Nationality: German. Born: Emden, Germany, 14 March 1941. Education: Studied theater arts in Berlin and Hamburg at various drama schools, and at the Film and TV Academy in Berlin, where he directed short films. Career: Worked as assistant director at Jungen Theater, Hamburg, 1960; completed studies in film and theater and worked as stage director and actor at the Ernst Deutsch Theatre in Hamburg, 1964–1969; directed six 100-minute episodes for West German TV series Tatort (Scene of the Crime) , 1971–1976; directed first feature film, Einer von uns beiden , 1973; earned initial international acclaim with Die Konsequenz , 1977; directed first American feature, Enemy Mine , 1985. Awards: Prix Futura, Berlin Festival, for Smog , 1972; German National Film Prize Best New Director, for Einer von uns beiden , 1973; Prix Italia and Best Director Monte Carlo Television Festival, for "Reifenzeugnis" (episode of Tatort ), 1977; Bavarian Film Award for Best Director, for Das Boot , 1983. Agent: CAA, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Ich Werde Dich Toten Wolf ( I Will Kill You, Wolf ) (doc)
Smog (for TV)
Einer von uns beiden ( One of Us ; One or the Other ); Van Der Valk and the Rich (for TV)
Auf's kreuz gelegt ( Pinned to the Ground ) (for TV); Stadt imtal ( Town in the Valley ) (for TV)
Stellenweise glatteis ( Icy in Spots ) (for TV)
Hans im gluck ( Hans' Good Fortune ) (for TV); Vier genen die ank ( Four against the Bank ) (for TV)
Die Konsequenz ( The Consequence ) (+ co-sc); Plannbung ( The Rehearsal ) (for TV)
Schwarz und Weiss wie Tage und Nachte ( Black and White like Day and Night ) (for TV) (+ co-sc)
Das Boot ( The Boat ) (+ sc) (originally a TV mini-series)
Reifezeugnis ( For Your Love Only ) (+ co-sc)
The NeverEnding Story (+ co-sc)
Shattered (+ sc, co-pr)
In the Line of Fire (+ co-exec pr)
Outbreak (+ co-pr)
Air Force One (+ co-pr)
The Perfect Storm (+ co-pr)
Interview with P. Pawlikowski, in Stills (London), April 1985.
Interview with D. Osswald, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), May 1986.
Naha, Ed, article in New York Post , 16 February 1982.
Curtin, John, article in New York Times , 15 July 1984.
Article in Variety , 25 July 1984.
Pourroy, J., article in Cinefex (Riverside, California), February 1986.
Honeycutt, Kirk, article in Los Angeles Times , 17 June 1990.
Chutnow, Paul, article in New York Times , 6 October 1991.
Weinraub, Bernard, "Great Expectations Help Two Directors Enjoy the Summer," in New York Times , 6 July 1993.
Anderson, John, article in Newsday (Melville, New York), 8 July 1993.
Abbott, D., "Turning America's Anxieties Into Big-Screen Suspense," in On Production and Post-Production (Los Angeles), no. 4, 1995.
Grob, N., "In the Line of Light," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), June 1996.
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In a review of Wolfgang Petersen's first theatrical feature, Einer von uns beiden —a suspense drama of romance, blackmail, and murder—a Variety critic noted that "After some 20 TV pix, many of them detective stories, Wolfgang Petersen is recognized as West Germany's leading action director in the Hollywood vein."
Not all of Petersen's early films fit into the action genre. The Consequence , for example, is a drama that charts the romantic relationship between an imprisoned gay male and the son of one of his guards. But Das Boot , the film which brought Petersen to international prominence, might easily have been a Hollywood-produced submarine movie spectacle. At the time of its release, Das Boot was the most expensive German film ever made; it originally was shot as a six-hour television mini-series, and was to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever released in the United States.
Das Boot is a breathtakingly filmed drama detailing the plight of a German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic during World War II. What is especially impressive about the film is that its scenario runs its course entirely within the tight confines of the vessel. With skill and precision, Petersen uses a Steadicam to visually capture the manner in which the claustrophobic quarters and the constant fear of going into battle affect the crew members, without allowing the lack of space to hamper his directorial style. Furthermore, the film takes on an antiwar aura in that there is an ever-present sense of the wastefulness of war, and the needlessness for the men to have to endure their experience aboard the U-boat. Ironically, Americans who see the film come to empathize with the various characters and pull for their survival—even though, at the time in which the film is set, Germany was America's enemy. Das Boot is at once an action-spectacle with a provocative point-of-view, a tremendously thrilling entertainment—and an impressive Hollywood calling card for Petersen.
The director's next noteworthy production (as well as first English-language feature) is The NeverEnding Story , a German-British-made fantasy about a boy who envisions the story he is reading in a book. Petersen effectively employs his skills as an action director as the book comes alive and a young hero takes on an evil wizard who has threatened to destroy the Kingdom of Fantasia. Unfortunately, the filmmaker faltered in his first two American-made films. Enemy Mine is a middling science-fiction tale, while Shattered is a just-adequate Hitchcock clone about a car crash victim attempting to patch together his life after becoming an amnesiac.
With In the Line of Fire , Petersen redeemed himself and proved that he is capable of making a smashingly entertaining, financially successful, big-budget Hollywood nail-biter. Clint Eastwood plays one of his best roles in a non-Eastwood directed film as an aging Secret Serviceman, haunted by his failure to come between President John F. Kennedy and an assassin's bullet in November 1963, who now must contend with a sadistic killer who aspires to murder the current U.S. chief executive. The director's follow-up, Outbreak , is another topical thriller, in which an army researcher (Dustin Hoffman) races to halt the spread of a killer virus. The film's limitations have to do with the script; what starts out as a credible thriller soon degenerates into a cartoon-like fantasy littered with counterfeit heroics. But Petersen's direction consistently is first-rate. By the late 1990s, the filmmaker was firmly entrenched as a director of slick, high-profile/high-budget Hollywood action-adventures. He returned to the U.S. president-in-danger theme with Air Force One , a topnotch thriller featuring Harrison Ford as a chief executive who, along with his family and staff, is taken hostage by Kazakhstani terrorists while onboard the presidential plane. Petersen also directed one of the most anticipated movies of the year 2000, The Perfect Storm , based on Sebastian Junger's account of a fishing boat lost at sea in a huge storm.
—Audrey E. Kupferberg