Wolfgang Petersen managed something bordering on a miracle in the early 1980s when he made a film about Germans fighting in the Second World War and had British and American audiences empathising with them. Some viewers actually shed tears when they get killed.
Almost all 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 comradeship, the tedium and the terror of fighting a war with an ocean on top of 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 came back – and the audience actually cheered. But at the end they were on their feet for a standing ovation.
“The audience was turned around by the message,” said Petersen. “OK, I know these guys were the other side, but if you cut through to the bottom, what war is all about, is kids on all sides getting killed.”
Das Boot went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever in the United States, was nominated for six Oscars and frequently appears in lists of the best war films. The Simpsons paid some sort of homage with an episode entitled 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 instalments.
About the only person who did not like it was Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, whose source novel drew on his own wartime experiences as a war correspondent on a U-boat. Buchheim wrote a screenplay based on his book, but Petersen opted to write his own script. And while Buchheim praised the technical accuracy of Petersen’s film he was critical of the acting and accused Petersen of sacrificing Buchheim’s supposed anti-war message and making a “shallow American action flick”.
Certainly Americans liked it, both audiences and the studios who came calling on Petersen with offers to make more action flicks. He went on to direct several big-budget Hollywood hits, including In the Line of Fire, Air Force One and Troy.
Petersen was born in Emden in Germany during the Second World War 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 clear-cut heroes and villains.
He determined to become a film-maker from an early age and his earliest films were westerns he made with school friends after his father gave him an 8mm camera for Christmas. He went to film school in Berlin and began working in television in the early 1970s, where he was happy to tackle controversial dramas. In Die Consesquenz (The Consequence) a prisoner develops a romantic relationship with a warden’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.
Petersen made his feature 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, though with a budget of almost $20 million it was one of the most expensive German films ever.
Petersen was nominated for Oscars both for best script and best director. His next film, another adaptation of a German novel, could not have been more different. The NeverEnding Story was a fantasy in which the main protagonist is a ten-year-old boy who discovers a magical book. It was aimed at a young audience and was reputedly the most expensive film at that time to be produced outside the US. Again, the author of the source novel, Michael Ende, was critical of what was done to his work. And again it was an international hit. Although the film shot mainly in Munich, it was made in English.
He took over direction of the sci-fi film Enemy Mine after the original director fell out with the producers. The movie had already started shooting, but Petersen moved production from Budapest to Munich and reshot the early scenes.
Petersen then relocated to the US for In the Line of Fire, a political thriller with Clint Eastwood as a veteran Secret Service agent protecting the president. Outbreak was a drama with Dustin Hoffman as star and a new virus as the main villain (arguably). Air Force One was another political action thriller, with Harrison Ford as an action president. All were hits, with renewed interest in Outbreak in the last couple of years.
Detractors wondered if Petersen might come unstuck with The Perfect Storm, a true story about New England fishermen who head out to sea despite warnings of bad weather. But the film starring George Clooney continued Petersen’s string of hits.
He drew on ancient history for his next blockbuster, Troy, about the Trojan War. Brad Pitt played Achilles, but Petersen favoured Brits for many roles, with Brian Cox as Agamemnon and Sean Bean as Odysseus.
Petersen returned to the sea in 2006 with Poseidon, his remake of the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure, but it struggled to recoup a huge budget. Petersen made only one more film, ten years after Poseidon, the heist movie Vier Gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), made in Germany. It was his first German-language film since Das Boot but hardly caused a ripple in international waters.
He married Ursula Sieg, a German actress, in 1970 and divorced eight years later. He subsequently wed Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a script supervisor. He is survived by his second wife and a son from his first marriage.
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