Director Wolfgang Petersen, who passed away last Friday at the age of 81, never forgot the first-ever American screening of tie boot, in 1982. How the audience in Los Angeles applauded loudly when his West German war classic started showing that of the 40,000 German submarine crew, 30,000 died during World War II. Such was the sentiment: dead Germans, that was a good thing. But after Petersen’s masterfully claustrophobic film about the crew of the U-96 submarine, based on the autobiographical war novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, there was a standing ovation from the Americans. “The hostile audience took a turn,” the director later said. And even seemed to be able to put themselves in the shoes of ‘the Nazis’, who are fighting a losing battle in their underwater coffin, and not all of them turn out to be fans of the führer in the film.
tie boot, a tense thriller without a happy ending, was also a testimony to the lack of ideological perception of the submarine branch of the German Kriegsmarine. Filmed with a revolutionary camera system for the tight space by the German cameraman Jost Vacano, already known for his films with Paul Verhoeven: Soldier of Orange, splashes. The Dutch director, who also continued to work with Vacano in Hollywood (Robocop), called tie boot in 2011 in de Volkskrant still ‘the best war film ever’.
tie boot broke through the low-hanging ceiling for the German war film in the early 1980s and became a worldwide hit. Critically acclaimed, honored with six Oscar nominations. The film took Petersen to Hollywood, where the West German successfully mastered the better formula film in the 1990s. In the Line of Firewith Clint Eastwood as the president’s security guard. breakout, with Dustin Hoffman as virologist. And Air Force One, with Harrison Ford as the ideal action president. Over the next decade, the German had another colossal hit in 2000 with his spectacular sailing thriller The Perfect Stormto after the somewhat stiff spectacle Troy (with Brad Pitt as Greek hero Achilles) to disappoint himself with the flopped disaster movie Poseidon.
In his Hollywood thrillers, Petersen valued righteous heroes and clear dividing lines between right and wrong. According to him, a reaction to the ‘moral vacuum’ of his post-war childhood in Germany, in which war guilt was taboo. Born in Emden in 1941, Petersen was shaped as a filmmaker by the American film harvest poured out over Germany in the 1950s. After his theater studies and training at the film academy, he worked in the 1970s, among others, for the crime series that had just started Tatort. Petersen also directed The Consequenza film adaptation of the autobiographical novel about the life of the gay actor Alexander Ziegler, whose television broadcast in 1977 was interrupted by the German broadcaster: the subject was considered too controversial.
‘So many directors have that one film,’ Petersen once said of the importance of shooting it afterwards tie boot for his career. The title that changed everything for you and that people will talk about forever. I’m lucky to have that film.’
Yet his film resume includes another decade-long classic that has been firmly rooted in pop culture, now again in the hit TV series and 1980s era. Stranger Things: The NeverEnding Story, Petersen’s film adaptation of Michael Ende’s German fantasy youth novel. Filleted by various critics upon its release in 1984, because of the erratic special effects and the rather dejected tone for a youth film, but cherished by generations of children.
After a 10-year hiatus, Petersen returned to Germany to direct his last feature, the crime comedy Celebrate that Bank from 2016. Comedy was a genre for which Petersen was not proficient enough in the English language, he thought.
The director had pancreatic cancer. He died at his home in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family.