Wolfgang Petersen achieved something near miraculous in the early 1980s when he made a film about Germans fighting in World War II and British and American audiences sympathized with them. Some viewers even shed tears when they were killed.
Almost all of the action in his 1981 masterpiece Das Boot takes place in the cramped confines of a U-boat submarine. It brilliantly conveys the atmosphere, the claustrophobia, the camaraderie, the boredom and the terror of waging war with an ocean above you. Petersen feared the worst at the first test screening in Los Angeles when the film opened with the statistic that of 40,000 men who served on German U-boats, 30,000 never returned – and the audience was actually applauded. But in the end, they were up for a standing ovation.
“The audience was overwhelmed by the message,” Petersen said. “OK, I know those guys were on the other side, but if you go all the way, what war is, is kids on all sides getting killed.”
Das Boot became the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever made in the United States, was nominated for six Oscars, and frequently appears in lists of the best war films. The Simpsons paid a sort of tribute with an episode called Das Bus.
The film exists in several different versions, including a 208-minute director’s cut and a BBC mini-series with six 50-minute installments.
About the only person who didn’t like it was Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, whose source novel was based on his own wartime experiences as a war correspondent on a submarine. Buchheim wrote a screenplay based on his book, but Petersen chose to write his own screenplay. And while Buchheim praised the technical precision of Petersen’s film, he criticized the acting and accused Petersen of sacrificing Buchheim’s supposed anti-war message and making a “shallow American action movie.”
Certainly Americans loved it, both the public and the studios who appealed to Petersen with offers to make more action films. He went on to achieve several big-budget Hollywood hits, including In the Line of Fire, Air Force One and Troy.
Petersen was born in Emden, Germany during World War II and his father was a naval officer. But, like many Germans of his generation, his father never talked about the war, and Petersen grew up on a diet of Hollywood Westerns, with well-defined heroes and villains.
He decided to become a filmmaker at an early age and his first films were westerns which he made with school friends after his father gave him an 8mm camera for Christmas. He went to film school in Berlin and started working in television in the early 1970s, where he was content to tackle controversial dramas. In Die Consesquenz (The Consequence), a prisoner develops a romantic relationship with a guard’s son and tries to build a life with him when he is released. In Reifezeugnis (certificate of maturity), a schoolgirl has a relationship with a teacher. It was one of Nastassja Kinski’s first roles.
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Petersen made his film debut in 1974 with the thriller Einer von uns beiden (One or the Other of Us). Das Boot was only his second feature film, although with a budget of nearly $20 million it was one of the most expensive German films of all time.
Petersen was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and Best Director. His next film, another adaptation of a German novel, couldn’t have been more different. The NeverEnding Story was a fantasy in which the main protagonist is a ten-year-old boy who discovers a magic book. It was aimed at young audiences and was reputed at the time to be the most expensive film to be produced outside of the United States. Again, the author of the source novel, Michael Ende, criticized what was done to his work. And again, it was an international success. Although the film was shot primarily in Munich, it was made in English.
He took over directing the sci-fi film Enemy Mine after the original director fell out with producers. Shooting for the film had already begun, but Petersen moved production from Budapest to Munich and redid the first scenes.
Petersen then moved to the United States for In the Line of Fire, a political thriller starring Clint Eastwood as a veteran Secret Service agent protecting the President. Outbreak was a drama starring Dustin Hoffman and a new virus as the (arguably) main villain. Air Force One was another political action thriller, with Harrison Ford as the action chairman. All were hits, with renewed interest in Outbreak over the past two years.
Detractors have wondered if Petersen could come unstuck with The Perfect Storm, a true story about New England fishermen who set out to sea despite bad weather warnings. But the film starring George Clooney continued Petersen’s run of success.
He drew inspiration from ancient history for his upcoming blockbuster, Troy, about the Trojan War. Brad Pitt played Achilles, but Petersen preferred the Brits for many roles, with Brian Cox as Agamemnon and Sean Bean as Ulysses.
Petersen returned to the sea in 2006 with Poseidon, his remake of the 1972 film The Adventure of Poseidon, but he struggled to recoup a huge budget. Petersen only made one more film, ten years after Poseidon, the heist film Vier Gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), made in Germany. It was his first German-language film since Das Boot, but it hardly caused any ripples in international waters.
He married Ursula Sieg, a German actress, in 1970 and divorced eight years later. He then married Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a screenwriter. He is survived by his second wife and a son from his first marriage.
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