Wolfgang Petersen, the German writer-director who surfaced in Hollywood following the triumph of his submarine masterpiece Das Boot to make the action blockbusters In the Line of Fire, Air Force One and The Perfect Storm, has died. He was 81.
Petersen died Friday at his Brentwood home of pancreatic cancer, publicist Michelle Bega of Rogers & Cowan PMK told The Hollywood Reporter.
Petersen will be remembered as one of cinema’s great craftsmen, a director who was able to handle big-budget pieces while deploying a human touch.
The Dustin Hoffman-starring Outbreak, his 1995 thriller about a pandemic, saw renewed relevance amid the real-world coronavirus outbreak.
Petersen spent $18.5 million — then the biggest movie budget in German history — to make the antiwar classic Das Boot (1981). Several submarines of different sizes, including one that mimicked the claustrophobic innards of a real U-96, were constructed, and filming took a year, taking a toll on cast and crew.
“You can really go into the characters and see how they react when there is no way to open the door,” he said in a 2000 interview. “I also like the element of water, because I think water is the most beautiful, almost mesmerizing element — and it’s most dangerous.”
Starring Jürgen Prochnow as the captain of a doomed crew of German submariners who are plunged into a series of suicidal missions in the waning days of World War II, Das Boot was nominated for six Oscars, with Petersen claiming two for directing and for adapting Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s best-selling 1973 autobiographical novel.
The film was groundbreaking both technically — Jost Vacano’s claustrophobic cinematography and Klaus Doldinger’s haunting score were unlike anything done before in a war movie — as well as thematically. It was a big ask to expect an international audience to “identify with Nazis in a submarine,” as Petersen told THR in 2016.
“When Das Boot first screened in Los Angeles and the title card came up: ‘Of 40,000 German submariners, 30,000 died,’ there was huge applause from the audience,” he recalled. “At the end of the film they all rose and gave a standing ovation. The film shows war is war, and in war, young people die for horrible reasons.”
The movie launched Petersen’s international career and got him a ticket to Hollywood.
In America, Petersen was all about action. He made eight films in the U.S. and enjoyed a string of five straight box office hits: the political thriller In the Line of Fire (1993), starring Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent; Outbreak; Air Force One (1997), starring Harrison Ford as the U.S. president; The Perfect Storm (2000), with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as ill-fated seamen; and the epic Troy (2004), starring Brad Pitt as Achilles.
Born on March 14, 1941, in Emden, a coastal town in northern Germany, Petersen grew up amid the wreckage of the Third Reich. Hollywood movies, with their clear good-vs.-evil storylines, became his moral compass and certain Hollywood heroes his role models.
“I knew my teachers at school had been Nazis, I couldn’t look up to them. But I could look up to Gary Cooper,” he told THR in 2011.
Cooper’s classic High Noon (1952) was a touchstone. The story of a man who stands up to evil (in the form of three gunslingers, recently released from prison) left a lasting impression on the 12-year-old. In the film’s plot, in which Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, repeatedly asks the people of his town for help only for them to abandon or betray him, the young German saw a metaphor for his country’s recent history. (Most American critics suggest director Fred Zinnemann was making veiled reference to the anti-communist crusades and blacklisting of the early ’50s.)
“I think High Noon made me want to be a director,” Petersen said.
Except for a slapdash effort shot with some neighborhood kids on an 8-millimeter camera — “It was very generic,” he acknowledged — Petersen never made a Western, but his best work echoed the themes he absorbed from High Noon. Again and again, he returned to stories of reluctant heroes: men who, whatever the odds and whatever the conditions, fight to do the right thing.
He directed his first play at the Ernst Deutsch Theater in Hamburg, earned an apprenticeship with Berlin Film and Television, and soon began directing German television programs, including the popular series Tatort (Crime Scene).
His first feature, 1974’s Einer von uns beiden (One or the Other), starred Prochnow and Elke Sommer and earned him a German National Film Award for best new director.
Petersen and Prochnow reteamed in 1977 for Die Konsequenz (The Consequence), a ground-breaking film about homosexuals that was initially banned from theaters. Work on a couple of German telefilms led him to Das Boot.
“It’s a film about human beings in the war, about kids going out on a patrol and they come back as old men,” he said in a 1982 interview. “What does that mean, what happened between that, what was the reality inside the submarine?”
After writing, directing and producing the mystery Shattered (1991), an homage to Alfred Hitchcock that starred Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins and Greta Scacchi, for his U.S. debut, Petersen hit it big with In the Line of Fire.
In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote that you can sense [Petersen] “has made a careful study of Eastwood’s movies, but he brings his own special flair to the action scenes — there’s a cliffhanging rooftop-chase sequence that pumps new blood into that oldest of conventions — and he shifts the comedy and the tension with no gear-stripping.”
Starting with Air Force One, all of his American movies were produced by his own company, Radiant Productions.
Petersen was particularly proud of The Perfect Storm. Based on Sebastian Junger’s best-selling 1997 nonfiction book, it tells the story of a group of deluged fishermen who die in a once-in-a-century gale. He erected a massive 95-by-95-foot tank at Warner Bros. and engaged the special-effects team at Industrial Light and Magic to create computer-generated waves.
“It was incredibly difficult to get made in the studio system because it was very expensive —$150 million — and, as we all know all the characters die in the end,” Petersen told THR. “But we did it. When I showed my director’s cut to Terry Semel [then co-chairman of Warner Bros.], he said, ‘Wolfgang, don’t change a thing.’”
Semel’s instincts were spot-on. The Perfect Storm went on to gross more than $320 million worldwide and was nominated for Oscars for best sound and best visual effects.
Unfortunately, that success led Petersen to return to the sea for Poseidon (2006), a big-budget remake of the 1972 disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure. The film flopped and sank, so to speak, his career in Hollywood. (The film did collect another Oscar nom for visual effects.)
“I shouldn’t have done the film, but I was on such a roll at the time, I’d done five films and each was more successful than the one before,” he recalled. “The studios were saying: ‘Wolfgang can do anything. Just give him the money, we’ll be fine.’ But it just doesn’t work like that. At some point, you fail.”
Still, he was the only filmmaker who managed to turn Hoffman, briefly, into an action star, with Outbreak. The thriller, about a global pandemic, relapsed into the public consciousness and rose on the streaming charts in 2020 after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Petersen’s work covered a wide range of genres, including comedy, sci-fi and even children’s films. His first English-language features, both shot at Germany’s Bavaria Studios, were the fantasy tale The NeverEnding Story (1984) and the sci-fi thriller Enemy Mine (1985). The former, an adaptation of Michael Ende’s fantasy classic, was a major international success and spawned two sequels.
His last feature, the German-language Four vs. the Bank (2016), was a remake of his own 1976 crime caper comedy, a made-for-TV movie.
Das Boot was originally made as a film and as a miniseries for German TV. In 2018, Bavaria Fiction produced and launched a sequel series, set nine months after the action of Petersen’s film.
Survivors include Maria, his wife since 1978 (they were together for 50 years); his son, Daniel, with his first wife, Ursula; daughter-in-law Berit; and grandchildren Maja and Julien.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.