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Wolfgang Petersen Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at the career of filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen. His career spanned four decades in which he worked in various genres and demonstrated a talent for crowd pleasing entertainment.

Petersen was born in Germany in 1941. His father had been a naval officer during World War II and growing up in the aftermath of the Third Reich, Petersen was wary of looking up to the older generation in his own country. Hollywood films provided visions of hope and heroism. Petersen was especially entranced by High Noon, the story of a lawman who stands alone against a murderous criminal gang when all his friends desert him. Peterson once told The Hollywood Reporter, “I knew my teachers at school had been Nazis, I couldn’t look up to them. But I could look up to Gary Cooper.”

In the mid-1960s Petersen began making short films and directing stage plays. He connected with actor Jürgen Prochnow and Petersen and Prochnow would collaborate many times over the course of their careers including Petersen’s first directorial feature Einer von uns beiden (One or the Other) which earned Petersen a German Film Award for Best New Director. In 1977 Petersen and Prochnow collaborated on the drama Die Konsequenz (The Consequence), a movie about two gay men that was groundbreaking at the time but ran into problems with censors in Germany and elsewhere. Peterson continued distinguishing himself with documentaries and directing for television, including the popular police anthology series Tatort.

Petersen’s career was changed by 1981’s Das Boot. The film was a World War II drama about the crew of a German submarine and their struggle to survive. The film was based on the popular book by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and it was initially developed to be an American production first with John Sturges directing and Robert Redford as the U-boat captain and later with Don Siegel and Paul Newman. When both of those productions fell apart, the Hollywood studios exited the project and Wolfgang Petersen was recruited to direct Das Boot as a German film, in the German language, with German actors including Jürgen Prochnow as the captain. The result was one of the most outstanding naval films ever made and a unique war film with its electronic score by Klaus Doldinger and its sympathetic view of German characters. Das Boot exists in several different versions. The original theatrical cut was 149 minutes. There was also a television miniseries version which consisted of six 50-minute episodes. Petersen later created a 208 minute director’s cut.

After the international success of Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen’s next project was 1984’s The NeverEnding Story. In subject and tone this was very different from his World War II drama. The NeverEnding Story was based on the popular book by German author Michael Ende. Although it was distributed by Warner Bros in the United States and featured English speaking actors, The NeverEnding Story was a German production and it was the most expensive German film made to that point. The NeverEnding Story is a fantasy told in a frame narrative in which a troubled boy reads a book of fairytales. The film got mixed reviews and The NeverEnding Story only did modest business in its U.S. theatrical release. However, The NeverEnding Story has had an impressive afterlife. A lot of young people saw this film when it showed on television and became available on home video and for viewers of a certain age The NeverEnding Story was a formative film. Homages to the picture show up regularly in pop culture. The band Atreyu takes its name from one of the characters and the television show Stranger Things used the theme song, returning it to the music charts thirty-five years after the film’s release.

Wolfgang Petersen followed The NeverEnding Story with the science fiction movie Enemy Mine. In the midst of an interstellar war between human beings and an alien civilization, warriors from each side crash land on a desolate planet and they must work together to survive. Wolfgang Petersen was not the first choice to direct the film. It was already filming when the producers fired director Richard Loncraine and replaced him with Petersen who completely reconfigured the look of the project. The film became extraordinarily expensive for its day and was a financial disappointment. However, Enemy Mine has undergone a reappraisal as a science fiction movie that pushed against xenophobia and militarism. 

After 1985’s Enemy Mine, Petersen didn’t direct another film until 1991’s Shattered. The movie was a psychological thriller that failed to impress anyone nor did it do much business.

Petersen returned to form with 1993’s In the Line of Fire. The movie starred Clint Eastwood as a veteran Secret Service agent who is taunted by an assassin who plans to kill the President of the United States. According to Petersen, it was Eastwood who recommend him for the directing job and Petersen delivered a tight and suspenseful action thriller. The love story between Eastwood’s character and a female Secret Service agent played by Rene Russo hasn’t aged so well (thirty years later, Eastwood’s character would be fired for sexual harassment) but In the Line of Fire includes one of Eastwood’s best performances as well as a great supporting turn by John Malkovich as the assassin.

In the Line of Fire was a success that restored glory to Wolfgang Petersen’s career and it was the first in a string of hits. His next movie was 1995’s Outbreak which was based on Richard Preston’s 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Outbreak imagined a deadly virus spreading in an American town and the efforts of health officials and the military to contain it. It is very much a Hollywood movie that succeeds as a rousing thriller but lacks credibility. The end of Outbreak is especially stupid. But it’s also an example of the kind of comfort fantasy that Hollywood specializes in producing and Petersen was adept at creating. It was a success in 1995 and Outbreak became one of the most watched films in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Throughout the 1990s, action movies repeatedly reiterated variations on the Die Hard formula in which a lone hero faced a crew of terrorists and rescued hostages. Among the films of this trend was Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One in which the lone hero was the President of the United States, played by Harrison Ford. Terrorist take over the Air Force One aircraft and it is up to the President to save the day. Air Force One is silly but it’s one of the better Die Hard imitators and a fun action movie of its day. 

Nineteen years after Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen returned to the sea with 2000’s The Perfect Storm, an adaptation of the nonfiction book by Sebastian Junger. Unlike the optimistic Hollywood fantasies of Outbreak or Air Force One, The Perfect Storm was a downbeat story of fishermen struggling to survive a severe storm and it featured some groundbreaking visual effects. The movie was criticized for its emphasis on spectacle but the fantastic visuals and the popularity of the book turned The Perfect Storm into a box office success. 

The 2004 film Troy was an adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad and it dramatized the Greek assault on the city of Troy. It was a large sword and shield epic with an esteemed cast that included Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox, and Peter O’Toole. The film was part of a fad of similar movies released in the aftermath of Lord of the Rings and Troy was one of the most successful titles of that trend. Internationally it was the biggest box office hit of Wolfgang Petersen’s career. The theatrical version of Troy ran 163 minutes. A 196 minute director’s cut has been issued on disc.

Wolfgang Petersen again returned to oceanic adventure with 2006’s Poseidon. The movie was a remake of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and like the original it imagined a cruise ship turned upside down in the middle of the ocean and a group of survivors must find their way to the surface. The movie was extremely expensive and did not perform well at the box office. Poseidon would be Wolfgang Petersen’s last film for Hollywood.

Petersen would direct one more movie: 2016’s Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), a German film which was a remake of Petersen’s own 1976 TV movie. He died in August 2022.

Looking at the trajectory of Wolfgang Petersen’s career, his early work demonstrated a willingness to push boundaries and challenge the audience that his later Hollywood films did not. None of his later projects were ever as subversive as Das Boot and Die Konsequenz. Viewed cynically, Petersen’s career suggests he traded substance for spectacle. But based on comments he made in interviews, Petersen was probably most interested in making crowd-pleasers–the influence of High Noon bears this out–and there is nothing wrong with that. And even in his big spectacle movies we can find a thematic through line that connects Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock of Das Boot, Atreyu of The NeverEnding Story, Frank Horrigan of In the Line of Fire, and Hector in Troy. These characters face their immediate foe but also combat the apathy and indifference and stupidity of social and political power structures. Petersen’s success as a filmmaker was directly tied to his ability to entertainingly spin yarns of virtuous lone heroes in a way that played to the audience.

Here is a 2000 interview featuring Wolfgang Petersen on the Charlie Rose Show: