12 August 2010

A Tale of Seafaring Predators -- Jaws and Das Boot

Great white sharks and German U Boats during World War II. One is a menacing and deadly killer and the other is a menacing and deadly killer. What's your choice Hobson?

They are also both subjects of two fantastic films.

Jaws (1975) and the German made Das Boot (1981) are each as technically perfect as any movies ever made. Sound effects, cinematography, editing, score, all aspects of each film are flawless. I can only imagine that any detractors of either film are simply not enamored of their genres. For the rest of us its simply a matter of whether we like, really like, love or worship the films.

Jaws is best known for scaring the pants of people and dissuading some from swimming in the ocean (truth be told I was even leery of the nearby creek after seeing Jaws for the first time). "Scary" movies have gotten, and richly deserved, a bad rap in recent years because in most cases that's all that they're about. Moreover many of them tend more towards the gross and horrific, failing altogether to generate tension and often foregoing any attempt at creating a reality. Not Jaws.

The tension is palpable and full marks to the director the then youngster Steven Speilberg. In cinematic terms the great thing about a shark is that you can never be sure when its going to strike and it often does so seemingly from nowhere. They are fast critters that sometimes strike from below. Other times they let you know when you're about as their tell tale fins skim right along the surface. Spielberg took advantage of the stealth nature of the great white shark and waited until half way into the film before showing us the massive size of the beast, especially it's mouth and razor sharp teeth.

Hitchcock knew better than any film director that what you don't see is often the scariest. Spielberg introduced the concept to the briny. Having the camera occasionally watch scenes from the shark's perspective turned out to be a masterstroke.

Jaws benefitted from a strong cast. Everyone is familiar with Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw and their inestimable contributions to the success of the movie. But I'd like to give a tip of the cap to Murray Hamilton as the town mayor. He played the everything's-going-to-be-all-right-let's-keep-the-beaches-open bonhomie as long as he could. When the consequences cost another life his reaction was priceless. Just as he did in The Graduate (1967), Hamilton made the very most of a small role.

Das Boot is a seemingly different film entirely set as it is aboard a German U-Boat during WWII. But it not only shares the same sort of technical perfection, it also is masterful at creating tension. The men aboard the sub are in the fascinating twin roles of being both the hunter and the hunted. Stealth and deadly from below, like the shark, they prey upon ships. They often striking quite suddenly and usually with devastating results for their quarry. But like our razor toothed friend in Jaws they can find themselves suddenly being chased and a successful attack on a submarine almost never means any survivors. unlike the shark, the men aboard the U-boat are quite aware of the dangers they face and spend many of their hours living in fear. It's no wonder that when we first meet the crew they are taking full advantage of shore leave and partying like there's no tomorrow -- for them there's every chance there won't be.

I've watched Das Boot (one of my favorite films of all time) many times and am increasingly struck by just how little "action" there is. Of course I'm referring to action in the sense of bombs exploding, shots being fired, and full bore chases. But this is quite appropriate, after all much of a soldier or sailor's war time experience is spent fighting, not the enemy, but boredom. Fortunately in Das Boot none of it is boring for audiences.

Even when not in battle ,life is interesting aboard a submarine, at least in the hands of a good director. Wolfgang Peterson "captained" this movie and its surprising how he has never done anything to compare. He captured the claustrophobic nature of submarine life and the fascinating stew that can emerge when dozens of humans are packed together in one. People who are alternately hungry for the enemy and desperately scared of him.

The crew of the sub form one of the better ensemble casts you'll ever see. Particularly in the person of the sub's captain played by Jurgen Prochnow. He is every bit the grizzled veteran and the firm but fair leader. He's not given to strong emotions and is frustrated by higher ups while devoted to his men.

Das Boot's best moments are when the sub is being stalked. The ping, ping, ping of the sonar is one of the most effective bits of sound effects in film. We feel the agony of the men as they wait for the possibility of death from above with depth charges exploding all around them. And oh by the way, these are Nazis we are fretting for. It's easily forgotten. Early in the film we meet an officer who is a staunch Nazi ideologue, one who is scoffed at for his rigidity, but for the most part we think of the sailors as just men and because we are following their story we may not exactly root for them but we certainly wish them no harm. All this is drummed home to us when the sub surfaces after sinking a ship and they watch in horror the fruits of their labors, English sailors jumping from their burning ship piteously crying for help. One of the U-boat officers weeps. Its an incredibly touching moment that reminds us a lot about the madness of war. So too does the ending of the film which gives us a textbook definition of ironic.

I recently watched Jaws and Das Boot on consecutive days so drawing the similarities I did was all the easier. The main thing they have in common is they do what we hope and expect from great art: they capture our imaginations.

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