The Lightship

The Lightship (1985)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Robert Duvall, Tom Bower, William Forsythe,

When I went to college, Siegfried Lenz’s ’Das Feuerschiff (The Lightship)’ was required reading for all students and I remember how impressed I was with how different the story was from the typically boring and stuffy material we were required to read at the time – Julius Caesar’s ’Bellum Gallicum, ’ anyone?

’The Lightship’ is a character study in which people of opposing beliefs, backgrounds and interests collide in isolation on a ship. A group of bank robbers on their escape use the titular lightship to hide out, waiting for their pick-up, while the captain and crew of the ship try to deal with the situation, which gradually escalates.

This 1985 production by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is a very good adaptation of the original novel that translates all of the novel’s elements flawlessly. It maintains the somewhat slow and deliberate pace of the material making sure the focus is on the characters, their behavior and what they have to say. As such the casting is perfect, particularly with Klaus Maria Brandauer as the ship’s captain and Robert Duvall in the part of his nemesis Dr. Caspary. Brandauer’s and Duvall’s exchanges are poignant and speak volumes for their respective characters. Especially Duvall’s effeminate portrayal of the unscrupulous, manipulating and completely deluded half-intellectual criminal is one of the highlights of this film.

Paramount has created a good-looking transfer of the movie in its original widescreen aspect ratio that is enhanced for 16×9 TV sets. The image is clean and clear throughout and only occasionally some grain is evident. The level of detail is good and features good black levels, although shadows occasionally break up a bit, losing definition. Color reproduction is faithful and restores the muted, somewhat pastel look typical for productions of the era. Some slight edge-enhancement is visible throughout the film unfortunately but the compression is without flaws.

The DVD contains a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital track in English, as well as a Dolby Surround track. The quality is good, but both tracks sound a bit dated with a slightly limited frequency response that registers dialogues in particular a bit on the harsh side. Dialogues are well integrated and never drowned out.

Being one of Paramount’s low price DVDs the release does not contain any extras at all, but at a suggested retail price of $14.95 I think that’s hardly anything to clamor about.

’The Lightship’ is a film for all those who are looking for a dramatic thriller that focuses on characters instead of action. Robert Duvall’s performance truly is a revelation and makes you want to savor every moment of it. This is great literary cinema, so check it out.