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Rapture of the Deep

Director Wolfgang Petersen talks about the making and remaking of his submarine epic "Das Boot"

By Richard von Busack

Wolfgang Petersen is one of the smarter mainstream action-film directors working today. His last two movies--Outbreak and In the Line of Fire--provided all of the thrills money could buy, without oppressing the viewer with the bloated nihilism characteristic of the $70-million potboiler thriller.

Both hits were full of human-scale scenes amid the thrills. In the Line of Fire playfully matched a neurotic Clint Eastwood against an omniscient but nutty John Malkovich; Outbreak boasted helicopters galore, but it also crackled with gallows humor (the quoting of a Bugs Bunny cartoon as a computer-animated virus bounces around a crowded theater), poignancy (a doomed mother is separated from her family by armed soldiers) and even a light touch (a civil servant's keenly timed wisecrack about being better friends with a certain man than that man's wife would like).

Petersen's best-known film, Das Boot (1981), has recently been restored to its 3 1/2-hour length from the American-release length of 2 hours and 20 minutes. It was, in its time, the most expensive film made in Germany, and the money was well-spent on the obsessive recreation of a WWII submarine, the title character.

The movie's sub, U-Boat 96, is a Type VII C, built from plans found in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The producers constructed a pair of subs--one was brought to the studio, hung up and rocked to produce the effects of an angry sea; another was used for exteriors in the Atlantic Ocean.

The reissued Das Boot includes a new print, new subtitles and digitally enhanced sound effects. Since the crew waits blind during the most suspenseful scenes in the film, sound carries the action, especially in the scenes in which the U-boat is being felt for by the sonar of a destroyer and in which the bulkheads of the submarine groan under the pressure of a hundreds of feet of ocean water.

Metro: A friend of mine used to work for the San Francisco Maritime Museum, conducting tours on the U.S.S. Pampanito, the WWII submarine docked at Fisherman's Wharf. He said that a few of the submarine veterans who used to visit the Pampanito told him that, really, if it were up to them, they'd have the submarine towed out to sea and sunk. When you were first making the film Das Boot, did you meet this kind of attitude? Did people ask you why you didn't just leave the whole topic of the war alone?

Petersen: Well, I must tell you, not really. The U.S. was the first territory outside of Germany that we came to with this movie. We thought we'd encounter some hostility, making a big movie about the former enemy, and that we'd be accused of identifying with the German Nazis.

We brought Das Boot to America in 1982, to premiere at the Filmex in L.A. [a since-defunct film festival]. You know how at the beginning of Das Boot, there's the title card about how, of the 40,000 submariners sent out, 30,000 died? There was applause when the audience read that. We cringed, bracing ourselves for a hostile crowds. In the end, it was the total opposite--a standing ovation. The audience really liked it. In the beginning, before people saw this film, there was obviously a lot of negative feeling, but after they'd seen it, it was quite different.

Metro: What was the reception like in Germany?

Petersen: Much more complicated and difficult. I should add that I'm not as in touch with German politics now, having spent the last nine years in L.A. But in 1981, we got a very aggressive and negative reception. A large part of the liberal left, where I belong myself, said in the newspaper reviews that Das Boot didn't really talk about our guilt, about how we were guilty and how we started the war.

It was a very typical German thing--a postwar situation. We had a lot of difficulty in Germany. In America, and later on everywhere else in the world, [we had] the positive reception. They understood this is a movie about the madness of war, and the delusion of young people. And they were young, the submarine crews, 17-23 years of age, and 90 percent of them were volunteers. They were lured out into war with all of this bullshit; they thought were like pop stars when they left for those U-boats.

Metro: Before you went to work on this movie, had you known anyone who had been in the U-boat service?

Petersen: We had two advisers from the WWII submarines. You understand that when the war was over I was 4. I needed desperately all kinds of advice. We wanted to really do this as real as we could--with the smell of reality, the blood, the sweat and the tears, the claustrophobia--so we wanted to make sure every bolt and every screw in the boat was real. Our designers were obsessed with reality. I cannot imagine that almost 50 people spent months in one of these cigars without killing each other. That was our task and the challenge--me and my cinematographer, Jüst Vacano--we'd either kill each other or make a great movie.

Metro: Can you talk about the camera work? One of the ways you keep the film from being unbearably claustrophobic is by long tracking shots of the crew running from one end of the ship to the other whenever the alarm is sounded. Not to mention the scenes of the captain on the tower of the sub, enjoying the wind and the spray, which give the film a necessary sense of thrust and motion.

Petersen: Steadicam existed in 1981, but the cameras were too cumbersome for this small space. We never could have gotten it through the hatches. Vacano had an Arriflex, and he added gyroscope to it to make the camera more stable. He was covered with padding like an ice-hockey player, which was good because he was always running into things. Sometimes it took 16 takes to get the right shot.

Metro: Can you describe what's been added to the re-release?

Petersen: Roughly one hour of footage. The opening is new, with the captain meeting the drunken soldiers over the boat. We added a lot more about the characters, to give a sense of time passing. At the same time, we didn't add a lot that's new. We kept the base of the film, but we added a lot of big action scenes.

Metro: How did your technicians get the sound of the water pressure on the bulkheads?

Petersen: It's embarrassing, but I don't know. With these sound guys, you never really know they're doing. Often they don't want to tell you; sometimes they came up with these noises in their bathroom. Das Boot sounds incredible with the new digital soundtrack. Sometimes audience complains that water is leaking through the walls of the theater.

Metro: Actually, they ought to get ushers to splash water on the audience.

Petersen: People almost jump up the ceiling now when the bolts blow.

Metro: What did Das Boot's author, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, think of the movie?

Petersen: He hated it. I think it was because he always wanted to do it himself. He had no feeling for the filmmaking process, and he felt that nobody but himself could make the film, since this was based on his diary. Of course, he thought we got it all wrong. He's seen the full-length version, and he's written that he likes it now. The years since must have been a learning process for him.

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