Wolfgang Petersen, the German director who helmed some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, has passed away at the age of 81 following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. It’s another big loss for the film industry, but his legacy carries on with a filmography that is rich and diverse, from his breakout hit The Boat (Das Boot) in 1981 that brought him to the attention of Hollywood up to Poseidon, his 2006 remake of The Poseidon Adventure. While Petersen’s portfolio might be smaller than other directors’, the creativity behind his films is exceptional.
Die Konsequenz (The Consequence) (1977)
Gay actor Martin Kurath (Jürgen Prochnow) and 15-year-old Thomas Manzoni (Ernst Hannawald fall in love. After Kurath is released from jail, the two move in together after Manzoni is banished from his home by his father who also happens to be a prison warden at the jail Martin was held at. Their lives take them to Germany, but circumstances and betrayals force Manzoni to the streets, psychologically scarring him for life. The film plays to one of Petersen’s more common themes throughout his films, how life events psychologically affect the characters.
Das Boot (The Boat) (1981)
In 1942, the crew of a German U-boat is hunted by British destroyers, facing the very real possibility of death. Even more than The Consequence, The Boat is a study of the psychological impact, but in the face of wild extremes. The film plays into the claustrophobic aura that the characters are in, and how they deal with moments of sheer boredom to moments of very real, possibly deadly, danger. What Petersen does with the film that’s really interesting is how the characters try to rationalize why they are subjecting themselves to the horror of a war they don’t even understand.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Petersen lets loose with his creativity and imagination with The NeverEnding Story. The film follows Bastian (Barret Oliver), a young boy who is shown an ancient, dangerous, story book by the owner of a bookshop (Thomas Hill). He takes the book and reads it in the school attic and is drawn into the mythical land of Fantasia. From the luck dragon Falkor (Alan Oppenheimer) to the young warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), the film is simply beautiful to watch. Again, there’s that key Petersen element of encroaching danger and claustrophobia in “The Nothing,” which is slowly destroying Fantasia.
Enemy Mine (1985)
Humans are engaged in an intergalactic war against the Dracs, reptilian humanoids. Fighter pilot Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid) takes on Drac pilot Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.) in a vicious space dogfight. The two crash on Fyrine IV, and that’s where the bulk of the movie is set. Fyrine IV is a wasteland, and as they join together to survive, they learn more about one another. It’s an interesting parallel to The Boat, individuals trying to understand a war neither started but both are engaged in.
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Veteran Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is haunted by his failure to save President John F. Kennedy from death. Thirty years later, a man who uses the alias “Booth” (John Malkovich) threatens to kill the current president (Jim Curley). Petersen plays with another theme prevalent in his films, the ‘cat-and-mouse’. Booth taunts Horrigan mercilessly, full-on daring him to stop Booth from assassinating the president. We also see the mental impact this has on Horrigan – he’s already broken by Kennedy’s loss which he could have prevented, and now he feels the need to step up. Every balloon pop, every suspicious-looking spectator, almost everywhere Horrigan looks has the potential to be where Booth strikes.
Colonel Dr. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) is assigned to investigate a lethal disease in an African village. After assessing the threat, Daniels reports his findings to General Ford (Morgan Freeman) and his fear of the disease being brought back to the USA. When those fears are dismissed, a series of circumstances results in a smuggled monkey escaping into the US, spreading the disease to a small, California town. It’s another poke at the powers that be by Petersen, focusing on people forced to deal with the consequences of their superior’s decisions.
Air Force One (1997)
Die Hard on a plane: Air Force One. The President of the US (Harrison Ford) publicly outlines his new “Zero-Tolerance” policy with respect to terrorism. On the flight home, terrorists led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) take over Air Force One and threaten to kill one hostage every half-hour unless their demands are met. Like The Boat and Poseidon after it, Petersen’s penchant for films set in a contained area is utilized perfectly, as the rogue President’s ‘cat’ takes out the terrorist ‘mice’ one by one, with only so much room to remain undetected. Warning: Ending contains one of the worst examples of early CGI, so just run with it.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
A dramatization of a real-life tragedy, The Perfect Storm shares some DNA with The Boat. In October 1991, Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) and the crew of the sword-fishing boat, Andrea Gail, head out from Gloucester, Massachusetts for a final late-season fishing expedition. After a successful haul, the ship turns back towards Gloucester and into “the perfect storm,” a freak, natural event caused by extreme stormfronts and a hurricane. Petersen is relentless here – the danger is non-stop, and their only hope of survival is staying aboard the small boat, and Petersen follows the loss of that hope in the characters to the bitter end.
Adapted from Homer‘s The Iliad, Troy is set in 1250 B.C., where the Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) convinces Helen (Diane Kruger), the Queen of Sparta, to leave her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) and come back to Troy with him. This sets off a war between the Greeks, aided by Achilles (Brad Pitt), and the formidable Trojans. Troy is arguably the least Petersen-like of Petersen’s films, a straightforward action drama with a higher pedigree.
A remake of the classic 1972 disaster film The Poseidon Adventure, with an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. On New Year’s Eve, the luxury liner Poseidon capsizes after being swamped by an enormous, rogue wave. Career gambler Dylan Jones (Josh Lucas) sets out with a small group of other survivors to navigate through the upside-down nightmare and find safety. Claustrophobic, encroaching danger, psychological drama… pure Petersen.
Vier gegen die Bank/Four Against the Bank (2016)
Petersen’s final film sees him return to his native Germany to direct the action-comedy Four Against the Bank. Three men – boxer Chris (Til Schweiger), washed-up actor Peter (Jan Josef Liefers), and ad-man Max (Matthias Schweighöfer) – have been investing for ages, a nest egg for their lifelong dreams. However, unscrupulous bank manager Schumacher (Thomas Heinze) has purposely let the investment accounts of the men wither to nothing. The three men, along with wronged investment advisor Tobias (Michael Bully Herbig) hatch a crazy plan to take revenge against the bank. The film is Petersen’s final swipe at the bumbling of administration and how that negatively impacts the lives of those affected.