Wolfgang Petersen, the German screenwriter-director who resurfaced in Hollywood following the triumph of his underwater masterpiece The boat do some blockbuster action In the Line of Fire, Air Force One and The Perfect Storm, is dead. He was 81 years old.
Petersen died Friday at his Brentwood home of pancreatic cancer, publicist Michelle Bega of Rogers & Cowan PMK said. The Hollywood Reporter.
Petersen will be remembered as one of cinema’s great craftsmen, a director who knew how to manage big-budget plays while deploying a human touch.
The Dustin Hoffman with Epidemichis 1995 pandemic thriller, has regained relevance amid the real-world coronavirus outbreak.
Petersen spent $18.5 million – then the biggest film budget in German history – to make the anti-war classic The boat (nineteen eighty one). Several submarines of varying sizes, including one that mimicked the claustrophobic innards of a real U-96, were built and filming took a year, putting a strain on the cast and crew.
“You can really get into the characters and see how they react when there’s no way to open the door,” he said in a 2000 interview. “I also like the element of water , because I think water is the most beautiful, almost fascinating element – and the most dangerous.”
Starring Jürgen Prochnow as captain of a doomed crew of German submariners who are thrust into a series of suicidal missions at the end of World War II, The boat was nominated for six Oscars, with Petersen claiming two for directing and adapting Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s best-selling 1973 autobiographical novel.
The film was groundbreaking both technically – Jost Vacano’s claustrophobic cinematography and Klaus Doldinger’s haunting score was unlike anything done before in a war movie – as well as thematically. It was a big ask to expect an international audience to “identify with Nazis in a submarine”, as Petersen Told THR in 2016.
“When The boat first screened in Los Angeles and the title card appeared: ‘Out of 40,000 German submariners, 30,000 are dead’, there was huge applause from the audience,” he recalled. “At the end of the film, they all stood up and gave a standing ovation. The film shows that war is war, and in war young people die for horrible reasons.
The film launched Petersen’s international career and earned him a ticket to Hollywood.
In America, Petersen was all about the action. He shot eight films in the United States and had a series of five consecutive box office successes: the political thriller In the Line of Fire (1993), starring Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent; Epidemic; Air Force One (1997), starring Harrison Ford as the US President; The Perfect Storm (2000), with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as unhappy sailors; and the epic Troy (2004), with Brad Pitt as Achilles.
Born on March 14, 1941 in Emden, a coastal city in northern Germany, Petersen grew up amidst the rubble of the Third Reich. Hollywood films, with their clear stories of good versus evil, became his moral compass and certain Hollywood heroes his role models.
“I knew my teachers at school were Nazis, I couldn’t look up to them. But I could look up to Gary Cooper,” he said THR in 2011.
Cooper’s classic high noon (1952) was a touchstone. The story of a man who stands up to evil (in the form of three armed bandits, recently released from prison) left a lasting impression on the 12-year-old. In the plot of the film, in which Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, repeatedly asks the people of his town for help only for them to abandon him or betray him, the young German saw a metaphor for the recent history of his country. (Most American critics suggest director Fred Zinnemann was making a veiled reference to the anti-Communist crusades and blacklisting of the early 1950s.)
“I think high noon made me want to be a director,” Petersen said.
With the exception of a botched effort shot with neighborhood kids on an 8mm camera — “It was very generic,” he acknowledged — Petersen never did a Western, but his best work echoed the themes he had absorbed. high noon. Again and again he returned to stories of reluctant heroes: men who, regardless of the odds and conditions, fight to do the right thing.
He directed his first play at the Ernst Deutsch Theater in Hamburg, apprenticed in Berlin film and television, and soon began directing German television programs, including the popular series crime scene (Crime scene).
His first feature film, 1974 one of us two (Either), starred Prochnow and Elke Sommer and won him a German National Film Award for Best New Director.
Petersen and Prochnow retooled in 1977 for The consequence (The consequence), a revolutionary film about homosexuals initially banned from cinema. The work on some German TV movies led him to The boat.
“It’s a film about human beings in war, about children who go on patrol and come back as old people,” he said. said in a 1982 interview. “What does that mean, what happened between that, what was the reality inside the submarine?”
After writing, directing and producing the mystery Bursts (1991), a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins and Greta Scacchi, for his US debut, Petersen hit it big with In the Line of Fire.
In his review for NewsweekDavid Ansen wrote that you can feel [Petersen] “studied Eastwood films carefully, but he brings his own flair to the action scenes – there’s a rooftop chase sequence that breathes new life into the oldest of conventions – and he moves the comedy and tension without equipment – undress.
Starting with Air Force Oneall of his American films were produced by his own company, Raidiant Productions.
Petersen was particularly proud of The Perfect Storm. Based on the 1997 bestseller by Sebastian Junger, it tells the story of a group of deluged fishermen who die in a once-in-a-century gale. He erected a massive 95ft by 95ft tank at Warner Bros. and hired the special effects team from Industrial Light and Magic to create computer-generated waves.
“It was incredibly difficult to do in the studio system because it was very expensive – $150 million – and, as we all know, all the characters die at the end,” Petersen said. THR. “But we did. When I showed my director’s edit to Terry Semel [then co-chairman of Warner Bros.,] he said, ‘Wolfgang, don’t change anything.’ »
Semel’s instincts were perfect. The Perfect Storm went on to gross over $320 million worldwide and was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.
Unfortunately, this success led Petersen to set sail again for Poseidon (2006), a big-budget remake of the 1972 disaster classic Poseidon’s Adventure. The film flopped and sank, so to speak, his Hollywood career. (The film garnered another Oscar nod for visual effects.)
“I shouldn’t have made the movie, but I was on such a roll at the time, I had done five movies and each one was more successful than the last,” he recalls. “The studios said, ‘Wolfgang can do anything. Just give him the money, it’ll be fine. But it doesn’t work like that. At some point, you fail.
Still, he was the only filmmaker who managed to briefly turn Hoffman into an action star, with Epidemic. The thriller, about a global pandemic, slipped back into the public consciousness and climbed the streaming charts in 2020 after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Petersen’s work spanned a wide range of genres, including comedy, science fiction, and even children’s films. His first feature films in English, both shot at Bavaria Studios in Germany, were the fantastic tale The never-ending story (1984) and the sci-fi thriller enemy mine (1985). The first, an adaptation of Michael Ende’s fantasy classic, was a big international hit and spawned two sequels.
His last feature film, the German language Four against the Bank (2016), was a remake of his own 1976 crime comedy, a made-for-TV movie.
The boat was originally made as a film and miniseries for German television. In 2018, Bavaria Fiction produced and launched a sequel series, set nine months after the action of Petersen’s film.
Survivors include Maria, his wife since 1978 (they were together for 50 years); his son, Daniel, with his first wife, Ursula; daughter-in-law Berit; and grandchildren Maja and Julien.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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