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Wolfgang Petersen, director of ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Das Boot,' dies at 81

Some of the prolific German filmmaker's other hits include "The NeverEnding Story," "In the Line of Fire," "Outbreak," and "The Perfect Storm."
Image: Director Wolfgang Petersen in Los Angeles on April 29, 2006.
Director Wolfgang Petersen in Los Angeles on April 29, 2006. Piyal Hosain / Getty Images
/ Source: Variety

Wolfgang Petersen, who rode his acclaimed German-language film “Das Boot” into a career directing Hollywood blockbusters such as “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 accomplished the unlikely feat of making audiences feel for the ordinary men serving on the submarine, who were all at least nominally in service to the Nazi cause — even the captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow, who himself parlayed the role in the film into a career as a character actor in Hollywood.

Offering suspense and tragedy, “Das Boot” was nominated for six Oscars — an enormous number for a foreign film — including two for Petersen, for director and adapted screenplay. On the IMDb’s list of 250 top-rated films, “Das Boot” is No. 71. A director’s cut running 293 minutes was presented as a TV miniseries in Germany in 1985 and on DVD in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Petersen’s first film in Hollywood was the 1984 fantasy adventure “The NeverEnding Story,” which he directed and co-scripted. The story centered on a boy in our reality and the kingdom of Fantasia, which exists in a storybook. Roger Ebert wrote: “The only thing standing between Fantasia and Nothingness is the faith of a small boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver). He discovers the kingdom in a magical bookstore, and as he begins to read the adventure between the covers, it becomes so real that the people in the story know about Bastian. The idea of the story within a story is one of the nice touches in ‘The NeverEnding Story.’ Another one is the idea of a child’s faith being able to change the course of fate.” 

Variety called it “a marvelously realized flight of pure fantasy,” and the film has been dearly loved by moviegoers and home video watchers since its release.

However successful Petersen was in appealing to children, he quickly graduated to films geared toward adults. His next effort was “Enemy Mine,” about an astronaut (Dennis Quaid) who crash-lands on an alien planet and teams with a lizard-like alien (Louis Gossett Jr.) from the species he was battling in order to survive the harsh environment. This film was neither well received by critics nor made any money, and indeed, Petersen did not make another film for six years.

He returned in 1991 with the mystery thriller “Shattered,” starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins and Greta Scacchi. The film, centering on Berenger’s wealthy Dan Merrick, who has amnesia after an accident that seems increasingly suspicious, offered many twists and turns, but most critics found the screenplay weak. The film, like “Enemy Mine,” made little money.

Petersen made an extraordinary creative leap with 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 not having been able to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy three decades earlier; John Malkovich played an effective villain out to kill the current president.

Using technology that was new and highly innovative at the time, the effects team digitally inserted images of Eastwood from 1960s films into footage of JFK — but that was just the cherry on top of a well-directed film. Variety said: “Director Wolfgang Petersen sends the story efficiently down its straight and narrow track, deftly engineering the battle of wills between two desperately committed men.”

“It’s my greatest experience after ‘Das Boot,’ ” Petersen told Variety ahead of the movie’s release. “Working with Clint was a great experience.”

“In the Line of Fire” was Petersen’s first film to score significant box office — $177 million worldwide in 1993. With both critical acclaim — the film sports a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and impressive B.O., Petersen had finally arrived in Hollywood.

The time was ripe for a movie about a killer virus, after two books on the subject hit the bestseller list, but in making 1995’s “Outbreak,” Petersen had to confront the fact that a killer virus does not have the visual appeal of a vampire or a great white shark. Thus the film, starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman, introduced spatting ex-spouses, hints of a conspiracy and melodramatic cliches. It was not critically esteemed, but somehow the movie made $190 million worldwide, so Warner Bros. had no cause for complaint.

In “Air Force One” (1997), it was not the Secret Service agents protecting the president who kicked ass but the president himself. The casting was key: Harrison Ford was still young enough to seem capable of physically taking control amid a terrorist plot aboard the presidential plane while old enough to sport the gravitas of a U.S. president. Rolling Stone said: ” ‘Air Force One’ doesn’t insult the audience. It is crafted by a filmmaker who takes pride in the thrills and sly fun he packs into every frame.” The movie soared at the box office, taking $315 million worldwide.

Next was 2000’s “The Perfect Storm,” an adaptation of the book by Sebastian Junger about the confluence of meteorological events that created a positively enormous gale off the Northeast coast and the crew of a fishing vessel, played by George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, among others, that was stuck in the middle of the tempest. Visual effects provided the monumental wave that swamps the boat, but the film would have been exciting and suspenseful in any event. Critics were unimpressed, but audiences liked it to the tune of $329 million worldwide.

Petersen switched gears for his next project, “Troy,” based on Homer’s Iliad, and filled with epic-scale action — as well as movie stars including Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. Critics were mostly unimpressed; Variety said: “Despite a sensationally attractive cast and an array of well-staged combat scenes presented on a vast scale, Wolfgang Petersen’s highly telescoped rendition of the Trojan War lurches ahead in fits and starts for much of its hefty running time, to OK effect.” The film had an interesting critical supporter in the form of the New Yorker’s David Denby, who wrote, “Harsh, serious, and both exhilarating and tragic, the right tonal combination for Homer.”

But in general, Petersen was helping to pioneer the critic-proof movie — “Troy’s” worldwide gross was $497 million, most of it from overseas. Adjusted for inflation, “Air Force One” was the director’s most successful film.

Petersen was riding high, but his next movie sank him. “Poseidon” (2006), a leaden remake of “The Poseidon Adventure” that carried a production budget of $160 million and generated worldwide box office of $182 million, resulting in a huge loss for Time Warner once promotional costs were figured in, was Petersen’s last Hollywood film.

The director seemed to retire at that point, but a decade later he made a film in Germany, “Vier gegen die Bank” (Four Against the Bank), a remake of his own 1976 German TV movie of the same name that was based on 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.

Petersen was born in Emden, Germany. He attended the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg from 1953-60. In the 1960s he directed plays at Hamburg’s Ernst Deutsch Theater. After studying theater in Berlin and Hamburg, he attended Berlin’s Film and Television Academy (1966-70).

The director started out in Germany by making TV movies, earning his first such credit in 1965 and making TV movies steadily from 1971 to 1978. While working on the popular German TV series “Tatort” (Crime Scene), he first met and worked with actor Jurgen Prochnow — who would appear in several of his films, including as the 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 was 1977’s black-and-white film “Die Konsequenz,” an adaptation of Alexander Ziegler’s autobiographical novel about homosexual love. The film was considered so radical at the time that when it first aired on German television, the Bavarian network refused to broadcast it.

Petersen was married to German actress Ursula Sieg until their divorce in 1978.

He is survived by second wife Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a German script supervisor and assistant director whom he married in 1978, and a son by Sieg, writer-director Daniel Petersen.