I was going to jump right into the episode of Doctor Who I'm teaching tomorrow, but due to a non-Whovian coup, I'm going to prove my point differently first. To that end, I asked my however many Facebook friends I have the following:
Please name the five most claustrophobic films and/or episodes of a television show you've ever seen. If your nominee is chosen, I'll honor you by naming you by name in the post I'm going to write this afternoon. (Not much of an honor, but hey, it's better than nothing.)
Patrick Slaven, Kyler Kuehn, Carrie Shanafelt and Gary Farber all recommended Das Boot, and since I own a copy of said film, Das Boot it is. Short plot summary: back when Wolfgang Petersen had talent, he directed a film about a German U-boat and its discontents, and because the majority of the film took place on the boat, it had plenty of shots that approximate the "coffin shots" I discussed yesterday. (Being stuck in a metal tube leagues and leagues below the sea is roughly equivalent to being buried alive.) But unlike the frames discussed yesterday—in particular, the awkward image of Reynolds in his coffin—Petersen relies on standard scaled shots to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for his audience. So long as the audience grants him the conceit that the men in his film live precariously in a long metal cylinder, he need not 1) employ conventional "coffin shots" nor 2) improve upon convention or go whole hog (as Rodrigo Cortés did in Buried).
Petersen's audience knows that these men are confined behind a brittle shell of metal and will miles below the sea, so the enclosed atmosphere of the film is implicit. But that's not enough. As I mentioned yesterday, audiences key in to conventions in ways that subvert their effectiveness. A director can put a person in a closed coffin, but because so many have done so previously, the effect is merely communicative. The simple fact of being entrapped comes across, but the sympathetic feeling of entrapment doesn't. Das Boot is different. It lacks any of the obviously constricted shots and opts instead for a directorial ethos of tight framing (much as I discussed in my counterfactual Bones yesterday):
That'd be a typical dinner shot. It lacks the ostentation of Reynolds in a coffin, but by framing this medium close-up as he did, Petersen's use of shallow focus indicates that there's little more to the room than what's seen here. Typically, shallow focus emphasizes a face (or faces) and blurs the unimportant background into a hazy nothing; here, however, the shallow focus reveals that the walls behind these folks abut them so closely that they can't be excluded from the shot. There's simply no way for them to be in focus and the walls around them not, which an audience will realize (even if it doesn't consciously understand) means that these men are very close to their walls. (Or vice versa.) It's not a "coffin shot," merely a medium close-up with a depth of field that reveals, in its entirety, how little there is to see. Stack a few hundred similar shots together and the claustrophobic intent of every director who's ever buried an actor for effect can actually be realized. Just to prove my point, here are some other shots from the film:
That shot of the living quarters need not be perfectly centered in such a way as to create a frame whose composition is so damn mathematical as to be oppressive, but Petersen's got an agenda. Also:
There are many ways to depict a man amongst his crew, but framing his head as Petersen has (in a close-up) and situating it in the composition against many other similarly framed heads limits the scope of the frame to this head and these other ones. The face, again, is in shallow focus and yet because every other head's within the depth of field the constricted effect is only heightened. Imagine watching a film composed thus for 209 minutes (if you spring for the director's cut): the knowledge of the predicament of the crew is augmented, visually and viscerally, by the manner in which Petersen frames them.
All of which is only to say that a claustrophobic effect isn't bound to a claustrophobic situation. Certainly, both coffins and U-boats lend themselves to a claustrophobic treatment, but the reason Das Boot succeeds where yesterday's episodes and films failed has nothing to do with the narrative situation. It's all about the mechanics of how such a situation is filmed.
Tomorrow, I promise, I'll address this within the dictates of my class and discuss Andrew Gunn's direction of "The Victory of the Daleks."