Wolfgang Petersen, director of ‘Das Boot’, dies at 81

Wolfgang Petersen, one of the few foreign directors to break into Hollywood, whose heartbreaking 1981 war film ‘Das Boot’ was nominated for six Oscars and became one of Germany’s highest-grossing films , died Friday at his home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 81 years old.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to Michelle Bega, publicist at Rogers & Cowan PMK in Los Angeles. His death was announced on Tuesday.

Mr. Petersen was the most commercially successful member of a generation of filmmakers active in West Germany from the 1960s to the 1980s, whose leaders included Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. But he was also known in Hollywood.

For five decades, Mr. Petersen switched between his native Germany and the United States, making 29 films, including many box office hits like the 1990s political thrillers “In the Line of Fire,” starring Clint Eastwood, and “Air Force One,” with Harrison Ford.

With a flair for genre cinema – action movies were another strong suit – he also made forays into fantasy (“The Neverending Story”), the sword-and-sandal epic (“Troy”) and science fiction – while attracting big names to star in them, like Dustin Hoffman in “Outbreak”, Brad Pitt in “Troy” and George Clooney in “The Perfect Storm”.

For all his Hollywood success, however, “Das Boot,” a tense drama about sailors on a German U-boat during World War II, is the work Mr. Petersen will likely be remembered for. In the English-speaking world, this single, frequently mispronounced title (“Boot” is pronounced exactly like the English “boat”) has achieved a kind of pop-cultural status, thanks to references on “The Simpsons” and other TV shows. television.

“’Das Boot’ is not just a German film about the Second World War; it is a German naval adventure epic that was already a hit in West Germany,” Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review when the film was released in the United States in early 1982.

The film received praise for its historical accuracy and the clammy, claustrophobic effect achieved by cinematographer Jost Vacano, who shot most of the interior scenes with a small, handheld Arriflex camera. Although critical response in Germany was divided, with some accusing the film of glorifying war, it was met with a more uniformly positive response abroad. Today it is considered one of the best anti-war films ever made.

‘Das Boot’ (also titled ‘The Boat’ in English-speaking countries) has grossed over $80 million worldwide, and although it didn’t win an Oscar, its six Oscar nominations – including two for Mr. Petersen, for direction and screenplay, and one for Mr. Vacano, for cinematography – remain a record for a German film production. (It was not nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category; West Germany’s entry that year was Mr. Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” which was not on the shortlist of the Academy for the Oscar).

Mr. Petersen prepared various versions of “Das Boot” over the next decade and a half. In 1985, German television broadcast a 300-minute version (twice as long as the theatrical release), which Mr. Petersen said was closer to his original vision but commercially unfeasible at the time.

After “Das Boot,” he teamed up with producer Bernd Eichinger, whose fledgling studio, Constantin Film, co-produced English-language “The NeverEnding Story,” an adaptation of a 1979 fantasy novel by the best-selling German author. for children. Michel Ende.

Released in 1984, ‘The NeverEnding Story’, about a bullied boy who walks into an enchanted book, was another box office success in Germany and abroad – although it also received its share of negative reviews, including from The Times film critic. Vincent Canby, who called it “graceless” and “humorless”.

Despite a lukewarm return to the US box office, which Mr Petersen attributed to the film as “too European”, “The NeverEnding Story” has become a cult favorite over the decades, for its trippy production design. , its rambling special effects and heavy synth-heavy theme song, written by Giorgio Moroder and sung by British pop singer Limahl.

The film was mostly shot at the Bavaria Film Studio near Munich, where visitors today can ride Falcor, the ‘lucky dragon’ which Mr Canby likened to ‘an impractical bath mat’. (The studio’s theme park, Bavaria FilmStadt, also offers tours of the submarine from “Das Boot.”)

Wolfgang Petersen was born on March 14, 1941 in Emden, northern Germany. Her father was a naval lieutenant in World War II who later worked for a shipping company in Hamburg.

Growing up in the immediate post-war period, young Mr. Petersen idolized America and American movies. On Sundays, he attended children’s matinee screenings at the local cinema to see westerns directed by Howard Hawks and John Ford and starring Gary Cooper and John Wayne.

“I discovered the cinema at the age of 8 and I was immediately enthusiastic,” he told Elfriede Jelinek, future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in a 1985 interview for German Playboy. “When I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a director.”

In 1950 his family moved to Hamburg, and when Wolfgang was 14 his father gave him an eight-millimeter film camera for Christmas.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Petersen was exempted from compulsive military service due to a curvature of the spine. In the early 1960s, he worked as an assistant director at the Junges Theater (now Ernst Deutsch Theater) in Hamburg. He then studied acting in Hamburg and Berlin for several semesters before enrolling at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, West Germany’s first film school, which opened its doors in 1966.

In 1970, his graduation film, “I Will Kill You, Wolf”, was picked up by West German television, which led to an offer to direct for the long-running German detective series “Tatort”.

Over the next decade, Mr. Petersen worked at a breakneck pace, directing for both TV and the big screen, starting in 1974 with the psychological thriller ‘One or the Other of Us’. .

From the start, public approval was of paramount importance to him. “I hunkered down in the cinema to see how the audience would react” to a particular film, he recalled in the Playboy interview. “And what happened? People walked out of the movie. I was devastated. Because I’m obsessed with making movies for everyone.

He often succeeded, with popular early-career thrillers that tackled thorny political and social issues. “Smog” (1972) dealt with the effects of pollution in the Ruhr, the industrial region of northwestern Germany. “The Consequence” (1977) was controversial for its outspoken depiction of homosexuality, a taboo subject at the time.

He was married to German actress Ursula Sieg from 1970 to 1978. He then married Maria-Antoinette Borgel, whom he had met on the set of “Smog”, where she worked as a screenwriter.

He is survived by his wife as well as a son from his first marriage, Daniel, filmmaker, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Petersen had nearly 20 films to his name by the time he made “Das Boot.” A triumph few, if any, could have predicted, the film established his international reputation and opened the door to Hollywood for him.

In his autobiography, “I Love Big Stories” (1997, written with Ulrich Greiwe), Mr. Petersen recalled the first American test screening of “Das Boot” in Los Angeles. At the start, the audience of 1,500 cheered as the screen flashed with the statistic that 30,000 Germans aboard U-boats had been killed during the war. “I thought: this is going to be a disaster! Mr. Petersen wrote. Two and a half hours later, the film received a thunderous ovation.

After “The NeverEnding Story”, Mr. Petersen directed “Enemy Mine” (1985), a sci-fi film starring Dennis Quaid about a fighter pilot forced to cooperate with a reptilian enemy after they both landed on a hostile alien planet. Ms Maslin called it “an expensive and gruesome sci-fi epic with one of the weirdest stories to ever be seen on screen”.

A year later, Mr. Petersen moved to Los Angeles, where he would remain for two decades, working with big stars in a string of mainstream hits that included the political dramas “In the Line of Fire” (1993), on a secret service. an agent’s efforts to prevent a presidential assassination, and “Air Force One” (1997), about the hijacking of the presidential airliner. There were also the disaster films “Outbreak” (1995), about a deadly virus, “The Perfect Storm” (2000), about New England commercial fishermen caught in a terrifying storm, and “Poseidon” (2006) , a remake of “The Poseidon Adventure”, the 1972 blockbuster on a capsized luxury liner.

Even at their most commercial, Mr. Petersen’s films often had overtones of political commentary. Speaking of “Troy” (2004) inspired by the Iliad, Mr. Petersen drew parallels between Homer’s epic and the reign of George W. Bush. “Power-hungry Agamemnons who want to create a new world order – that’s very topical,” he told German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

His film career seemed to come full circle in 2016 with “Vier gegen die Bank”, a remake of his 1976 comedy film based on an American novel, “The Nixon Recession Caper”, by Ralph Maloney. It was Mr. Petersen’s first German-language film since “Das Boot” a quarter of a century earlier.

Throughout his career, he seemed indifferent to critics who questioned his artistic merit.

“If someone asked me if I felt like an artist, I would have a strange feeling, because I don’t really know,” he once said. “What is an artist? Maybe it’s someone who produces something much more intimate than a film, more like a composer or a writer or a painter.

“My passion,” he added, “is telling a story.”

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