The late Wolfgang Petersen was a German film maker who was in big demand as a director after a string of great Hollywood thrillers.
Born on 14th March 1941 in Emdne Germany he grew up during the disintegration of the Third Reich and Hollywood movies became something of a moral compass for him with their clearly defined heroes and villains notably with actors like Gary Cooper in 1952’s High Noon perhaps seeing it as a sort of metaphor for his own country under Nazism
He began directing short films on super 8mm but was soon directed plays in a Hamburg theatre earning an apprenticeship in the Berlin Film & TV school where he graduated too directing TV dramas. 1974 saw him helm his first film, ‘One or the Other’ which earned him at Best Director award. 1978 he married his second wife Maria Borgel Petersen and they remained together until his death
His work on a 1977 gay drama from a play that was banned in theatres led to him making the film that would bring him to the attention of the world. The fill was Das Boot a film set in the claustrophobic world of a WWII German U-boat where boredom, filth and sheer terror take over the crew bit by bit. It was, and remains, an outstanding piece of work rightly nominated for six Oscars including Best Director though winning none with Peterson losing out to Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ which swept the board that year whose other nominees were Spielberg, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. The film was an epic masterpiece released in multiple versions, starting with the 149-minute original theatrical pic. The BBC aired a three-part, 300-minute miniseries in the mid-1980s, and a 1997 director’s cut clocked in at 208 minutes.
Hollywood was alerted but it would be a few years before he went there after helming a very different film with the Children’s fairy tale The Never Ending Story – his first English language film – with its soaring theme song sung by Limahl.
But the draw of Hollywood was strong and his debut was ‘Enemy Mine’ was a sci fi tale starring Dennis Quaid in a thinly veiled story about racial harmony which did so –so business and it would be six years before his next film the Hitchcock homaging ‘Shattered’. Neither set the box office alight but after this he would helm a string of great thrillers and blockbusters most of which garnered critical acclaim starting with the Clint Eastwood starrer ‘In the Line of Fire’. This was followed by pandemic thriller ‘Outbreak’ that did the unlikely thing of turning Dustin Hoffman into an action star. Air Force One was a brilliantly thrilling summer blockbuster with Harrison Ford in one of his best roles outside of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. Further blockbusters followed with ‘The Perfect Storm‘ starring George Clooney and visual effects that set a new bar for recreating digital water – although the actors were drenched on a daily basis with 2000 gallons of actual water. The brad Pitt starrer, ‘Troy’ followed and both films did big box office and studios were happy to grant Petersen big budgets. His third water based film would be ‘Poseidon’ that would bring his run of successes and to a degree his career, to an abrupt end. A remake of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ the film, like the ship, sank taking Petersen with it
“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.”
Wolfgang Petersen elected not to make another film for the next ten years choosing to make his next and what would turn out to be his last film back in Germany and was a remake of his own 1976 TV movie.
Wolfgang Petersen died of pancreatic cancer at home in the company of his wife. He was 81.