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Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version

Among the most renowned of all World War II films, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (1981) is notable not only for its dramatic power and terror-inducing claustrophobia, but also for the sheer amount of technical skill that was required to accurately re-create the saga of U-96, a German U-Boat sent on a 60-day patrol that is not as much a convoy-hunt as a journey into a dimly lit, iron-hulled hell. No actual Type VII-C submarines remained in seaworthy condition, forcing the filmmakers to send the blueprints to the original manufacturer to create two full-sized versions — one for a soundstage, the other a stripped down shell for ocean-going in calm waters. For more elaborate sequences, three additional scale models of U-96 were created to capture its grace over high, pitching seas. The actors themselves were forced to work entirely within the confines of the soundstage replica (although the noisy set required most of the dialogue to be looped), and cinematographer Jost Vacano developed his own camera system to navigate the vessel's tight quarters. And in order to ensure even more accuracy, the cast was not allowed to see any sunlight during the shoot — those memorably wan, sweaty faces aren't just makeup. The story centers around Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow), at 30 one of the oldest submarine captains in the German Navy, which has taken a beating in the North Atlantic thanks to the increased efficiency of Britain's sub-hunting destroyers. It's October, 1941, and for his latest patrol into Atlantic waters, Lehmann-Willenbrock is accompanied by military correspondent Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), who has never been on board a U-boat (and thus serves as a narrative device of sorts for viewers). Also among the crew are the young, officious first lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch), the cynical second officer (Martin Semmelrogge), and the grim-faced quartermaster (Bernd Tauber). The patrol begins in routine fashion, with the captain shaking down the boat to test its diving limitations, but before long it becomes apparent that U-96 is nowhere near any Britain-bound convoys — which Lehmann-Willenbrock suspects is due to the Nazi war machine's incompetence. However, after weathering a severe storm that lasts more than a week, and a nearly fatal encounter with a British destroyer, the men of U-96 finally find a seemingly unprotected fleet of freighters. Barely escaping the successful attack with their lives, they expect a quick return to their home port of La Rochelle. However, an unexpected diversion to Spain reveals a further mission — they are to penetrate the Strait of Gibraltar, held by the British, and reach the open waters of the Mediterranean in order to reinforce Nazi Germany's African campaign.

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Originally conceived as a six-hour miniseries for German television, Das Boot earned an international theatrical release in 1981, where the severely edited film won broad acclaim, despite concerns that it would be unduly criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of German submariners who join a wolfpack hunt for Allied lend-lease convoys. Clocking at 2:29, it garnered six Oscar nominations, but director Petersen always held more affection for the longer version. More than a decade later, thanks to a growing home-video market and the advent of Dolby Digital audio, he returned to the miniseries and constructed his "Director's Cut" of Das Boot, which ran 3:36, and which he insisted was the absolute best version of the film — a perfect compromise between the time requirements of a six-episode TV miniseries and a theatrical film. Thus, it should be noted that Das Boot: The Complete Uncut Version is a DVD for completists only. Spread across two discs, it comes in at 4:53, or approximately six 49-minute episodes (although there is no indication in this seamless version just where the episodes would begin and end for television). For Boot fans, there is much more here — an extended version of the raucous music-hall sequence that opens the film, a brief subplot involving a devoted love between a young German sailor and a French girl, and much more on-board detail, primarily of shorter, quieter scenes that flesh out the characters and portray the sheer boredom of life on a submarine that's far from combat. It's hard to fault such a masterpiece, and had there never been a Director's Cut, this version would come across as a real revelation compared to the 1981 film, which ran half as long (and has never been released on DVD). But with the Director's Cut, we do have an authoritative version of Das Boot that includes a great deal of what's to be found in the original miniseries, and which is a swifter, more carefully edited experience. The original Director's Cut DVD also includes an informative commentary by director Petersen, star Prochnow, and producer Ortwin Freyermuth — there is no commentary on this longer version, which means folks who choose to pick this up will be adding a bookend to their collection, rather than an upgrade. And for those who can't get enough of this modern wartime classic, it's worth it. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Das Boot: The Complete Uncut Version offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with either Dolby Digital or Dolby 2.0 stereo audio in the original German or an English dub (which, it should be noted, is one of the better dubbed films in existence — all of the principal actors re-recorded their dialogue in English, and spoken German resembles English more than most languages). The print is colorful and pleasant throughout, although at times there is minimal collateral damage. Supplements, all on Disc Two, include the original featurette for Das Boot: The Director's Cut (6 min.) and a Wolfgang Petersen trailer gallery. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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