In America, German virtues such as efficiency, rationality, pragmatism and inventiveness are valued. These peculiarities were not always used for the good of mankind, and that has not been forgotten in the USA either. But in America’s entertainment industry, which unashamedly considers itself an industry, marrying showmanship and entrepreneurship to play the big emotional keyboard has always been considered an art. So it was only logical that the director Wolfgang Petersen went to Hollywood in 1987, when German cinema had long since become too small for him, and there he also became one of the greatest American directors, so to speak.
A childhood dream came true for the boy from Emden right behind the dike, who bought cinema tickets at the age of twelve with the money he had painstakingly saved in order to enthuse about America in the westerns by John Ford and Howard Hawks. And it is comforting to think that the most American of all German directors – or perhaps the most German of all American? – has now found his last resting place in this place of longing.
Wolfgang Petersen died on Friday at his home in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles, at the age of 81 from pancreatic cancer. A death that came as a surprise to many. Because although Petersen’s career had taken a significant hit since his 2006 flop Poseidon — a disaster film by any measure — he was still active. In 2016 he even returned to Germany, after almost thirty years, to shoot a remake of his early work “Four Against the Bank”: German blockbuster cinema with Til Schweiger, Matthias Schweighöfer, Jan Josef Liefers and Michael Herbig.
In his adopted country, Petersen had not made the leap from old studio Hollywood to the Hollywood of hedge fund managers, as he later admitted with contrition. His name was a bank in the 1990s. Movies were marketed with this name – even if they starred Dustin Hoffman, George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Petersen had even had the right to the “final cut” contractually guaranteed: No executive was allowed to fiddle with his films.
Petersen had the last word on his films
Today, this only happens to directors of the stature of Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan or David Fincher. The kind of action films with which Wolfgang Petersen became a Hollywood great are now shooting working drones whose names are forgotten again at the latest after the credits. At that time, however, people still went to the new “Wolfgang Petersen” to see how Clint Eastwood saved the American President from an assassin’s bullet with a death-defying leap in “In the Line of Fire” (1993). Or Brad Pitt defending Troy in an unfavorably short leather loincloth (2004). Incidentally, Petersen also discovered the young Diane Kruger for this film.
The way to the top was mapped out early on for Wolfgang Petersen, the son of a naval officer. But he worked hard for it. His parents gave him a Super 8 camera, and even in high school he emulated his heroes Ford and Hawks; he received his first directorial work at the Junges Theater in Hamburg, where he also assisted. In 1966 he belonged to the first year of the newly founded German Film and Television Academy Berlin (Dffb), alongside eminently political filmmakers such as Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky and, yes, Holger Meins.
Only four years earlier, the young wild ones had declared the old guard (“Papa’s cinema”) dead with the “Oberhausen Manifesto”. Hollywood suddenly didn’t just seem incredibly far away for young Wolfgang. It was also pretty much the most uncool thing you could imagine among his left-wing fellow students.
A stroke of luck for German television too
And since at the end of the 1960s there was no place in German cinema for a director who thought in conventional categories such as story, characters and dramaturgy (an experience shared by his colleague Roland Klick), Petersen did the unthinkable: he went to television . Everything that German film was weary of in Hollywood in those years was all the more needed for television. Wolfgang Petersen became his stroke of luck.
If you still occasionally hear today that television used to be better, that has a lot to do with him. With his six “Tatort” films about Commissioner Finke, played by Klaus Schwarzkopf, he made TV history. Above all, of course, the scandalous film “Maturity Examination” with the underage Nastassja Kinski as a young girl at a secondary school who seduces her teacher.
At the time, television was the perfect playground for Petersen to learn the trade: those German virtues that later made him such a popular actor-director in Hollywood. Petersen told SZ last year that Clint Eastwood had personally chosen him to direct In the Line of Fire. His “Tatort” films had a sensitivity for atmosphere and characters and ran dramaturgically smoothly without appearing routine. And in 1973 he had already fulfilled a childhood dream with “Tatort: Jagdfieber”: a Western in Holstein Switzerland, with the young Jürgen Prochnow as an escaped convict fleeing from the police.
Petersen and Prochnow were a dream team in German film in the 1970s. Together, the two also made an unjustly forgotten film about two men in a love affair that was unable to overcome the social and moral barriers of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1977 – and ended tragically. With “The Consequence”, Petersen, who also wrote the screenplay, showed for the first time in the cinema that he was often wrongly discredited as apolitical. And that his Hanseatic boldness (he shows the FRG in loveless black and white) got along well with the melodrama.
A soft spot for old-school movie moguls
Their next film together would change everything. Many consider “Das Boot” – initially a cinema film in 1981 that was nominated for six Oscars (but not received) and later also an event miniseries for television – to be the gravedigger of German auteur films. And the beginning of the official cinema. However, he opened all the doors to Hollywood for the director, leading actor and cameraman Jost Vacano. It’s certainly no coincidence that Petersen achieved his two biggest successes in this country on behalf of producer zampanos who got inspiration from old-school American film moguls.
With Günter Rohrbach, his mentor on “Das Boot”, and Bernd Eichinger, for whom he shot “The Neverending Story” in 1984, Petersen developed a taste for the Hollywood brand studio system. With a budget of DM 60 million, the lavish fantasy fairy tale was the most expensive German film to date. A better calling card for America could hardly be imagined.
Bad reviews, Wolfgang Petersen later said, bothered him at first, but he got over his ego. He accepted early on that his type of cinema – with the exception of “Das Boot” – was not suitable for the big film awards. He was still a pioneer: Petersen shot feature films for television decades before the emergence of the streaming giants.
What has often been dismissed as commercial about his films has a lot to do with a childhood imprint, his love for America. It’s no wonder that films like “In the Line of Fire” or “Air Force One”, in which Harrison Ford takes on terrorists on his own as US President, are more patriotic than the films of many of his US colleagues. Because they were also a thank you to his beloved adopted country. Wolfgang Petersen often recalled an image in interviews: as a little boy after the war he stood on the dike and the Americans on their ships seemed like heavenly apparitions to him. They brought things from overseas that he had never seen before. Wolfgang Petersen returned this gift throughout his life, from Emden to Hollywood.