'Das Boot' and 'Air Force One' Director Wolfgang Petersen Dead at 81

Wolfgang Petersen is interviewed for "Troy." Credit: Cinephile Global YouTube

I am old enough to remember the 1981 film, Das Boot, and what a big deal it was for the German-born and raised Director Wolfgang Petersen to direct this property about a German U-boat crew who grapple with the reality of fighting what they sense is an unjust war. In 1998, Petersen sat down with then-PBS host Charlie Rose to talk about how as an unknown, and foreign director, he was able to commandeer the reins of this seminal film.

Das Boot was the breakthrough film for Petersen, receiving critical and box office success. The film was nominated for six Oscars, and Petersen rode this success to higher-profile, bigger budget directing work. 1997’s Air Force One was Petersen’s biggest critical and commercial success. The film cast Harrison Ford as the President of the United States, who balances both dignity and diplomacy with quick thinking and badass self-defense skills, in order to thwart a plot to hijack the presidential aircraft and take him hostage.

Living in the Age of Brandon, we long to see such a president in action. Petersen gave us high hopes through the fictitious President Marshall, and this depiction of good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny, and the American can-do and ingenuous spirit continues to resonate with audiences to this day.

After a string of other hits (The Perfect Storm, Troy) and misses (Outbreak, Poseidon), Wolfgang Petersen lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old.

From Variety:

Wolfgang Petersen, who rode his acclaimed German-language film “Das Boot” into a career directing Hollywood blockbusters such as “In the Line of Fire,” “Air Force One,” “The Perfect Storm” and “Troy,” has died. He was 81.

The news was confirmed by his production company.

The underlying theme of Petersen’s movies was men who must combat existential threats–a terrorist (Air Force One), a virus (Outbreak), a psychopath (In The Line of Fire), the elements (The Perfect Storm), while maintaining their integrity, humanity, and fighting to preserve the world they love and believe in. While Petersen’s big budget films supply lots of knock-down, drag-out moments, and incredible effects and CGI, it’s the human connection to the characters that keep the audience present and engaged, and leave a deep impression on the viewer.

Petersen was born on in the midst of a war-torn Germany. But he came of age in a post-World War II world, where America and American films were preeminent:

Petersen was born in Emden, Germany. He attended the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg from 1953-60. In the 1960s he directed plays at Hamburg’s Ernst Deutsch Theater. After studying theater in Berlin and Hamburg, he attended Berlin’s Film and Television Academy (1966-70).

The director started out in Germany by making TV movies, earning his first such credit in 1965 and making TV movies steadily from 1971 to 1978. While working on the popular German TV series “Tatort” (Crime Scene), he first met and worked with actor Jurgen Prochnow — who would appear in several of his films, including as the U-boat captain in “Das Boot.”

Petersen’s first feature film was the 1974 psychological thriller “One or the Other of Us,” starring Prochnow. Next was 1977’s black-and-white film “Die Konsequenz,” an adaptation of Alexander Ziegler’s autobiographical novel about homosexual love. The film was considered so radical at the time that when it first aired on German television, the Bavarian network refused to broadcast it.

Petersen continued to write and direct small television offerings, until Das Boot launched him into the exclusive premier club of American directors. In 1984, he helmed the fantasy adventure The NeverEnding Story, which was well-received by audiences and critics, and in 1985, he directed the space psychological thriller, Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. One of his most cerebral and character-driven works, it was neither a critical nor box-office success, and Petersen would not helm another film for six years.

The 1993 Clint Eastwood starrer, In the Line of Fire would put Petersen back on the map and back into the annals of success. Taking the cerebral aspects of Enemy Mine, where one man faces down the threat to his own survival and the survival of his world, Petersen applied this to the playing field of the Secret Service and a potential presidential assassination, creating a high-stakes tension, coupled with an insider view of the people who protect the president and our national assets. Both audiences and critics alike embraced and applauded this work, which went on to commercial and critical success.

But it is 1997’s Air Force One, and 2000’s The Perfect Storm, which cemented Petersen’s legacy among the great directors of our time.

Petersen’s last two films: 2004’s Troy, an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, and 2006’s Poseidon, a remake of The Poseidon Adventure, were ambitious, but not well received by critics or audiences. Poseidon would be Petersen’s last feature film.

Petersen is survived by second wife Maria-Antoinette Borgel, and writer-director Daniel Petersen, a son from his first marriage.
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