Wolfgang Petersen, director of ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Das Boot’, dies at 81

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Wolfgang Petersen, who led his famous 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”, is dead. He was 81 years old.

The news was confirmed by his production company.

“Das Boot” (1981) was the harrowing story of life aboard a German U-boat during World War II; the genius of the film was that Petersen accomplished the unlikely feat of making the audience feel the ordinary men serving on the submarine, all of whom were at least nominally serving the Nazi cause – even the captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow, who himself played the role in the film into a career as a character actor in Hollywood.

Between suspense and tragedy, “Das Boot” was nominated for six Oscars – a huge number for a foreign film – including two for Petersen, for director and adapted screenplay. On IMDb’s list of the 250 highest-rated films, “Das Boot” is No. 71. A 293-minute director’s cut was shown as a television miniseries in Germany in 1985 and on DVD in the United States and elsewhere.

Petersen’s first Hollywood film was the 1984 fantasy adventure “The NeverEnding Story,” which he directed and co-wrote. The story centered around a boy in our reality and the realm of Fantasia, which exists in a storybook. Roger Ebert wrote, “The only thing that stands between Fantasia and Nothingness is the faith of a little boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver). He discovers the kingdom in a magical bookstore, and as he begins to read about the adventure between the covers, it becomes so real that the characters in the story know Bastian. One of the nice touches of “The NeverEnding Story” is the idea of ​​a story within a story. Another is the idea that a child’s faith can change the course of fate.

Variety called it “a wonderfully realized flight of pure fantasy”, and the film has been well received by moviegoers and viewers since its release.

Despite Petersen’s success in attracting children, he quickly transitioned into films aimed at adults. His next effort was “Enemy Mine,” about an astronaut (Dennis Quaid) who crash-lands on an alien planet and teams up with a lizard-like alien (Louis Gossett Jr.) of the species he struggled to survive the harsh environment. This film was not well received by critics or made any money, and indeed Petersen did not make another film for six years.

He returned in 1991 with the mystery thriller “Shattered”, starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins and Greta Scacchi. The film, which centers on Berenger’s wealthy Dan Merrick, who suffers amnesia after an increasingly suspicious accident, offered plenty of twists, but most reviewers found the script weak. The film, like “Enemy Mine”, made little money.

Petersen took an extraordinary creative leap with Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed film “In the Line of Fire” (1993). The suspenseful, well-written film starred Eastwood as a Secret Service agent scarred by the experience of not being able to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy three decades earlier; John Malkovich played an effective villain in killing the current president.

Using new and very innovative technology at the time, the effects team digitally inserted footage of Eastwood from 1960s films into JFK footage – but that was just the icing on the cake. a well made film. Variety said, “Director Wolfgang Petersen effectively sends the story down its straight and narrow path, deftly crafting the battle of wills between two desperately committed men.”

“It’s my biggest experience after ‘Das Boot,'” Petersen told Variety ahead of the film’s release. “Working with Clint has been a great experience.”

“In the Line of Fire” was Petersen’s first film to score a major box office – $177 million worldwide in 1993. With both critical acclaim – the film boasts a fresh 95 rating. % on Rotten Tomatoes – and an impressive soundtrack, Petersen had finally arrived in Hollywood.

The time had come for a film about a killer virus, after two books on the subject hit the bestseller list, but while making ‘Outbreak’ in 1995, Petersen had to face the fact that a killer virus n doesn’t have the visual appeal of a vampire. or a great white shark. So the film, starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman, featured spitting ex-spouses, hints of a conspiracy and melodramatic cliches. It wasn’t highly rated, but somehow the movie made $190 million worldwide, so Warner Bros. had no reason to complain.

In “Air Force One” (1997), it was not the Secret Service agents protecting the President who kicked ass, but the President himself. Casting was essential: Harrison Ford was still young enough to seem able to physically take control of a terrorist plot aboard the presidential plane while being old enough to sport the gravity of an American president. Rolling Stone said, “’Air Force One’ does not insult the public. It’s crafted by a filmmaker who takes pride in the thrills and sneaky fun he brings to every frame. The film skyrocketed at the box office, grossing $315 million worldwide.

Next came 2000s ‘The Perfect Storm’, an adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s book about the confluence of weather events that created a huge gale off the northeast coast and the crew of a peach, played by George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, among others, who were stuck in the middle of the storm. The visual effects provided the monumental wave washing over the boat, but the film would have been thrilling and suspenseful either way. Critics weren’t impressed, but audiences loved it to the tune of $329 million worldwide.

Petersen has shifted gears for his next project, “Troy,” based on Homer’s Iliad and filled with epic action – as well as movie stars such as Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. Critics were mostly unimpressed; Variety said, “Despite a sensationally appealing cast and an array of well-staged fight scenes presented on a grand scale, Wolfgang Petersen’s highly telescoped take on the Trojan War moves on in fits and starts for much of its run.” long running time, effect OK.” The film had an interesting critical proponent in the form of David Denby of The New Yorker, who wrote, “Harsh, earnest, both exhilarating and tragic, the right tonal combination for Homer.”

But in general, Petersen helped launch the critically-proof film — “Troy”‘s worldwide gross was $497 million, with most of it coming overseas. Adjusted for inflation, “Air Force One” was the director’s most successful film.

Petersen was riding high, but his next film sank him. “Poseidon” (2006), a lead remake of “The Poseidon Adventure” which carried a production budget of $160 million and generated a worldwide box office of $182 million, resulting in a huge loss for Time Warner a once promotional costs were taken into account, was Petersen. latest hollywood movie.

The director seemed to retire at this time, but a decade later made a film in Germany, “Vier gegen die Bank” (Four Against the Bank), a remake of his own 1976 German TV movie from same name based on Ralph Maloney’s 1972 novel “The Nixon Recession Caper”. The original told the story of “four members of an exclusive country club who decide to rob a bank to solve their money problems”. The new film starred Til Schweiger.

Petersen was born in Emden, Germany. He attended the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg from 1953 to 1960. In the 1960s he staged plays at the Ernst Deutsch Theater in Hamburg. After studying theater in Berlin and Hamburg, he attended the Berlin Film and Television Academy (1966-1970).

The director started out in Germany directing TV movies, earning his first such credit in 1965 and making regular TV movies 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 a submarine captain in ‘Das Boot’.

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

Petersen was married to German actress Ursula Sieg until their divorce in 1978.

He is survived by his second wife Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a German screenwriter and assistant director whom he married in 1978, and a son of Sieg, screenwriter-director Daniel Petersen.

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