Died at 81: Wolfgang Petersen, German Commander of “Das Boot”

He helmed “Air Force One,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Outbreak,” and “The Perfect Storm” in Hollywood after scripting and directing the antiwar masterpiece.

The German writer-director Wolfgang Petersen, who became well-known in Hollywood after his submarine epic Das Boot was a success and went on to create the action blockbusters In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, and The Perfect Storm, has passed away. He was 81.

According to publicist Michelle Bega of Rogers & Cowan PMK and The Hollywood Reporter, Petersen passed away from pancreatic cancer on Friday at his Brentwood home.

Petersen will be regarded as one of the great artisans of cinema, a director who could handle high-budget productions while incorporating a human touch.

In light of the current coronavirus outbreak, Dustin Hoffman’s 1995 pandemic thriller Outbreak gained fresh resonance.

Das Boot, a landmark antiwar film produced by Petersen, had a $18.5 million budget at the time, which was the most in German cinema history (1981). The construction of several submarines of various sizes, including one that replicated the cramped interior of an actual U-96, took a year, and the actors and crew suffered as a result.

In a 2000 interview, he noted, “You can really dive inside the characters and watch how they respond when there is no way to open the door.” “Water is the most beautiful, almost captivating element, yet it’s the most hazardous,” the author continues.

Das Boot was nominated for six Oscars, with Petersen winning two for directing and one for adapting Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s best-selling 1973 autobiographical novel. It starred Jürgen Prochnow as the captain of a doomed crew of German submariners who are thrust into a series of suicidal missions in the closing days of World War II.

Both thematically and technically, the movie broke new ground. Jost Vacano’s claustrophobic cinematography and Klaus Doldinger’s eerie score were unlike anything done before in a war movie. As Petersen stated to THR in 2016, it was a tall order to expect a global audience to “connect with Nazis in a submarine.”

There was thunderous applause from the audience when the title card for the Los Angeles premiere of Das Boot read, “Of 40,000 German submariners, 30,000 died.” “At the film’s conclusion, they all stood and applauded. The movie demonstrates how tragically young people perish in combat.

Petersen’s worldwide career was begun with the film, which also secured him a trip to Hollywood.

Petersen was all about action in America. The political thriller In the Line of Fire (1993), in which Clint Eastwood played a Secret Service agent; Outbreak; Air Force One (1997), in which Harrison Ford played the president of the United States; The Perfect Storm (2000), in which George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg played unfortunate sailors; and the epic Troy (2004), in which Brad Pitt played Achilles. He made eight movies in the United States.

Petersen, who was born on March 14, 1941, in the northern German coastal town of Emden, grew up amidst the ruins of the Third Reich. Hollywood films, with their unmistakable good-vs.-evil plotlines, served as his moral compass and some of its leading characters as his role models.

“I could not look up to my school teachers since I knew they had been Nazis. But Gary Cooper was someone I could look up to,” he told THR in 2011.

A reference point was Cooper’s classic High Noon from 1952. The 12-year-old was deeply affected by the tale of a man defeating evil (embodied by three gunslingers who had just been let out of jail). The young German found a metaphor for his country’s recent history in the film’s premise, in which Cooper’s character Marshal Will Kane continually begs the residents of his town for assistance only to have them desert or betray him. (The majority of American critics believe director Fred Zinnemann was alluding subtly to the early 1950s anti-communist crusades and blacklisting.)

Petersen claimed, “I think High Noon made me want to be a director.”

Petersen never filmed a Western, but his finest work echoed the concepts he acquired from High Noon, with the exception of a sloppily produced effort shot with a few local kids on an 8-millimeter camera — “It was pretty generic,” he admitted. He kept coming back to tales of reluctant heroes—men who, despite the odds and the circumstances, fought for the right thing.

At the Ernst Deutsch Theater in Hamburg, he directed his first play. After completing an apprenticeship with Berlin Film and Television, he immediately started directing German television shows, such as the well-liked series Tatort (Crime Scene).

Prochnow and Elke Sommer featured in his first film, Einer von uns beiden (One or the Other), which was released in 1974 and won him the German National Film Award for best new director.

For Die Konsequenz (The Consequence), a groundbreaking movie about gays that was previously outlawed from theatres, Petersen and Prochnow reunited. He came upon Das Boot while working on a few German television shows.

In an interview from 1982, he described the movie as “a film about human beings in the conflict, about adolescents going out on a patrol and they come back as old men.” What exactly does that mean, what transpired between those events, and what was the situation inside the submarine?

In the Line of Fire was Petersen’s breakthrough film after making his American debut with the mystery Shattered (1991), an homage to Alfred Hitchcock starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins, and Greta Scacchi.

You can tell [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 without gear-stripping,” David Ansen wrote in his review for Newsweek.

All of his American films, beginning with Air Force One, were made by his own firm, Raidiant Productions.

Petersen took great pride in The Perfect Storm. It is based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Sebastian Junger from 1997 and relates the tale of a group of drowned fishermen who perish in a once-in-a-century gale. At Warner Bros., he built a large 95 by 95-foot tank and hired Industrial Light and Magic’s special effects team to produce computer-generated waves in it.

According to Petersen, “It was tremendously challenging to get created under the studio system because it was very expensive—$150 million—and, as we all know, all the characters die in the end.” “But we succeeded. Terry Semel, who was the co-chairman of Warner Bros. at the time, told me not to make any changes when I showed him my director’s cut.

Semel had excellent instincts.

The Perfect Storm earned more than $320 million in worldwide box office revenue and received Oscar nominations for best sound and best visual effects.

A costly remake of the 1972 catastrophe film The Poseidon Adventure, Poseidon (2006), forced Petersen to return to the ocean as a result of his success. His Hollywood career, in a sense, was sinking after the failure of the movie. (The movie did receive a second Oscar nomination for visual effects.)

The actor said, “I shouldn’t have done the film, but I was on such a run at the time. I’d done five films, and each had been more successful than the one before. “The studios claimed that Wolfgang could accomplish anything. Give him the cash, and everything will be alright. But things simply don’t operate that way. You will eventually fail.

With Outbreak, he was the only director to succeed in briefly transforming Hoffman into an action star. After the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in 2020, the thriller about a worldwide pandemic reentered popular culture and soared on the streaming charts.

Petersen produced work in a variety of genres, including comedies, science fiction, and even family movies. His debut English-language films, The NeverEnding Story (1984) and the sci-fi thriller Enemy Mine (1985), were both produced at Germany’s Bavaria Studios (1985). A major international hit with two sequels, the former was a reimagining of the fantasy classic by Michael Ende.

His most recent film, the 2016 German-language made-for-TV film Four vs. the Bank, was a replica of his original 1976 crime caper comedy.

Das Boot was first produced as a miniseries and a feature for German television. Nine months after the events of Petersen’s film, a sequel series was produced and released by Bavaria Fiction in 2018.

His wife Maria, with whom he had been married since 1978 and with whom he had spent 50 years together, as well as his son Daniel and his first wife Ursula, daughter-in-law Berit, and grandchildren Maja and Julien, survive him.

Contributors to this report include Duane Byrge.