Producers: Kobe Van Steenberghe and Hendrik Verthé Director: Sven Huybrechts Screenplay: Johan Horemans and Sven Huybrechts Cast: Koen De Bouw. Thure Riefenstein, Ella-June Henrard, Joren Seldeslachts, Seven De Ridder, Stefan Perceval, Bret Haelvoet, Rudy Mukendi, Gilles De Schryver, Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Vic De Wachter, Martin Semmelrogge, Steve Geerts and Ludwig Hendrickx Distributor: Epic Pictures
The claustrophobia that’s an inevitable element in submarine movies might not be what a viewer in lockdown is looking for, but Sven Huybrechts’ World War II movie is such a hodgepodge of action and melodrama that you probably won’t mind the two-hour confinement.
Actually a good deal of “Torpedo U-235” takes place above the waves. In a lengthy prologue, a bunch of rowdy Belgian resistance fighters led by a gruff fellow named Stan (Koen De Bouw) massacre a contingent of German occupiers in an almost comically outlandish ambush, while a conference of bigwigs decide to recruit them for a dangerous mission.
The story then shifts from Europe to Africa, where the “Dirty Dozen”-esque squad is transported to man a captured German U-boat. Their assignment is to use the boat to deliver a cargo of uranium to the United States for use in building the atomic bomb.
Of course, the U-235 is a complicated piece of machinery, so a captured German U-boat captain, Franz Jäger (Thure Riefenstein), is brought in to train them to operate it. The plan is that after he completes the training he’ll be left ashore and the sub will head westward under the direction of one of their own, Captain Maes (Vic de Wachter).
Unfortunately they’re spotted in the harbor by Nazi forces and fired upon; in the melee Maes is killed, and the sub must depart before Franz can disembark. A big local man called Jenga (Rudy Mukendi) is also trapped aboard. Both become members of the crew, like it or not.
Stan is now the unquestioned leader, but he’s a hot-headed fellow, and he loathes Germans—a perfectly understandable attitude since, as we see in flashback, his wife and young son were killed by a brutal Nazi officer. That automatically makes Franz Jäger his enemy, and yet only the German can run the boat efficiently. Stan’s situation is made all the more difficult by the fact that his daughter Nadine (Ella-June Henrard), one of his fighters, has fallen in love with another of them, Filip (Joren Seldeslachts)—a relationship that infuriates her father, though Nadine’s reaction when an impromptu wedding ceremony is interrupted is almost as fierce.
The journey toward America is filled with incident. The sub has to deal with attacking German planes, another U-boat tracking it, and a destroyer whose captain insists on sending a couple of his men onto the sub to help with a supposed maintenance problem. Their visit just happens to occur after an accident that’s led to the emergency amputation of a crewman’s legs—and if he should awaken while they’re onboard, the outcome could be disastrous. (Luckily, one crew member’s expertise as a sharpshooter proves decisive.)
Later, a member of the crew will be trapped in a watertight compartment that’s flooding, and only a self-sacrificial swim by another affords any chance of rescue. It’s inevitable that this fraught sequence will end in an attempt at CPR that goes on forever and seems doomed to fail.
Overshadowing all these crises is the continuing question of how the hostility Stan feels toward Franz will end. Will the German seize on any opportunity to betray the crew, or is he one of those good Germans who secretly oppose Nazi rule?
All of this is no less blarney that “Inglourious Basterds,” of course, though it plays more like an underwater riff on pictures like “The Guns of Navarone.” Yet for the most part it works on the level of a juvenile action-adventure studded with melodramatic turns and comic touches. From a historical perspective it’s nonsense, but it’s effective as what might be called a cinematic version of a graphic novel.
Huybrechts doesn’t ask for any subtlety from his cast—Riefenstein’s studied underplaying contrasts with the overtly over-the-top style of the others (De Bouw most notably), but it’s equally obvious—yet you’re willing to accept the gung-ho, ultra-macho posturing for the comic-book heroism it is.
The same is true of the movie’s technical side. Though there are moments when the model work and visual effects are almost admittedly unconvincing, you’re likely to find the result more amusingly unrealistic than irritating. Otherwise the technical side of the picture—the production design by Harry Ammerlaan, the cinematography by Danny Elsen, Robrecht Heyvaert and Kobe Van Steenberghe, and the editing by Hannes Timmermans—is adequate though hardly outstanding. (Couch-potato experts will undoubtedly have a field day pointing out errors in costuming and U-boat technology, but that sort of nitpicking won’t be indulged in here.) Hannies De Maeyer contributes a score that hits the right beats, with an emphasis on grandiose fanfares and suspenseful throbbing.
If you’re willing to put your brain on hold for a couple of hours and swallow the kinds of cinematic wartime clichés we seemed to have largely left behind in the sixties, you can enjoy a piece of hokum like “Torpedo U-235.”