Wolfgang Petersen, who led his acclaimed German-language film Das Boot into a career directing Hollywood blockbusters like In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm and Troy, has died. He was 81.
The news was confirmed by his production company.
Das Boot (1981) was the harrowing story of life aboard a German U-boat during World War II; The genius of the film was that Petersen managed the unlikely feat of giving the audience a sense of the common men who served on the submarine, all of whom served the Nazi cause, at least nominally – even the captain, played by Jürgen Prochnow, who himself negotiated the role in the film, led to a career as a character actor in Hollywood.
Offering both suspense and tragedy, Das Boot was nominated for six Oscars—an enormous number for a foreign film—including two for Petersen, for direction and adapted screenplay. Das Boot is ranked number 71 on IMDb’s list of the 250 highest rated films. A 293-minute director’s cut, it was shown as a 1985 TV mini-series in Germany and on DVD in the US and elsewhere.
Petersen’s first film in Hollywood was the 1984 fantasy adventure The NeverEnding Story, which he directed and co-wrote. The story revolved around a boy in our reality and the kingdom of Fantasia that exists in a storybook. Roger Ebert wrote: “The only thing that stands between Fantasia and Nothingness is the belief of a little boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver). He discovers the kingdom in a magical bookshop, and as he begins to read the adventure between the covers, it becomes so real that the characters in the Bastian story know. The idea of a story within a story is one of the nice touches in The NeverEnding Story. Another is the idea that a child’s faith can change the course of fate.”
Variety called it “a beautifully realized flight of pure imagination,” and the film has been loved by moviegoers and home video viewers since its release.
As successful as Petersen was at appealing to children, he quickly transitioned to films aimed at adults. His next attempt was “Enemy Mine,” about an astronaut (Dennis Quaid) who crashes on an alien planet and allies himself with a lizard-like alien (Louis Gossett Jr.) of the species he fought to survive the harsh environment . This film was neither well received by the critics nor made any money, and in fact Petersen did not make another film for six years.
In 1991 he returned with the mystery thriller Shattered, starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins and Greta Scacchi. The film, which centers around Berenger’s wealthy Dan Merrick, who suffers from amnesia after an increasingly suspicious-looking accident, offered plenty of twists and turns, but most critics found the script weak. Like Enemy Mine, the film made little money.
Petersen made an extraordinary creative leap in the critically acclaimed Clint Eastwood film In the Line of Fire (1993). The suspenseful, well-written film starred Eastwood as a Secret Service agent scarred by the experience of failing to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy three decades earlier; John Malkovich played an effective villain to kill the current President.
Using technology that was new and highly innovative at the time, the effects team digitally merged images of Eastwood from 1960s films into JFK footage – but that was just the icing on the cake of a well-directed film. Variety said, “Director Wolfgang Petersen efficiently sends the story down its straight and narrow path, deftly staging the battle of wills between two desperately committed men.”
“It’s my biggest experience since Das Boot,” Petersen told Variety ahead of the film’s release. “Working with Clint was a great experience.”
In the Line of Fire was Petersen’s first film to gross $177 million worldwide in 1993. With both critical acclaim – the film has a 95 percent re-rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and impressive BO, it was Petersen finally arrived in Hollywood.
The time was right for a movie about a killer virus after two books on the subject hit bestseller lists, but when he made Outbreak in 1995, Petersen had to face the fact that a killer virus doesn’t have the visual appeal of a vampire or a great white shark. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman, the film introduced spitting ex-spouses, hints of a conspiracy and melodramatic clichés. It wasn’t critically acclaimed, but somehow the film grossed $190 million worldwide, so Warner Bros. had no cause for complaint.
In “Air Force One” (1997), it wasn’t Secret Service agents who were protecting the President, it was the President himself. Casting was key: Harrison Ford was still young enough to be able to stand in the midst of a physically taking control of the terrorist plot aboard the presidential plane while he was old enough to show the seriousness of a US president. Rolling Stone said: “’Air Force One’ does not offend the audience. It was made by a filmmaker who prides himself on the thrill and sophisticated fun that he packs into every frame.” The film skyrocketed at the box office, grossing $315 million worldwide.
Next was 2000’s “The Perfect Storm,” an adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s book about the confluence of meteorological events that triggered a massive storm off the northeast coast and the crew of a fishing vessel, played by George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, among others others stuck in the middle of the storm. Visual effects provided the monumental wave swamping the boat, but the film would have been exciting and suspenseful no matter what. Critics were unimpressed, but audiences loved the film worldwide for $329 million.
Petersen switched gears for his next project, Troy, which is based on Homer’s Iliad and packed with epic action – as well as movie stars like Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. Critics were mostly unimpressed; Variety said, “Despite a sensationally attractive cast and a number of well-directed battle scenes presented on a large scale, Wolfgang Petersen’s highly telescopic rendition of the Trojan War reels in fits and starts with OK effect for much of its violent running time.” The film had an interesting critical supporter in the form of New Yorker David Denby, who wrote: “Harsh, serious and both heady and tragic, the right tonal combination for Homer.”
But overall, Petersen helped push the critically acclaimed film — “Troy’s” worldwide gross was $497 million, most of it from overseas. Adjusted for inflation, Air Force One was the director’s highest-grossing film.
Petersen rode high, but his next film let him sink. Poseidon (2006), a leaden remake of The Poseidon Adventure, had a production budget of $160 million and grossed $182 million at the worldwide box office, which is a huge loss after advertising costs are factored in for Time Warner was Petersen’s last Hollywood film.
The director appeared to be retiring at this point, but a decade later he was making a film in Germany, Four Against the Bank, a remake of his own 1976 German TV film of the same name, based on his 1972 novel The Nixon Recession Caper” by Ralph Maloney. The original told the story of “four members of an exclusive country club who decide to rob a bank to solve their money problems.” The new film starred Til Schweiger in the lead role.
Petersen was born in Emden, Germany. From 1953 to 1960 he attended the Johanneum School of Education in Hamburg. In the 1960s he staged plays at Hamburg’s Ernst Deutsch Theater. After studying theater in Berlin and Hamburg, he attended the Berlin Film and Television Academy (1966-70).
The director started making TV movies in Germany, earned his first such fame in 1965, and continuously directed TV movies from 1971-1978. While working on the popular German television series Tatort (Tatort) he first met and worked with actor Jürgen Prochnow – who appeared in several of his films, including as a U-boat captain in Das Boot.
Petersen’s first feature film was the 1974 psychological thriller “One or the other of us” starring Prochnow. Next came the 1977 black and white film The Consequence, an adaptation of Alexander Ziegler’s autobiographical novel about homosexual love. At the time, the film was considered so radical that the Bavarian broadcaster refused to broadcast it when it was first broadcast on German television.
Petersen was married to German actress Ursula Sieg until their divorce in 1978.
He is survived by his second wife, Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a German screenwriter and assistant director, whom he married in 1978, and a son by Sieg, writer-director Daniel Petersen.