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Obituary for "German Spielberg": Hollywood director Wolfgang Petersen has died

Created: 08/17/2022, 10:40 am

On the death of director Wolfgang Petersen, who was not only the most successful German in Hollywood – he also set standards on German television.

At a time when a deep gulf separated the respected auteur film from entertainment cinema in Germany, Wolfgang Petersen walked over it as light-footedly as if they didn’t exist. From today’s perspective, it seems almost inevitable that sooner or later this path will lead to Hollywood and there to the most expensive segment, the blockbuster cinema.

And yet Wolfgang Petersen’s career broke all standards. Only the Emdener himself, with North German modesty, was happy to let the secrets of his success be forgotten with a relaxed smile: Uncompromising quality awareness and the endurance that goes with it.

Cinema and TV director Wolfgang Petersen – The “German Spielberg”

However, it was initially television that opened up to his amazing flair for innovative genre formats. After the ARD had bought his one-hour graduation film from the Berlin film school dffb, the dark thriller “I will kill you, wolf”, the NDR offered him several episodes of the young Tatort series. “Blechschaden”, episode 8 of what is probably the most successful German crime series, was also Klaus Schwarzkopf’s debut in the role of Inspector Finke.

Regisseur Wolfgang Petersen anlässlich der Preisverleihung der 57. Internationalen Filmfestspiele in Berlin. Er lächelt leicht. (Archivbild)
Director Wolfgang Petersen was considered the “German Spielberg”. (Archive image) © IMAGO / Seeliger

Petersen was later celebrated as a kind of German Steven Spielberg – in fact, the parallels began here. Both filmmakers had tried their hand at Super 8 in their youth and initially proved their talent for the big screen on screen.

And while the American was directing a “Columbo” episode, Petersen made a “crime scene” hero out of the voice actor of the investigator played by Peter Falk. And just as Spielberg created a kind of blockbuster for the screen with his early work “Duel”, Petersen succeeded in doing something similar for Germany with “Smog”.

Wolfgang Petersen: Hollywood legend escaped censorship

The film written by Wolfgang Menge – today one would say: event film – uses the specific qualities of the medium for a reality thriller. Many viewers thought the smog catastrophe in the Ruhr area, presented in the style of a television report, was real and worried they called the broadcaster.

The industry-critical perspective had already prompted a CDU state politician to make an unsuccessful attempt at censorship in parliament. The television reflected its typical forms of representation in an amazing way – similar to how Wolfgang Menge had already succeeded in 1970 with “The Million Game”.

Spielberg, Fassbinder, Petersen – Careers in Hollywood

At the time, however, the productive Petersen was more than a “German Spielberg” but a kind of cooper for the “street sweeper”, as the popular television films were called. The man, who later spent years preparing his Hollywood films, directed three jobs a year in the mid-1970s – including his first feature film from 1974, “One of Us Two”. A student (Jürgen Prochnow) blackmails a professor (Klaus Schwarzkopf) for plagiarism, but encounters unexpected resistance.

At that time, such concentrated thrillers were more likely to be seen in German cinemas from French or British provenance, which was well appreciated: Petersen was honored as a young director at the German Film Prize. Of course, he no longer lacked experience. Not everything he shot at the time became a classic, but it still deserved a reunion. Like the WDR two-parter “Die Stadt im Tal” (1975), a political thriller about corruption in a small town crazed with renovation.

Wolfgang Petersen: German Hollywood director has died

In the following year, the crime comedy “Four Against the Bank” about a group of hobby bank robbers from better circles was far more successful – filmed a second time in 2016 by Petersen himself with Til Schweiger, Matthias Schweighöfer, Jan Josef Liefers and Michael Herbig. But no television film that Petersen directed became a greater classic than the sixth and last of his “crime scenes”: “Reifezeugnis”.

Part coming-of-age story, part psychodrama, this story about the relationship between a 16-year-old schoolgirl and her teacher is only a “crime thriller” at second glance – and it is precisely this that shows the television series new paths. He even opened up a world career for the leading actress Nastassja Kinski. Petersen himself must have recognized at this point that his talent was far greater than the opportunities that television could offer him.

Cinema, Hollywood and TV: Wolfgang Petersen’s career

In Bernd Eichinger he found a young producer who shared Petersen’s idea of sophisticated audience cinema. Together they realized “The Consequence”: The gay love story, again with Jürgen Prochnow in the leading role, photographed in nuanced black and white, would also be a rarity outside of German film history: only a few films for a mainstream audience at the time addressed the problem of discrimination against homosexuals.

Prochnow, too, was soon to have the director to thank for an international career: “Das Boot”, for which Petersen, the son of a naval officer, also wrote the screenplay based on Lothar Günther Buchheim’s novel, blew up all dimensions in terms of production. The budget of 32 million DM is one of the largest in German film history.

Wolfgang Petersen – The German who made a career of Hollywood

The film, which was also shown successfully in the USA, was nominated for six Oscars and paved the way for the careers of numerous actors, including Heinz Hoenig, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Jan Fedder, Martin Semmelrogge, Claude-Oliver Rudolph, Ralf Richter and Herbert Grönemeyer.

The most impressive thing, however, is the realistic staging of the cramped spaces within the true-to-scale model of the U-96 and the hand-shot pictures by a master of his craft, Joos Vacano. Add to that the intoxicating soundtrack of Klaus Doldinger, who had already set Petersen’s first feature film to music. Petersen’s own career also took another big step forward as a result of this worldwide success: all of his other films had budgets in the tens of millions.

Hollywood director Wolfgang Petersen – “The Boat” and “The Neverending Story”

From today’s perspective, the hybrid conception of different cinema and television versions also appears visionary. The 149-minute 1981 theatrical version was followed three years later by a double-running television series. And finally – in 1997 – a director’s cut followed as a happy medium, especially an extension in terms of sound.

What “Das Boot” was for adult films, Petersen’s next major project was for family films. The Neverending Story adapted the first half of Michael Ende’s fantastic bestseller for the big screen. The author of the draft largely fell on deaf ears with his criticism.

Wolfgang Petersen: Hollywood, Blockbuster and TV

Even from today’s perspective, Petersen’s film is a prime example of the untranslatability of literary poetry into the cinematic medium. The space of the imaginative is limited to what is tangibly visible in Petersen’s film. But those who get involved recognize their own loveliness – in the liveliness of the characters and the handmade poetry of the effects and backdrops.

This is exactly where Petersen’s later Hollywood blockbusters were to maintain their lead over the everyday: the human dimension defied the effort that surrounded it. Most convincingly in three films in which Petersen also revived the social criticism of his television thrillers. He directed “In the Line of Fire” at the invitation of leading actor Clint Eastwood, who had admired “Das Boot”.

“The Outbreak”, this thriller made oppressively topical by the corona pandemic, relates a deadly thriller to armaments policy: while doctors are trying to find an antidote, the military wants to protect its deadly weapon. Finally, in Air Force One, Harrison Ford plays a US President whose plane is hijacked by terrorists supporting a ousted Kazakh dictator.

In the early 2000s, Petersen easily mastered projects that would have been intimidating to perform on their own. These included the $200 million Troy project, one of the few successful attempts – along with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator – to revive the “sandal movie”.

Wolfgang Petersen: Director in Hollywood

The fact that a subsequent director’s cut was also required here in order to see Petersen’s actual conception proved once again the perseverance of this extraordinary filmmaker: he pushes it through, with an extra million from the studio. Diane Kruger in the role of Helena also owes Petersen the decisive boost to her world career.

“Computers and technology lead to isolation, but the cinema is one of the last places where we come together in a shared experience,” Petersen was convinced. Now it has survived him too. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81 in his home town of Brentwood, a borough of Los Angeles. Glenn Close, one of the stars of “Air Force One”, recalled the most successful German in contemporary Hollywood as “a man full of life, doing what he loved most”. (Daniel Kothenschulte)

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