Das Boot: The Cutting Room Floor
Wolfgang Petersen’s epic submarine drama, Das Boot, is a film that joins Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it comes to the diversity of its canonical formats. With recognized edits ranging from two and half to five hours, Das Boot’s various embodiments might as well be different films, or rather distinct categorical variants on the same wonderful story. Some prefer the sleek blockbuster approach of the theatrical cut, which streamlines the external submarine conflict into a series of nail-biting climaxes, while others, including myself, prefer the claustrophobic character study of the miniseries cut. Until now, the five hour miniseries cut was the only version of Das Boot I had seen, so when I popped in my new Blu-ray of the film’s director’s cut (a breezy three and a half hour edition), I was confronted with a void left by the edits, one that is apparent from the film’s first moments.
Das Boot opens with a party, a sloppy bedlam of horny, drunken soldiers celebrating their last night before leave. It’s an integral establishing scene in which many of the film’s main characters are introduced, including the cynical Captain and his Chief Engineer, war correspondent Werner, the prudish 1st Watch Officer and the ribald 2nd Watch Officer, and Thomsen, one of the “old guard” U-boat commanders newly decorated and legless with liquor.
Roughly six minutes have been eschewed from the director’s cut, and with them a nuance and pacing that mark the miniseries as the definitive edit and elevate an excellent war drama to a flawless work of art. The miniseries cut lingers. It lingers on the sexy, middle-aged cabaret singer, flirting with the soldiers, many of them virgins, reminding the audience that these clean-shaven young men are barely ready for sex, let alone war. The singer is their mother, and their girlfriends, everything they will leave behind. Werner’s flirtation with the singer is interrupted by the 2nd Watch Officer, who asks if Werner has planned his last will and testament, and reminds him of the high mortality rate for U-boat crews.
Also missing from the director’s cut, and the party, is Fähnrich, who is shown in the midst of a romantic interlude with his pregnant French girlfriend. These early scenes not only give the frenetic escalation of the party much needed contemplative beats, but add texture and depth to Fähnrich, who, in the film’s shorter edit, is reduced to a stereotype “got one waiting back home for me” character, given barely enough screen time to flash the girl’s photograph around.
The most devastating cut, however, is one of the smallest. Thomsen, piss drunk at the bar with the Captain, hears a telephone ring and screams “alarm!” This sad, Pavlovian response adds several important components to the opening sequence, and the film as a whole. First, it exposes the merriment of the party as an unstable illusion, one that could slip at any minute, revealing the fear and desperation in every soldier’s face. It’s an alarm to the young soldiers, who cannot possibly see themselves in Thomsen’s disheveled demeanor yet (but will), and it’s an alarm to the audience, indicating that the wars fought in this film will be largely psychological ones. When the first legitimate alarm sounds in the U-boat, the moment is given more weight by its foreshadowing. U-boat alarms, and the unbearable tension of their continuous repetition, destroyed Thomsen as a human being. The outburst at the party is the commander’s lowest point, even lower than his post-vomit declaration that he’s in “no condition to fuck” (again, women, and virility, at the forefront of every soldier’s mind), and serves as a magnificent juxtaposition to his reintroduction mid-way through the film, in action, sharp, articulate, and in control of a situation the likes of which have come to shape his entire life. At the helm of a U-boat, Thomsen is a god. On land, he is a self-destructive waste, waiting to die.
This single moment, a drunken wreck of a man, screaming “alarm”, impressed me so much, it came to define the entire opening of the film, and when I saw this moment was missing from the director’s cut, my heart sank a little. The director’s cut, with its jarring editing and obtrusive score, wasn’t the film I remembered. It wasn’t the film I revered. Yes, in many ways, even the director’s cut is a masterpiece, the movie is that tenacious, and the ending is still one of the most powerful climaxes in cinema history, but it’s the getting there that matters. The long periods of silence, of intimate moments, where a shave becomes a thought provoking event in a soldier’s day, these are the details that enrich Das Boot as a film, and the details that engage me, and exalt me, as a film lover.