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An Enigmatic Sea Yarn

Report: Anti-Semitic acts down, despite acts of violence in 1999

by Naomi Pfefferman

April 20, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Jonathan Mostow knows exactly why he made "U-571," his World War II thriller about boys who went to war inside dripping, cramped submarines with stale air and hulls that creaked like tin sardine cans. "I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust," says the 38-year-old Jewish director, whose film follows submariners bent on swiping the Nazi's Enigma encryption device. "Everyone I knew seemed to have a deep personal connection to the war."

One uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge; another was a tailgunner shot down and killed during his 50th mission over North Africa; and Mostow's father, a Yale math professor, taught trigonometry to artillery officers who used the math to blitz Nazis. "Hitler no longer existed, but he was still a lingering horror," Mostow recalls, of his childhood. "It was impossible to grow up in my home and not be conscious of that."'

"U-571," inspired by a 1992 visit to an old sub anchored in San Francisco, was the script Mostow shlepped around for years as he struggled to make it in Hollywood. It was the screenplay the Harvard grad really wanted to direct as he executive produced "The Game" and finally earned his big break directing Kurt Russell in the 1997 thriller, "Breakdown" (which, he says, he decided to write one day when he was unemployed and sitting home, watching "Oprah" in his underwear).

Because Mostow wanted the movie to be authentic in its details of sub life," he toured the world visiting creaky old World War II battleships, pored over ship diaries, hired the production designer from "Das Boot" and picked the brains of experts such as a 93-year-old former German U-Boat captain. A key consultant was Lt. Commander David Balme, the British officer who led the boarding party that snatched the first Enigma off a Nazi sub in May 1941.

Balme had a thing or two to tell Mostow about the German submariners: "They were real Nazis," he said, leaning across the table for emphasis. Until recently, Balme suffered recurring nightmares about the moment, 60 years ago, that he "had to climb down the dark hatch into the bowels of a Nazi sub, not knowing what was waiting for him," Mostow says. His story was an inspiration for the "U-571" scene in which actor Matthew McConaughey shoots his way into a sub to steal the Enigma, which looks like a souped-up typewriter.

After shooting in gales and storms off the island of Malta, "U-571" proved so painstakingly authentic that even retired U.S. admirals were impressed. The movie gleaned a very different response from the British, whose newspapers ran indignant headlines pointing out that the heroes who stole the Enigma in 1941 were Brits, not Yanks. After the movie was attacked in the British Parliament, President Clinton even stepped in to mediate.

Mostow remains bewildered by all the fuss. "U-571" isn't "Saving Private Ryan," but rather an old sea yarn, he insists. "It's historical fiction," he says. "The key word is fiction."

"U-571" opens today in Los Angeles.


Jonathan Mostow

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