Wolfgang Petersen, filmmaker behind Das Boot, The NeverEnding Story, dead at 81

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

Petersen died Friday at his home in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Brentwood after a battle with pancreatic cancer, said representative Michelle Bega.

Petersen was perhaps best known for 1981’s Das Boot, the harrowing story of life aboard a German U-boat during the Second World War. In it, he accomplished the unlikely feat of making audiences feel for the ordinary men serving on the submarine, who were all at least nominally in service to the Nazi cause.

Das Boot was nominated for six Oscars — an enormous number for a foreign film — including two for Petersen, for director and adapted screenplay. 

A ‘neverending act of imagination’

But the director started on very different films. His first feature in Hollywood was the 1984 fantasy adventure The NeverEnding Story, which he directed and co-scripted.

Roger Ebert said it managed to let kids know “that the story isn’t just somehow happening, that storytelling is a neverending act of the imagination,” and the film has been dearly loved by moviegoers since its release.

However successful Petersen was in appealing to children, he quickly graduated to films geared toward adults. His next effort was Enemy Mine, about an astronaut (Dennis Quaid) who crash-lands on an alien planet and teams with a lizard-like alien (Louis Gossett Jr.) from the species he was battling in order to survive the harsh environment.

The film was not well received by critics and didn’t make any money, and indeed, Petersen did not make another film for six years.

Atreyu, played by Noah Hathaway, helps Artax the horse cross the Swamp of Sadness in Wolfgang Petersen’s film The NeverEnding Story. (Neue Constantin Film)

A creative leap

He returned in 1991 with the mystery thriller Shattered, starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins and Greta Scacchi, then made an extraordinary creative leap with the critically acclaimed Clint Eastwood film In the Line of Fire in 1993.

Using technology that was new and highly innovative at the time, the effects team digitally inserted images of Eastwood from 1960s films into footage featuring JFK.

“It’s my greatest experience after Das Boot,” Petersen told Variety ahead of the movie’s release. “Working with Clint was a great experience.”

In the Line of Fire was Petersen’s first film to score significant box office — $177 million US worldwide in 1993.

After subsequent successes with Outbreak in 1995, Air Force One in 1997, and the George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg-led The Perfect Storm in 2000, Petersen switched gears for his next project, Troy

Based on Homer’s Iliad, it was filled with epic-scale action — as well as movie stars including Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. Critics were mostly unimpressed. New York Magazine called it “a fairly routine action picture with an advanced case of grandeuritis … The actors are forever striking classical poses; they’re trying to memorialize the drama. But you can’t force this kind of thing — either you’re mythic or you’re not.”

From left, actors Eric Bana, Peter O’Toole and Brad Pitt attend the premiere of Troy on May 10, 2004, in New York City. Troy, one of Petersen’s most successful films, grossed $497 million US worldwide. (Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

But in general, Petersen was helping to pioneer the critic-proof movie — Troy‘s worldwide gross was $497 million US, most of it from overseas. (Adjusted for inflation, Air Force One was the director’s most successful film.)

Petersen was riding high, but his next movie sank him. Poseidon (2006), a leaden remake of The Poseidon Adventure, carried a production budget of $160 million US and generated just $182 million US at the worldwide box office, resulting in a huge loss for Time Warner once promotional costs were figured in. It would be Petersen’s last Hollywood film.

The director seemed to retire at that point, but a decade later he made a film in Germany, Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), a remake of his own 1976 German TV movie of the same name and based on the 1972 novel The Nixon Recession Caper by Ralph Maloney.

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.

Beginnings in German cinema

Born in Emden, Germany, the director got his start making TV movies in his home country, 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 was married to German actor Ursula Sieg until their divorce in 1978.

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

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