies. This movie should be required viewing by every film school all over the world.

Also, I have read that the best way to view this movie is in its original German language, with English subtitles, as hearing the lines in the native tongue packs an even more serious punch. On that note, I've also read that the movie included various authentic German accents to make the final product all the more realistic.

The biggest travesty regarding this film, for me (other than the fact that a sequel in miniseries form has been announced and green lighted) is that it didn't win a single Oscar. Not one. It was nominated for several during the 1983 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay and four others. It lost out to movies like Gandhi and E.T. Really. (I post that both as a statement and question.) Foolish Hollywood is all I can really say.

Needless to say, Das Boot is always going to have a cherished place in my heart. It's been a very long time since I've seen a movie I would put at the top of the heap.

This is filmmaking at its finest, folks. I cannot recommend this movie enough. It's not to be overlooked.

48 comments:

  1. Excellent, excellent movie and a stellar review Pam. Jurgen should have won an Oscar for his performance. I didn't know there was a British mini-series, I'll have to search for that one.

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    1. Agreed, dryheat; I feel that everyone involved with this movie deserved an Oscar. It's amazing and still holds the record for the German movie with the most Oscar nominations. Last I looked, the five hour miniseries format was sold out on DVD...the director's cut version is available on Blu Ray.

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  2. Good review of a classic film. The scenes when they were stuck at the bottom of the Mediterranean, with little hope of reaching the surface again, are harrowing. Imagine dying slowly in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean.
    But when they do finally emerge and are racing across the sea, with the musical score rising and the captain shouting defiantly, "Not yet!" it's quite moving. You forget you're rooting for men who were considered our enemies.
    On another note, my uncle was on a U.S. Navy ship that got cut in half by a German submarine torpedo off the Azores. He was on the half that didn't sink, and got towed in. I remember my father, who could never stand him, once saying, "The damn Krauts sunk the wrong half of the boat."

    M.P.

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    1. Wow, AMAZING story M.P. (even if you dad didn't think so!)

      Ah yes, that's the "Not yet, kameraden!" scene. I'll post the link here for anyone that wants to watch it; it was definitely one of my favorite scenes, too. I didn't include it in the blog post because I didn't want to give it away....best viewed with the sequences leading up to it which were, as you said, harrowing.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ANbZsnjx9Q

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    2. The miniseries actually isn't British it's German. It is dubbed by English actors, which was really kind of silly since most of the principal actors in Das Boat speak English. I read somewhere that when the miniseries was shown the streets in Germany were empty because EVERYBODY WATCHED IT. I have it on DVD is it is excellent. More is explained onboard the sub, and it's more Das Boat. That is a good thing.

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    3. The English lines were actually dubbed by all of the German actors themselves; I've read that factoid more than once and you can tell because their voices are the same. I don't know why I said the miniseries version was British; perhaps because it aired in the UK but not the States. I do now own the miniseries "cut" on DVD. My one complaint is it wasn't remastered so audio and picture is not as sharp as they should be. Yet the European version of the miniseries on DVD was remastered. I also think some of the lines and jokes were lost in translation, even when watching it in German with English subtitles. I seem to remember slightly more accurate English subtitles and saltier language when I watched the movie with my parents years ago. In order to get the superior sound and image quality, you have to buy the Director's Cut version if you live here in the U.S. At any rate, I'm sure it was a huge hit in Germany especially when it aired.

      I can't believe I'm a 45 year-old woman that knows this much about a WWII German sub film...LOL.

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  3. Pam, I'm sorry if I've given away some spoilers. My apologies, I just wasn't thinking. Still a great review for anyone who's seen the film, three or four times, like me!
    In fact, they just showed it on a "retro" channel where I'm at. Thank goodness for retro T.V.!

    Cheers, M.P.

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    1. No harm done! I think most of my readership has seen this classic movie already. Is the retro channel you mentioned "This TV"? We have one in the Boston area and they aired it on Memorial Day and then a few more times during the week. Speaking of which, I went on the Facebook page for This TV and one retired firefighter/veteran was VERY upset that they aired this movie because it was about our adversaries. He went on to say how many allied ships they torpedoed. I told him he missed the point of the film entirely. Frankly, I wanted to call him an idiot.

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    2. Yeah, I guess it is This TV. I kinda thought that was a local deal for some reason.
      And yeah, I agree, that guy who got upset is a schmuck.

      M.P.

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  4. Fine review of a very impressive film. First saw it on New Zealand TV as a mini series with subtitles. I do have the director's cut on DVD, not yet seen. Subs are a hard way to go to war, and this movie is a tough watch.

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    1. Thanks, Johnny. I'm wondering now if the miniseries event was ever shown on American TV...I'm guessing no because of our viewer discretion restrictions. Would love to have that version on DVD one day.

      I found out that the U.S. does have ONE authentic U boat on display that you can enter and get a tour of - U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Would love to see it.

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  5. Watching this film makes me want to play Silent Hunter 3 every time; that game included a reference to Das Boot.

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    1. Fun fact: in a nod to the German U-boat film Das Boot, the player commands the U-96 in the Gibraltar mission on the game.

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  6. The historians you mentioned are correct; the film is accurate in so many ways especially when the Captain was mocking the First officer for being such an ardent Nazi. Many U-boat Captains/Crews in the Kriegsmarine knew that Hitler was an idiot and knew nothing about naval warfare. They also knew that Hitler's propaganda machine greatly underestimated Great Britain's ability for counter-submarine warfare. As you point out from the beginning when the U-boat was sailing out of port, you can almost detect a feeling of dismay from the Captain. He knew that he was sailing with a bunch of young kids who were virtually rookies and not hardened yet for submarine warfare. And as you also pointed out, the scene when the officers went aboard the "Wesser." The captain and officers of the ship had no real clue about the day-to-day hell that the U-boat sailors endured on a regular basis...tight living quarters,sickness and unsanitary conditions not to mention the traumatic stress of getting depth charged. 

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    1. Thanks for your comments. Ironically, the author of the novel criticized the movie and felt there were several inaccuracies. I'll just copy and paste the section from Wikipedia that talks about this...nonetheless it's still a hell of a movie with more accuracies in my opinion than moments that never would have happened.

      Criticism by novelist Buchheim
      Even though impressed by the technological accuracy of the film's set-design and port construction buildings, novelist Lothar-Günther Buchheim expressed great disappointment with Petersen's adaptation in a film review[11] published in 1981, especially with Petersen's aesthetic vision for the film and the way the plot and the effects are, according to him, overdone and clichéd by the adaptation. He also criticised the hysterical overacting of the cast, which he called highly unrealistic, while acknowledging the cast's acting talent in general. Buchheim, after several attempts for an American adaptation had failed, had provided a script detailing his own narrative, cinematographical and photographical ideas as soon as Petersen was chosen as new director. It would have amounted in full to a complete six-hour epic; however, Petersen turned him down because at the time the producers were aiming for a 90-minute feature for international release. However, today's "Director's Cut" of Das Boot amounts to over 200 minutes, and the complete TV version of the film is 293 minutes long.

      Buchheim, himself a U-boat correspondent, attacked specifically what he called Petersen's sacrificing of both realism and suspense in dialogue, narration, and photography for the sake of cheap dramatic thrills and action effects (for example, in reality one single exploding bolt of the boat's pressure hull would have been enough for the whole crew to worry about the U-boat being crushed by water pressure, while Petersen has several bolts loosening in various scenes). Buchheim also criticized depictions of the crew's loud behaviour during patrols as unrealistic and celebrations after achieving a torpedo hit or surviving a bombing as unprofessional. Furthermore, an officer—even an outsider like Lt. Werner—would have commanded special respect and that throwing an oil-drenched towel into his face would not have been tolerated.

      Uttering concerns about the end result, Buchheim felt that unlike his clearly anti-war novel the adaptation was "another re-glorification and re-mystification"[11] of the German World War II U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism. He called the film a cross between a "cheap, shallow American action flick"[11] and a "contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II".

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  7. I would actually love for another war film to focus on Germans in the Navy during the Second World War, not just U-boat. I think that the historical German Admiral Günther Lütjens would make a great story. He had publicly protested against the brutality of Jews and was publicly Anti-Nazi. He was one of the few officers who refused to give the Nazi salute to Hitler, deliberately using instead the traditional naval salute. Even more, he was half Jewish and tried to protect Jewish officers under his command. He was even convinced that Germany would lose the war.

    Sadly, he was portrayed as a stereotypical boastful Nazi in a certain 1960 Kenneth More film.

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  8. I highly recommend Stalingrad (1993); like Das Boot, it also takes places from the German point of view.

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  9. They just cannot make movies like this anymore can they? Movies with real effects, real props and real actors. And with slow zooms, awesome tracking and raw emotions. Nowadays every goddamn film I see(even some good ones) and they just look fake...like a video game- glossy and plastic. And everything is CUT CUT CUT. I won't even get into actors and content

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  10. The director's meticulous attention to detail resulted in a historically accurate depiction. In the film, there is only one ardent Nazi in the crew of 40, namely the First Watch Officer (referred to comically in one scene as Unser Hitlerjugendführer or "Our Hitler Youth Leader"). The rest of the officers are either indifferent or openly anti-Nazi (the Captain). The enlisted sailors and NCO are portrayed as apolitical. In his book Iron Coffins, former U-boat commander Herbert A. Werner states that the selection of naval personnel based on their loyalty to the party only occurred later in the war (from 1943 onward) when the U-boats were suffering high casualties and when morale was declining. Such a degree of skepticism may or may not have occurred. In support of Das Boot on this subject, U-Boat historian Michael Gannon maintains that the U-boat navy was one of the least pro-Nazi branches of the German armed forces.

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    1. Fun fact: In contrast to wartime propaganda, U-boat crewmen in reality were known to assist survivors with food, directions and occasionally medical aid. it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass. Assistance to survivors only stopped after Admiral Karl Dönitz issued the "Laconia order" following a U.S. air attack on U-boats transporting injured survivors under a Red Cross flag in 1942. German U-boat crews were under War Order No. 154 not to rescue survivors, which parallelled Allied policy. Even afterwards, U-boats still occasionally provided aid for survivors.

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    2. BTW, there is a German movie about the sinking of the Laconia. It is very good.

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  11. Pam, one of favorite movies of all times and one of the very best ww2 movies made. I guarantee that if I had been one of those young men, I would have spent my last night on land with women and schnapps too!

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    1. It's definitely become one of my favorites, too. I don't really have a favorite, number one film but this one's at the top of the heap for sure. This one and Seven Beauties are the best two WWII movies I've seen.

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  12. I'm surprised, given your deep knowledge of the movie, you didn't mention the part where the sailor gets almost swept off the submarine, breaks several ribs and is hospitalized for a while. This scene was not scripted and was a genuine accident that occurred during filming; during the scene one of the actors exclaims "Mann über Bord!" in order to draw attention to the guy. Petersen, who at first did not realize this was an accident said "Good idea, Jan. We'll do that one more time!" However, since that actor was genuinely injured and had to be hospitalized, this was the only take available and eventually Petersen kept this scene in the film. In this scene, the pained expression on the actor's face is authentic and not acted. Petersen also had to rewrite the actor's character for a portion of the film so that the character was portrayed as bedridden. For his scenes later in the film the actor had to be brought to and from set from the hospital since he suffered a concussion while filming his accident scene. The actor eventually recovered enough and his character is seen on his feet from the scene when the U-96 fires a torpedo at the burning British tanker.

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    1. I actually do not have deep knowledge of this movie...yet. So I didn't know that the scene where the sailor nearly goes overboard was an accident. I'll be amending this blog post at some point. Something else I didn't know until watching an interview with Jurgen Prochnow is that the author of the book actually served on a U-boat; thus, the movie captured the long stretches of boredom followed by adrenaline pumped moments perfectly. That's also why he had some criticisms with a few of the film's details.

      Glad to hear that German actor was OK. Such an amazing film...Prochnow has said it was the only project he's worked on where all of the elements were top-notch.

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  13. I'm surprised no fanfiction has been made on Das Boot. Come on people! You have made fanfiction on some of Wolfgang Petersen's other films, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm and Poseidon but not Das Boot? Come On!

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    1. LOL...I don't think anyone would want to read what I might dream up for it...it would involve the no-name captain and be x-rated.

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  14. BREAKING NEWS FOR DAS BOOT FANS! OK, not really...this news piece is now a year old, but...someone is planning an eight-hour TV series "sequel" for Das Boot. Not sure how I feel about that. I tend to think they shouldn't mess with this epic classic and there's no way they could possibly replicate all of the astounding components of the film.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/das-boot-sequel-tv-series-miniseries-wolfgang-petersen-u-boat-das-boot-2-a7113066.html

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    1. I am actually skeptical of that news, especially since it has come from an unreliable source and nothing official has been made of it. So I am taking this supposed news with a huge grain of salt.

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    2. It's happening - a director signed on in February and Bavaria Films greenlighted it. Here's the latest update from the Hollywood Reporter, a very reliable source for showbiz news. Plus the original announcement made several news sites. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/dark-valley-director-andreas-prochaska-helm-das-boot-sequel-978958

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    3. This is totally gonna ruin the impact of the original.

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    4. Dubious source

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    5. Seriously, who actually thought that this is going to be a good idea?!

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    6. There is a mini series in the works but it sounds like it will be based on the second book. Das Boat is actually a trilogy. The second book is set in 1943. Werner is coming back from documenting another sub mission and is summoned back to HQ in Germany because his boss has been arrested by the Gestapo. It is later in the war and things are going bad for Germany so Werner must navigate enemy air raids and French resistance fighters in a bid to make it across "Fortress Europe." In real life Buchheim and the Captain remained friends. He tagged along on the captain's last mission on a civilian research vessel which was nuclear powered. It was in the eary 70s. He talked to the Captain at length about his memories and wrote about those. Sadly I cannot find where those two books have ben translated into English!

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    7. That's interesting. Thanks for the info.

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    8. The reboot is set to air on Sky at the end of 2018.

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    9. The reboot launches on Sky at the end of 2018.

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  15. I highly suggest you see Air Force One, also directed by Wolfgang Petersen and featuring a cameo from Jürgen Prochnow.

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  16. I was always interested in the fact that Jürgen Prochnow played a good-hearted and sympathetic, and openly anti-Nazi U-Boat captain in this movie, yet some of his more notable roles afterwards (especially in one of Petersen's following films, Air Force One) were as a bad guy. I never had a problem with it, it just struck me as interesting and I am glad to finally see an answer on the following post about him. Honestly, Prochnow's answer does make sense; a bad guy is sometimes more fascinating then a good guy. But his role of the "Der Alte" ("The Old Man"), as he is called by his crew in this film will always be my favorite role of his

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  17. I don't know what movies you have seen or if you do movie reviews regularly, but here are some films that I recommend:

    Stalingrad (1993)
    Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
    United 93 (2006)
    Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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  18. You should do a habit of this; movie reviews.

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    1. Have you done a playlist of movie reviews you have done?

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    2. I haven't because I haven't really reviewed that many films through the years. However, if you scroll down to the list of Labels on the right side of this blog and click on Retro Films, you should see what I have reviewed.

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  19. Fun Fact: The U-boat set used in Das Boot was also used for the U-boat sequence in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

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  20. They are making a VR game of this...

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  21. Great review. I totally agree with the comment about seeing it in German with subtitles. I always watch it that way.

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  22. I don't know if you are interested in Anime, but I highly suggest looking up "Zipang". It is an anti-war anime with great themes, and its soundtrack seems inspired by Das Boot.

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