Wolfgang Petersen, film director best known for his claustrophobic U-boat drama Das Boot – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries

Wed, 17 August 2022 at 1:33 pm

Wolfgang Petersen in 1985 - kpa/United Archives via Getty Images
Wolfgang Petersen in 1985 – kpa/United Archives via Getty Images

Wolfgang Petersen, who has died aged 81, was the German director of several water-based thrillers; they include the tense U-boat drama Das Boot (1981), which gives a realistic account of the squalid and confined conditions of underwater warfare during the Second World War in which the viewer can almost smell the sweat, oil and tears.

Adapted from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s semi-autobiographical 1973 novel of the same name, Das Boot was one of the most expensive postwar German films, and eventually one of the most commercially successful. Unusually for a foreign-language film it was also a hit in the US, earning six Academy Award nominations including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Petersen.

“With 45 people on a boat maybe you can tell more about war than big battles with thousands and all that kind of thing,” explained the director, who shot Das Boot in sequence over a year so that the crew’s increasingly shaggy appearance meant they looked as if they had been cooped up together for a lengthy period of time. “It’s the claustrophobia of the boat,” he added. “They can’t run away, there’s nowhere to go. It’s just them, they’re facing their fears with each other, and that’s it.”

Released in Britain as The Boat, the film had a sparse storyline, reflecting the terror, boredom and humour of life in an underwater tin can. In the autumn of 1941, U-96 scours the Atlantic, sinks several ships in an Allied convoy and is itself hunted by British destroyers. The crew, who are repeatedly depth-charged, narrowly escape after their vessel hits the seabed near Gibraltar.

Finally, they struggle back to base at La Rochelle in occupied France only to be caught there by an allied bombing raid. Along the way they deride the inflated rhetoric of their leaders in Berlin, show respect for their adversaries, and adopt the British Army’s First World War song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.

Petersen on the set of Das Boot with Jürgen Prochnow, who played the U-boat captain - PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy
Petersen on the set of Das Boot with Jürgen Prochnow, who played the U-boat captain – PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Production executives at Bavaria Film Studios had, by their own admission, little interest in attracting “World War II vets in their TV slippers”. Instead, Das Boot was intended to conjure in the minds of a younger audience the visceral excitement of such Hollywood fare as Jaws. “The film was done in a very realistic way,” added Petersen. “You really felt that war is hell, especially submarine warfare, where they felt like sardines.”

His other films include In the Line of Fire (1993), a taut political thriller starring a harried Clint Eastwood as a secret service officer haunted by his failure to prevent President Kennedy’s assassination, and Outbreak (1995) with Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, about a deadly virus that spreads from Africa to California.

Directing Clint Eastwood in their 1993 film In the Line of Fire - Bruce McBroom/Sygma via Getty Images
Directing Clint Eastwood in their 1993 film In the Line of Fire – Bruce McBroom/Sygma via Getty Images

There was also Air Force One (1997) with Harrison Ford and Glenn Close in which the US president’s aircraft is hijacked by Kazakh terrorists, ironically while he is returning home from delivering a “zero tolerance for terrorists” speech in Moscow, and The Perfect Storm (2000), based on a true story and featuring George Clooney as the captain of a fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, that was lost at sea in 1991.

In somewhat different vein, Petersen’s first English-language film had been The NeverEnding Story (1984), a children’s fantasy unkindly dubbed “the neverending movie” by some critics. Based on the novel by Michael Ende, it tells of a solitary young schoolboy (Barrett Oliver) who is drawn into the fantasy world he reads about in a magical book and helps to save the life of an ailing empress.

Yet his biggest drama was Troy (2004), a $175 million adaptation of Homer’s epic starring Brad Pitt, Brian Cox and Diane Kruger. It involved 1,000 ships, 20,000 arrows, 4,000 shields, 1,250 extras including 250 recruited from a Bulgarian sports school for their physical prowess, a few dozen stuntmen and a 38ft wooden horse.

On the set of Air Force One with Gary Oldman - Getty Images
On the set of Air Force One with Gary Oldman – Getty Images

“No one will have seen battles like this before,” Petersen enthused in a British interview before its release. “These are the most realistic on film.” As with Das Boot and The NeverEnding Story before it, Troy was released to mixed reviews, yet like them it went on to achieve international box-office success.

Wolfgang Petersen was born in Eden, Lower Saxony, close to the Dutch border with north-west Germany, on March 14 1941, the year in which the events of Das Boot take place. He was the son of a German naval officer who later worked for a shipping company in Hamburg, to where the family moved during his childhood.

Growing up in postwar Germany he experienced hunger, recalling that whenever an American ship docked the townspeople clustered on the shore, waiting for the grinning sailors to toss oranges, bananas and chewing gum to them. “We kids were like little rats down there, hungry, jumping on all that stuff,” he said.

Brad Pitt rallies the troops in Troy - AJ Pics/Alamy
Brad Pitt rallies the troops in Troy – AJ Pics/Alamy

By the age of eight he had been introduced to film. “When I was 11, I decided I wanted to become a film director,” he told German Playboy in 1985. He was 14 when he received an 8mm film camera for Christmas, using it to create his own slapdash western complete with saloon, poker game, fist-fight and shoot-out.

He was educated at the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums, a prestigious school in Hamburg, and after working as an actor and director in local theatres he enrolled in film school. Shortly after graduating he made his directorial debut for German television with Ich werde dich töten, Wolf (I Will Kill You, Wolf, 1971), about a woman who takes a train to Berlin intending to kill an actor friend named Wolf.

It was followed by several TV movies including The Smog (1972), dealing with pollution and influenced by the realist style of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds, featuring newsroom scenes and “live” reporting from the industrial heartland of the Ruhr. The Consequences (1977) was a serious study of underage homosexuality in Germany and Switzerland that became one of the most controversial films in German television history and gained some traction in this country.

In 1984 Petersen, a mild and round-faced figure, remade Das Boot as a three-part miniseries for television, twice as long as the original film. Three years later he settled in Santa Monica, California, the ideal base from which to direct his big-budget English-language films.

George Clooney attempts to cling on to his vessel in The Perfect Storm
George Clooney attempts to cling on to his vessel in The Perfect Storm

He returned to the water in 2006 with Poseidon, a remake of the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure, following the fate of the passengers after their luxury liner is capsized by a giant wave. Before filming he forgot to inquire if the cast could swim. “He just assumed,” said the actress Emmy Rossum, who played the daughter of Kurt Russell’s character. “I think he was just gonna throw me in and see how I did and then, ‘Well if she dies, we’ll just kill her off’.”

This time however, he had a flop on his hands, and there would be no box-office redemption. Thereafter he retired, only re-emerging a decade later with a final German-language film, Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank, 2016) an unlikely crime comedy about four men who vow to take revenge on the bank that has wronged them.

Wolfgang Petersen’s first marriage, to the German actress Ursula Sieg, was dissolved, and in 1978 he married Maria-Antoinette Borgel; they had met when she worked on the script for The Smog. She survives him with a son from his first marriage.

Wolfgang Petersen, born March 14 1941, died August 12 2022

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