German filmmaker turned Hollywood director Wolfgang Petersen has died at the age of 81.
Petersen was born on 14 March 1941 in Emden, Lower Saxony, Germany and attended the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg. Following this he was directing plays at Hamburg’s Ernst Deutsch Theater which led to a desire to study further to refine his craft.
After studying theater in Berlin and Hamburg, Petersen attended the Film and Television Academy in Berlin that led to his first film production on German television. While working on the popular German Tatort (Crime Scene) TV series he first met and worked with Jürgen Prochnow.
After directing the thriller One of the Other of Us and, for the time, daring gay drama Die Konsequenz, Petersen had his breakout moment.
In 1981 he re-teamed with Jürgen Prochnow on Das Boot and was this nominated for six Academy Awards, two of which – for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – went to Petersen. He was also nominated for a BAFTA Award and DGA Award.
The success of Das Boot led to him being chosen to adapt a well-loved German Children’s story into a motion picture. The Never Ending Story (German: Die unendliche Geschichte) by German writer Michael Ende was published in 1979 and first translated into English in 1983. It was a huge success.
His follow up, sci-fi feature Enemy Mine, was a box office failure at the time however eventually found a keen audience on home video and is regarded as a cult classic today. Psychothriller Shattered also under-performed but he was soon to hit his hot streak.
Critically acclaimed Clint Eastwood-led In the Line of Fire was followed by the killer virus thriller Outbreak. Then he snagged Harrison Ford to play the President in Air Force One before making the George Clooney & Mark Wahlberg-led The Perfect Storm.
The huge adaptation of Homer’s The Illiad – Troy – was a star studded event and epic in scale. The ensemble cat included Brian Cox, Eric Bana, Brad Pitt, Sean Bean, Diane Kruger, Brendan Gleeson, Peter O’Toole and Orlando Bloom. It was one of the biggest movies of the year with a near half a billion haul, despite a mixed critical reception.
He followed Troy with a remake of the 70s disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure. Simply called Poseidon, this was not a happy experience for Petersen. After all costs were factored in, Poseidon lost around $77 million for Warner Bros. Petersen said in a 2016 interview:
“What I probably should not have done is the film Poseidon. I was on a roll at that time… I shouldn’t have done it, because it just doesn’t work like that. At some point you fail.”
Petersen gave up Hollywood after that experience.
He was attached to the film adaption of Ender’s Game but eventually passed, with that movie going to Gavin Hood. He seemed semi-retired and in fifteen years only made German crime comedy Vier gegen die Bank. About Das Boot he said:
“So many directors have their one film. It’s the one that changed everything for you and the one people will talk about forever. I am lucky enough that I have that film.”
Petersen passed away peacefully at his Brentwood home from pancreatic cancer in the arms of his wife of 50 years, Maria Antoinette. In addition to his wife, Petersen is survived by his son, Daniel, and two grandchildren.