Download: The Curious Career of Wolfgang Petersen
Of the many extraordinary filmmakers (Wenders, Herzog, Fassbinder, Shlondorff, and von Trotta, just to name a few) who made up the late ‘60 to mid-’70s German New Wave cinema, Wolfgang Petersen is the director who went on to have the greatest commercial success. I suspect this is both a bit of a blessing and a curse when considering Petersen’s legacy.
Petersen’s career as a director started in 1965 and for the next decade, his work largely consisted of shorts and television movies. In 1974, Petersen helmed his first feature film One or the Other, a thriller involving the blackmail of a university professor that turns violent. Starring his soon to be muse Jurgen Prochnow and Elke Sommer, One or the Other was well-received by critics and was the official German submission for the Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Film.
Three more years of television work followed before Petersen directed his second feature film, The Consequence, a groundbreaking study of the homosexual relationship between an inmate (Prochnow) and the son of the warden of the facility where the prisoner is housed. The two men try to make a life for themselves once Prochnow’s Martin is released, but the world as they know it won’t let them be, and tragedy ensues. Quite controversial at the time, many television stations throughout Europe would go on to ban the film from broadcast.
Then, in 1981, came Petersen’s international breakthrough, Das Boot. A truly remarkable film that dared to show German soldiers from World War II as actual human beings, and not just Nazi villains, Petersen’s epic film of German submariners experiencing claustrophobia and boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror was a true sensation across Europe and even in the United States. Incredibly expensive for its time (the budget was $15 million), Das Boot has become a touchstone of German cinema and one of the greatest films about men at war ever made, regardless of language. Working once again with Prochnow as the U-boat’s captain, Das Boot earned six Academy Award nominations (including two for Petersen in the screenplay and director categories).
After the massive success of Das Boot, Hollywood came calling. Petersen’s first two efforts in English could not have been more different. First came the children’s cult favorite The Neverending Story. Like Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, the film suffered from poor reviews, and lord knows the special effects do not hold up at all, but it did find an audience and remains a staple for those who came of age in the ‘80s to this day.
If possible, his follow up effort, 1985’s Enemy Mine was even goofier. Two members of warring factions (human Dennis Quaid and lizard-like creature Louis Gossett Jr.) find themselves stranded on a barren planet and must learn to work together to survive. If one is being charitable, you might find echoes of Robinson Crusoe in Enemy Mine (although I’m not sure which actor would be Friday), as well as a clunky, if well-meaning treatise on racism. I remember seeing Enemy Mine as a teen and really loving it, and then revisiting it a decade later and wondering what the hell was wrong with my younger self. That being said, Gossett is really quite good here, finding ways to emote under more prosthetics and makeup than any actor since John Hurt in The Elephant Man.
Budgeted at $29 million, Enemy Mine was a sizable flop, not even grossing half of its cost. Petersen’s follow up, the forgettable film noir Shattered, starring Tom Berenger, Greta Scacchi, and Bob Hoskins fared no better, and Petersen’s journey as a filmmaker in America seemed to have stalled.
However, Petersen bounced back with five financially successful films in a row, starting with the Clint Eastwood secret service thriller, In the Line of Fire. While no one would confuse In the Line of Fire with the high art of Das Boot, it was certainly a more than serviceable action drama that added some grace note concerning Eastwood’s age and also contained a firecracker performance by John Malkovich as a deranged assassin. In the Line of Fire was a huge hit, and it set forth a template that Petersen would find great success over the next decade: that of a professional action-film director who gave the audience what it wanted, and sometimes just a little more.
In 1993, Petersen scored his second consecutive hit with the pandemic thriller, Outbreak. While nowhere near in the same league as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion from 2011, it was still a fun night out and earned respectable grosses thanks to Petersen’s muscular direction and a loaded cast (Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo, and Kevin Spacey among others).
Two years later, Petersen teamed with Harrison Ford to create one of the biggest non-Star Wars, non-Indiana Jones hits of Ford’s career with Air Force One. While the film at times played like a relic of the ‘80s (with a Russian terrorist played by Gary Oldman), it certainly played well with audiences, becoming a massive hit across the globe despite leaning pretty heavily into the “American exceptionalism” cliché. But hey, when Ford, as the fictional President Marshall, kicks Oldman’s baddie in the face and while crankily spouting the words, “Get off my plane!.” well, the damn thing just works.
Peterson’s hot streak continued in 2000 with his adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s true-life disaster tale, The Perfect Storm. While the screenplay too often veered into the maudlin when showcasing the fates of a boat full of Gloucester fisherman (and I’m not so sure George Clooney was all that convincing playing a Gloucester, Mass guy), Petersen certainly delivered the aquatic spectacle the film required. I also loved his attention to the details of the shipping boat, such as how they coolers work to keep the fish cold while on an expedition. I wish the film would have had more of those kinds of specifics, but that lack of nuance didn’t get in the way of the turnstiles at the box office spinning like mad.
Four years would pass before Petersen directed another film, but when he did, he returned with his biggest, most epic production of his career, Troy. In telling the tale of Achilles, Hector, and the Trojan Horse, Peterson did everything he could to keep the film’s spectacle at the fore, which was a good idea considering how thin the script was. As Hector, Eric Bana delivered the best post-Chopper performance of his career, Dian Kruger (as Helen of Troy) was introduced to a larger audience, and, it must be said, while Brad Pitt might not have been perfectly cast as Achilles, he was never filmed so lustrously before or since. I saw Troy with a packed house, and when Pitt first appeared on screen, multiple gasps could be heard. Hell, one of them was mine. Troy did well enough at the box office, but wasn’t quite the massive hit the studio must have hoped for. That being said, it’s hard to find a solitary man (and a lot of women) who don’t remember it fondly.
Petersen’s hot streak ended with a misguided remake of The Poseidon Adventure (simply titled Poseidon), a film no one was asking for, but I suppose if you were going to make a film about a nautical disaster, the man behind Das Boot and The Perfect Storm was the right guy to film it competently.
Another ten years would go by before Petersen would make another film. In 2016, he returned to Germany to Vier gegen die Bank, a comedic thriller about a group of men who rob a bank that cost them their life savings. Sadly, Petersen’s final film, in his native Germany, would not receive good reviews and came and went without fanfare. Vier gegen die Bank would be Petersen’s last film.
The full resume of Petersen is an odd one to assess. He started out as a maker of art films, had a massive success with Das Boot that led (eventually) to other huge hits in America that while netting great returns at the box office, sort of made Petersen look a bit like a director for hire — a solid action-film craftsman whose American films lacked the personality of his early work.
At the same time, while Petersen’s output may have been eclipsed in overall quality by the German filmmakers he came onto the scene with, it is absolutely a fair argument to make that the greatest film of the German New Wave is Das Boot.
No matter what one makes of what followed, that cannot be taken away.
Wolfgang Petersen died on August 12, 2022. He was 81 years old.