W. Germany refights WWII -- over a war film

West Germany is fighting World War II all over again -- in a controversial 25 million mark ($10 million) film about a submarine that is the most expensive movie ever made in this country.

The film is "The Boat." The undisputed star is the mockup of the sub that throbs its dominance for the entire 2 1/2 hours.

The director is Wolfgang Petersen, a 40-year-old fascinated by the palpable feeling of war, which he has never personally experienced but which pervades the bestselling novel "The Boat." The director's harshest critic is the author of the book, the generation-older ex-war correspondent Lothar-Gunther Buchheim.

The author's blast at what he considers a travesty of his book hit the newsstands (and, ironically, ensured publicity for the movie) at the same time that "The Boat" hit the screen last month. And all the cinema critics have been weighing it.

One appreciates the film as the first postwar German movie to present German World War II combatants as victims rather than ogres. Another pans it as never even approaching the basic haunting question of what drew so many young men to volunteer for almost certain death in the depths of the sea.

For Buchheim, author and 1941 U-boat photographer, there is "hysteria" in the film's battle scenes rather than a more realistic "discipline." (He supports his point by displaying his own photo of an utterly calm U-96 captain during a torpedo attack.) There is constant frenetic activity without the crushing boredom of nine-tenths of war.

There are jarring inaccuracies by armchair warriors, ranging from heil-Hitler salutes by officers in 1941 (the Wehrmacht was not forced to this particular homage until 1944) to an insanely dangerous wave of defiance by the photographer in the conning tower just before he is hit (harmlessly) by a several-ton wave.

Most of all, Buchheim says, the drama is external and false, there is no inner tension in the commander between the rigid code of conduct required on a claustrophobic submarine and the urge to break out of this "corset" and display some human traits. There is no sense of the crew's absolutely essential "suppression of fear, the self-control, the absence of panic."

Neither Buchheim nor any other critic doubts the meticulous authenticity that went into reproducing a submarine for outside shots. Nobody questions the agility of the frog-suited cameramen who plunged into Starnberg Lake near Munich to film the mock battles.

Everybody outside the film, though, has his own bone to pick with the final impact of all these special effects, it seems.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung faults director Petersen for not jettisoning verisimilitude altogether and boldly designing his own 1980s reconstruction of the period.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung chides him for never developing real sympathy for any of the characters as persons rather than symbols.

And Buchheim -- well, Buchheim says it best himself. "If the Americans had made the film, my situation, although agonizing, would have been simpler," he rails in the weekly Die Zeit.

"It would have been very simple to give the film a drubbing, precisely as American, as a product of the taste of American producers, staged just like a strip of full-action scenes, with side glances at the cash registers."

The film is German, however, and can't be dismissed so easily.

And yet even Buchheim defends the movie against detractors who would read into it glorification of the actions of World War II submarines. "It describes only their dangers -- their achievements of each individual submarine sailor, whether seaman or officer, are beyond question. If it's a question of heroism, then each and every submarine crew . . . is an example of it."

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