Wolfgang Petersen, Oscar-nominated director of ‘Das Boot’, dies at 81

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Wolfgang Petersen, a German filmmaker whose 1981 drama “Das Boot” won worldwide acclaim for its human portrayal of U-boat sailors during World War II, and who went on to have a long career in Hollywood directing action-oriented blockbusters, including “Air Force One.” “The Perfect Storm” and “Troy” died Aug. 12 at his home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 81 years old.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to a statement shared Tuesday by his representative Michelle Bega.

After launching his directing career in the 1960s on West German television, Mr. Petersen rose to international prominence with “Das Boot” or “The Boat” (1981), a heartbreaking anti-war film that brought the audience inside a cramped, sweaty German submarine. during WWII. “The film is like a documentary in its impact,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert, observing that there were sequences “where you feel trapped in the same time and space as the desperate team”. He added: “Directing Wolfgang Petersen is an exercise in pure craftsmanship.”

Mr Petersen said he was initially concerned about the film’s reception in the United States. When he went to the Los Angeles premiere, he was alarmed to see the audience cheering as an opening title card noted that 30,000 German submariners had died in the war. By the time the film wrapped two and a half hours later, he told the New Jersey Record, “audiences were in tears, shocked and totally overwhelmed by the message, ‘OK, I know these guys were on the other side, but if you cut all the way to the bottom, what war is is children on all sides getting killed.”

The film was nominated for six Oscars, and Mr. Petersen received two Oscar nominations for its direction and screenplay, which he adapted from a novel by German author Lothar-Günther Buchheim. “Das Boot” has grossed over $80 million worldwide and would have became the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever released in the United States, where Mr. Petersen went on to work with Hollywood stars such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Glenn Close, Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman.

Even when he moved on to big-budget action thrillers, Mr. Petersen sought to maintain a focus on intimate human drama in films such as ‘In the Line of Fire’ (1993), starring Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent trying to track down a would-be assassin, and “Air Force One” (1997), which grossed $315 million at the worldwide box office and became one of the world’s top action films. most popular of the decade, starring Harrison Ford as an American president fighting terrorists hijacking the presidential plane.

He also ventured into fantasy with “The NeverEnding Story” (1984), his first English film, adapted from a best-selling children’s novel by Michael Ende. After three years of working on ‘Das Boot’, Mr Petersen said he was rejuvenated by the film, which celebrated the power of the imagination and featured a flying dragon dog and a magical kingdom called Fantasia. “If people don’t dream anymore, they won’t survive,” he said. told the New York Times, adding, “The whole idea of ​​the film is that we need your imagination, your dreams, your wishes, your creativity to fight against all these dangerous problems in the world.” (The film spawned two sequels made without his involvement.)

Mr Petersen then transported viewers into the world of Homer’s ‘Iliad’, directing the big-budget war film ‘Troy’ (2004) starring Pitt. He seemed particularly comfortable working from historical documents and journalistic research, adapting Richard Preston’s non-fiction book ‘The Hot Zone’ into ‘Outbreak’ (1995), a medical thriller about the spread of a virus Ebola-like. He then directed Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in “The Perfect Storm” (2000), based on Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction tale of a Massachusetts fishing boat lost at sea.

The film grossed over $180 million at the box office and offered Mr Petersen a chance to return to a maritime setting without having to fit inside the narrow tube of a submarine. Much of the film was filmed in a specially built studio tank that helped Mr. Petersen create the illusion of monster waves threatening to capsize the Andrea Gail, which was rocking like a toy boat.

“When the water crashes on the boat, we supply it with our dump tanks,” he told an interviewer from the Directors Guild of America. “The tanks were high up and filled with about 2,000 gallons of water. They slide at tremendous speed and crash into the ground, and send mountains of water over the boat with incredible power. The 200 people on stage had a wonderful time watching it, except for the six actors on the boat.

Wolfgang Petersen was born in Emden, Germany, a port city near the North Sea, on March 14, 1941, and grew up in a time of post-war deprivation. He often lingered with other young Germans in port, hoping to catch candy thrown by American sailors coming into port on warships he described in almost mythical terms.

“They were like a spaceship, like a close encounter, and we were crazy about those beautiful ships,” he told The New York Times. in 2001. “On them were Americans with these big smiles on their faces, and they were throwing food at us. I had never seen these oranges, these bananas and this chewing gum. We kids were like little rats over there, hungry, jumping on it all. I have never forgotten this image of America. For us, America was something like a paradise.

By the early 1950s, his family had moved to Hamburg, where his father was a shipbroker and Mr. Petersen embraced the American pop culture that had flooded Germany after the war, particularly the cinema. He tracked down every book he could find on film and used an 8mm camera to make a western short film with a few friends, paying homage to Hollywood tropes by including a card game scene, a fight in a saloon and a gunfight at noon.

At 19, he became an assistant director in a theater in Hamburg. He also studied acting at schools in Hamburg and Berlin before earning an apprenticeship for German television in the late 1960s, gaining recognition for his tense direction of crime dramas and stories about obsession. One of his first feature films, “Either” (1974), about a student who blackmails a professor, won a national film honor. The fact that he completed it on a budget of less than $1 million also enhanced his stature as a director who excelled under financial pressure.

His later work included “The Consequence” (1977), a melodrama about the sexual relationship between an incarcerated young man and the prison guard’s teenage son, which sparked controversy in Germany for its sensitive and candid depiction of gay love. . That same year, he directed “For Your Love Only”, a feature film from a television detective series, about the affair between a teacher and a schoolgirl, played by Nastassja Kinski, who quickly rocketed to stardom in Germany.

Around this time, Bavaria Studios executives persuaded him to make “Das Boot”, his first big-budget film. Mr Petersen insisted on pinpoint accuracy in recreating the look of a submarine, evoking what he described as ‘the smell of reality, blood, sweat and tears, claustrophobia’ .

“We wanted to make sure every bolt and screw on the boat was real,” he said. Silicon Valley’s Metro Newspaper. “Our designers were obsessed with reality. I can’t imagine nearly 50 people having spent months in one of these cigars without killing each other. That was our task and the challenge – me and my cinematographer, Jost Vacano – we were killing each other or making a great movie.

It took two years and hundreds of craftsmen to build two submarines and giant machines that would jostle them to recreate an aura of fear and turbulence. Wielding an Arriflex camera fitted with a gyroscope, Vacano moved around the set while wearing “padding like an ice hockey player,” Mr. Petersen recalls, “which was good because he always ran into things. Sometimes it took 16 takes to get the right shot.

His first marriage, to actress Ursula Sieg, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Maria-Antoinette Borgel, who worked as an assistant director on many of his early films; a son from his first marriage, Daniel Petersen; and two grandchildren.

Mr Petersen entered American cinema with a pair of box office disappointments – the sci-fi film ‘Enemy Mine’ (1985) and the Alfred Hitchcock homage ‘Shattered’ (1991) – before bouncing back with “In the Line of Fire,” which grossed nearly $190 million and earned John Malkovich an Oscar nomination for his performance as a CIA veteran trying to assassinate the president.

After the release of “Troy,” which grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide but received mixed reviews, Mr. Petersen made “Poseidon” (2006), a big-budget remake of the disaster film from 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” which was haunted by critics. Mr Petersen said he doesn’t care about bad reviews, saying too often critics are snobby about his films, not acknowledging the fact that they keep viewers glued to their seats.

“I want to tell a story that everyone loves,” he told The Times after “The NeverEnding Story” premiered. “Another director might say, ‘This is my vision and whoever understands it and likes it, fine. Whoever doesn’t, please get out! But it’s not me.

Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.

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