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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,551

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This is the grave of Wolfgang Petersen.

Born in 1941 in Emden, Germany, Petersen was the son of a German naval officer. The father seems to have survived the war. Petersen grew up mostly in Hamburg, was super into the movies, and started playing with an 8 mm camera when he was a kid. He got involved in local theater productions and was directing plays in Hamburg by the early 60s. He studied theater in Berlin and Hamburg and ended up at the Film and Television Academy in Berlin between 1966 and 1970. He was a little older to be going to film school, but he was very serious about his craft (what aren’t the Germans serious about?).

After graduating, Petersen started getting gigs directing the popular German TV show Tatort, which still exists and has been on since 1970. It’s basically a police procedural. I’ve never seen it, but maybe some of you with more knowledge of Germany culture than I have seen it. Anyway, Petersen got to know the actor Jurgen Prochnow while directing the show and they would prove a productive pair. He also directed Nastassja Kinski in one episode when she was still a very young actor.

In 1974, Petersen made his first feature film. One or the Other of Us starred Prochnow in a thriller about a battle between a university student and his professor. The film did very well and won several major German film prizes. Haven’t seen it myself; probably should try to change that. Then he directed Die Konsequenz, which was adapted from a novel about a gay relationship. This was a radical novel for German culture (the author had actually served over two years in prison for sex with a minor young man and it was the book where he really processed this). A lot of Germany refused to show this movie. Petersen was seen as a madman of German film for daring to go down this road.

Then, in 1982, came Das Boot. In my view, and I am most certainly not alone here, this is one of the greatest war movies ever made. One of the things I love about this film–and I’m not sure another film did this better until Dunkirk–is how the film stripped away most of the politics (they were Nazis after all, so you weren’t exactly wanting to root for them) and the social context and just stressed the lived experience of being on this submarine in all the life-threatening situations that it faced. Plus of course the end of the movie, which I loved. Yes, of course there were Nazi and anti-Hitler people in the boat and that added to the tension, but really it was secondary to the experience. Jurgen Prochnow was awesome as the submarine captain. It was a big risk, being one of the most expensive films ever made in Germany to that time. Let’s just say it paid off. Who doesn’t want to see an ideal war film (unless of course you just don’t like war films, which fair enough)? It was released in the U.S. in both German and dubbed versions. Das Boot was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Director for Petersen. That was not easy for a foreign film to do, then or now. It happens, but not often.

What’s more, it was not nominated for Best Foreign Film because West Germany submitted Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo as its official entry. Well, I can’t argue against that great and insane film. Not surprisingly I suppose, the film really did divide Germany, as some saw it as pro-war. I don’t think that’s right, but it’s also not anti-war I don’t think, which in the German context of the 1980s might as well be the same thing. On the global scale though, it was universally lauded. Many consider it an anti-war film these days, but I don’t get it. Seems like reading something into the film that isn’t there.

I’m not sure all this was great for Petersen’s career, for he went to Hollywood and like a lot of European directors blinded by the Hollywood limelight, he became more a competent director than a great one. 1984’s The Never Ending Story most certainly is beloved by a lot of people, though in context it is worth noting that this was still a German production, just with American actors, including Gerald McRaney. But what Petersen really turned into was a capable director of above-average action movies and political thrillers. There’s really nothing wrong with that. In the Line of Fire and Air Force One are both respectable movies. Well, Air Force One is ridiculous but at least of some level of quality. Harrison Ford throwing the guy off the plane while shouting “GET OFF OF MY PLANE” is peak ridiculousness in action movie catchphrases of the era, no doubt. In the Line of Fire is one of Eastwood’s best later era movies precisely because he wasn’t directing it.

Petersen became the choice to direct gigantic blockbusters by the late 90s. So he directed The Perfect Storm and Troy and the remake of The Poseidon Adventure. None of these are very interesting movies, but I guess they are fine. I mean, if I am going to want dumb movies, I would rather see films like this than the MCU or other comic book and superhero foolishness. What we can really say here is that Petersen liked Hollywood. He liked the money, a lot. He liked the lifestyle. I don’t think he really saw himself as an artist in the way that his contemporary Werner Herzog did. He was an entertainer and that’s OK. He lived in Los Angeles permanently beginning in 1986 and became an American citizen.

Again, there’s nothing really wrong with any of these films. But Das Boot is so great and so far and away his best film that one wonders what could have been if he was interested in doing more challenging projects than Air Force One later in his career.

Petersen mostly retired after Poseidon in 2006. He considered other big budget projects but withdrew from them consistently. He did decide to go back and direct a German language film in 2016, Vier gegen die Bank is a heist film and I haven’t seen it. Sounds potentially interesting.

Petersen died in 2022. He was 81 years old. Pancreatic cancer. Yucky. Don’t wish that on anyone. Well, maybe Ed Meese.

Wolfgang Petersen is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California. I think we can all appreciate a director having a bench near his grave with the names of his films emblazoned on it, though regular people can’t do something like sit on it. I guess that’s for family. Fair enough.

If you would like this series to visit other people nominated for Academy Awards in 1983, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sidney Lumet, nominated for Best Director for The Verdict, is in Elmont, New York. Charles Durning, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, is in Arlington, Virginia. That would be a fun one. And don’t forget that I heading South this spring for multiple grave trips and any help and suggestions with that help is very much appreciated!! Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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