Das Boot (1981) is a film about panicked men trying to differentiate themselves from each other before they die. Quick! Who's going to be the straitlaced guy, the joker, the miracle worker, the keening romantic? If I realize I want to be the hard-bitten man of the sea, do I have time to grab another musical chair? Is it even possible to work myself out of the position of shirtless guy in wet, filthy leather who has eyes like frozen shrimp? Does someone have extra blood? I've been drained of all of mine.
Of course most action movies are about different types of guy, but it feels pointed in Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen's story of companionable hell on a Nazi submarine. These characters aren't archetypes because the writers told them to be, but because they beg to be. They are so traumatized, so wiped and deranged with constant terror, that all they have to cling to is their roles on the ship. I'm not talking about their jobs so much as how they adjust the U-Boat's complex emotional pressure, which is as delicate as the pressure that lets it surface and dive. Some of them lighten the mood, some of them ballast it; some haze and some are hazed; some need support and others give it. With a combination of sensitivity and violence, they may yet manage to surface one more time, to open the collapsed lung of their ruined craft for one more deep breath.
The film's relationship to fascism is complicated and somewhat gestural. We're given to understand that most of the U-Boat's crew are anti-Nazi, and get away with it because they're competent, and more importantly because they are insane. This seems ahistorical, but I can appreciate Petersen wanting to make an antiwar film about people who have never believed in their own nationalist cause – a film that takes Tim O'Brien so much at his word that the "allegiance to obscenity and evil" becomes literal. Petersen brings it home by stressing that the men are sailors: they identify foremost as citizens of the sea, and they are aghast at having to betray other citizens for blood money and for their own survival.
But they've come to the far edge of the sea now. It's the place where the skin of their identity splits open, where sailing becomes almost unrecognizable. I say "almost" because that's much worse than becoming fully unrecognizable. To be unrecognizable is to become something new. To be nearly unrecognizable is to become parody. It is to be reduced to the faintest self-signal. It is to work on a ship that's designed to sink, which can die with living men in its belly, which can then be grotesquely reanimated and brought back to a crazy, stop-motion life.
It is also to party hard. No one's ever partied like these men party. They party themselves into hysterics, both on land and by sea. They party until their bodies are distilled into a slithering reduction of bodily fluids: piss, sweat, vomit. Speech still functions, sort of, after you've partied like that. They say words and the words make sense, but the words also don't relate very much to reality. They're supposedly hazing each other, teasing each other, goofing off, but you can tell the words are gravestones of meaning at this point. The partying tortures their bodies into fantastic shapes, into caricatures. Watching it makes me feel like I'm going insane.
I've spoken a lot about "craziness" and "insanity" here. As a person with mental illness, I think a lot about portayals of it in film. This focus isn't so much about a demand for realism or respect, although both are rare and welcome. It's just an interest in how people look at "madness," in what they imagine a state outside of normal perception to be. Das Boot (in addition to being realistic and respectful) imagines madness like Melville did, as the crew of the whaleship Essex experienced it: a steady shellacking of pants-shitting fear. You come out it with profound PTSD, yes, but you also come out of it "nearly unrecognizable" – what Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff would call "burned beyond recognition."
As I said earlier, these guys are jostling for positions in the danse macabre. When I talk about their struggle to settle who's going to be who, I mean who's going to be the queen or the priest or the farmer in the medieval woodcut of Death's dance. There are exceptions, of course, in the form of the captain and the chief engineer. These two characters keep themselves. They aren't amorphous; they barely party at all, and at the end of the film, they waltz off in Death's arms (or, really, each other's) with roles intact. But everybody has to dance – everybody has to drink.
In this, the glitchy end of the sea, the horror and the consolation of the journey come from each other's bodies. The submarine condenses its occupants into a single, dense, strong-smelling body, and the fact that the men ultimately die on shore is more of a cruelty than otherwise: breathing open air means they have to die alone.
Usually when I write an essay about a film, I'm recommending the film. I do not recommend watching Das Boot, unless you enjoy inducing alternative states of mind via Fucked-Up media, which I do. Go for a walk afterwards, though, and drink plenty of water. You'll thank yourself for it in the morning, when you wake up alone, yourself, and alive.