Every now and then a “foreign language” film breaks through to anglophone audiences. More often than not the director is lured to Hollywood, offered a few unsatisfactory blockbusters and then sent back to his own country in chastened humour. Wolfgang Petersen, whose death in Los Angeles at the age of 81 has been announced, was one of the few to hold steady and secure a busy career at the upper end of the industry.
Released in 1981, Das Boot, the German director’s gripping, claustrophobic study of a U-boat crew in the second World War, was a sensation throughout the world. The drama was nominated for six Academy Awards — a rare feat for a film not in English — and was later re-edited into a longer, equally celebrated television series. He followed that up with the fantasy The NeverEnding Story, a respectable hit in 1984, but then stumbled with two American flops: Shattered and Enemy Mine.
Brushing himself down, Petersen bounced back with a string of hugely popular action films. In the Line of Fire and Air Force One — the first with Clint Eastwood, the second with Harrison Ford — stand as defining blockbusters of the mid-1990s. Outbreak, his 1995 disaster film concerning an Ebola panic, attracted a wave of interest during the Covid pandemic, becoming the fourth-most-streamed title on Netflix in March of 2020.
Petersen was born and raised in Emden, a port in the northwest of Germany. Speaking to the New York Times in 2001, he recalled waiting for sailors to throw goods from visiting ships. “On them were Americans with these big smiles on their faces, and they were throwing food down to us,” he said. “I had never seen before these oranges and bananas and chewing gum. We kids were like little rats down there, hungry, jumping on all that stuff. I have never forgotten that image of America.”
After secondary school in Hamburg, Petersen went on to study at the Film and Television Academy in Berlin. His early work for television included Die Konsequenz, a tale of a homosexual relationship sufficiently controversial for Bavarian broadcasters to black it out.
Based on a book by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Das Boot took two years to produce and ended up as the most expensive German film to that point. Two versions of the boat were constructed — one for the scenes shot on the surface, the other a swivelling tube for the interiors. A specially adapted Arriflex camera allowed the cinematographer to move through the small spaces without the considerably bulkier Steadicam technology.
Initially treated with some scepticism by audiences outside Germany, Das Boot ultimately succeeded as an anti-war drama that invited empathy with all those eaten up by a conflict still within living memory for many. “François Truffaut said it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because films tend to make war look exciting,” Roger Ebert wrote. “In general, Truffaut was right. But his theory doesn’t extend to Das Boot.” Ebert’s point was not that the film failed to be exciting — it is, at times, unbearably tense — but that the action sequences are always infused with proper dread and distaste. Petersen later talked about “working with the terrors of silence, which can be even more effective than the loudest sound effect in the world”.
His adaptation of the popular German fantasy novel The NeverEnding Story could hardly have offered a more dramatic shift in tone. Featuring a theme song by Limahl from the briefly enormous Kajagoogoo, the US-West German coproduction earned about $100 million worldwide (without much troubling the US market). Then came a few tricky years. Enemy Mine, an unacknowledged science-fiction reworking of John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific, failed to take off at the box office. Shattered, starring the then-popular Greta Scacchi and Joanne Whalley, progressed from cinema to VHS without much attention.
Petersen proved to be a dogged individual. Released in 1993, In the Line of Fire showed his gifts for sleek action and his affinity for offbeat actors. Eastwood does what he does as an ageing (even 30 years ago) Secret Service agent who, dogged by memories of the JFK assassination, goes up against a deranged former CIA man with plans to kill the current president. John Malkovich, then entering his pomp, owned the film as the hissing villain. That picture was a hit, as were Outbreak and, with Harrison Ford now actually playing the president, the agreeably daft Air Force One. Peterson was thus established as a big-name action director to compete with talents such as Michael Bay and Tony Scott. In 2000 he helped George Clooney finally achieve film stardom with his adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction book The Perfect Storm. Three years later, riding the post-Gladiator wave, Peterson directed Brad Pitt, Brendan Gleeson and Brian Cox in Troy, his indecently exciting take on The Iliad.
The run finally came to an end when, perhaps tempting fate with a third big maritime adventure, his 2006 remake of The Poseidon Adventure landed with a dull squelch. He made one more feature before his death, last Friday. But Petersen will be remembered for his deft handling of the shift from Europe to Hollywood. He will be celebrated for working a keen understanding of human nature into those hugely entertaining American pictures. Petersen will, however, surely have known that obituaries would begin and end with talk of Das Boot. It is the greatest submarine film ever made. It is one of the best war films ever made.
“To us America was something like a paradise,” Petersen said in that New York Times interview. “They have so much that they can throw it away, you know. And not just that, but they are good. They give it to you. They like you, even though you were the enemy.”