Hollywood is full of directors who pinball from one assignment to the next, leaving their mark at the box office—and later on cable and streaming programming—only to be ignored when the conversation turns to greats like Spielberg or Scorsese. Wolfgang Petersen was one of these directors. In the wake of his death on August 12 at the age of 81, a look back at his work, from an Oscar-nominated turn with Das Boot to the popcorn extravaganza Air Force One, reveals titles that resonate long after the end credits roll.
Petersen was the type of filmmaker who makes the often hyperbolic phrase “that director can do anything” actually ring true. From gritty ’80s sci-fi like Enemy Mine, to grounded ’90s thrillers such as Outbreak and In The Line Of Fire, the German director’s string of memorable hits during Hollywood’s blockbuster heyday proves that almost nothing was beyond his reach as a storyteller. (I mean, the guy made a CG tidal wave a star in 2000’s The Perfect Storm, the biggest financial success of his career).
The early 2000s seemingly served as a retirement of sorts for the director, after the uneven spectacle of 2004’s Troy (his first period epic) and the 2006 disaster movie remake Poseidon. But his otherwise impressive filmography shows a filmmaker who excelled at delivering compelling stories to mass audiences about complicated characters. The five films listed below reinforce just how versatile Petersen was as a director.
Arguably Petersen’s most underrated film (and certainly one of his most underseen), The Consequence (or Die Konsequenz in its native Germany) is a black and white, emotionally raw piece of LGBTQIA+ filmmaking. Based on Alexander Ziegler’s 1975 autobiographical novel of the same name, Petersen’s stirring adaptation centers on a gay prisoner’s love for his warden’s younger son and the homophobia that they endure in a world that won’t accept their relationship. Originally released as a made-for-TV movie in West Germany, The Consequence showcases what would become one of Petersen’s signature traits: Finding the story’s most emotionally honest beats and letting them shine.
As difficult and chest-tightening as Consequence is to watch at times, especially with its documentary-like depictions of the hate crimes the characters endure, Petersen vividly juxtaposes the stark landscape and the beating heart of its against-all-odds love story. While Petersen would never make a film like this during his lucrative tenure in Hollywood, many of his narrative hallmarks can be traced back to his excellent drama.
White-knuckle tension courses through Das Boot’s veins, thanks to Petersen’s deft handling of one of World War II’s most harrowing (and unsettling) true stories. Unlike most films set during that period, Das Boot grounds its slow-burn submarine thrills on the backs of the enemy—a German U-Boat crew—as they struggle to navigate a war that turns icy seas into burning battlefields. The longer the sailors stay underwater, the more entombed within the metal walls of their submarine they feel, and it’s here within this claustrophobic, morally fraught pressure cooker that Petersen uses relentless, sweaty close-ups to truly deliver a submarine movie unlike any other.
Petersen, who earned best director and screenplay Oscar nominations for the film, doesn’t lionize his fellow Germans. Rather he paints them with an objective “this-is-how-the-other-half-lives” lens. Instead of relegating these men to a glorified footnote in the pages of WWII history, the director explores the emotional toll of their mission while rattling the audience’s bones like depth charges.
Yes, Petersen is responsible for scarring many an ’80s kid with the death of Arteyu’s mighty steed, Artax, in The NeverEnding Story. His pull-no-punches approach to adapting Michael Ende children’s book invests its rich fantasy world with real stakes, as an awkward boy, Bastian (Barret Oliver) sequesters himself to read about the impending demise of Fantasia at the hands of the vulpine Nothing. In doing so, Bastian finds himself, in a meta-y twist, becoming a key character in the very story he’s narrating.
Bolstered by impressive physical puppet effects (Falkor the Luck Dragon still slaps) and a stirring synth score by Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder, Petersen navigates several challenging tonal shifts (some more successfully than others) with a uniquely unflinching take on one child’s battle for a fictional world, the stakes of which are nothing less than the limits of his imagination.
Cat-and-mouse thrillers peaked with the summer 1993 sleeper hit In The Line Of Fire starring Clint Eastwood, Rene Russo, and John Malkovich. The latter was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar (and the film received a best original screenplay nod) for his portrayal of psychopath Mitch Leary, a former CIA “wet boy” assassin who taunts veteran Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) with phone calls threatening to assassinate the movie’s fictional president. A guilt-stricken Frank was on duty in Dallas when JFK was killed, and the three shots that rang out that day in Daley Plaza still echo within him as he races to stop Mitch before he finds himself standing over the grave of another dead president.
Jeff Maguire’s safe tumbler of a script (rumored to have been given a dialogue polish by Aaron Sorkin) clicks into place so snugly that one would assume that all a director has to do is show up, turn on the camera, and collect an easy paycheck. But turning those dials to deliver the exact amount of tension each scene needs is not easy, even as Petersen’s orchestration makes it feel effortless. As effective as he is with exciting chase scenes and boots-on-the-ground detective work, the director truly shines with his execution of the smaller, more intimate (and sometimes funny) moments between Frank and his love interest, Agent Raines (Russo)—the best of example of which is a second-act confession where Frank, backlit by a sad nightscape outside his downtown Los Angeles hotel room, lets out 30 years of built-up regret and grief by sharing with Raines what he saw that fateful day in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Eastwood delivers arguably his most vulnerable leading man performance ever, trembling with tears as he recounts why this “burnout with questionable social skills” remains on active duty, running alongside Presidential motorcades in the hopes that he can one day take a bullet that took three decades to reach its target. Petersen’s unobtrusive staging of the scene, coupled with John Bailey’s minimalist cinematography, lets the moment play out with maximum emotional impact—a signature of Petersen’s Hollywood films that emphasizes his gift for mining popcorn entertainment for an emotionally charged payload.
Air Force One, the second-biggest commercial hit of Petersen’s career, is also his most popcorn-y. The film exemplifies his aptitude for staging big-budget, star-driven, multiplex-friendly action, while striving to be nothing more than “Die Hard on the President’s plane.” It’s the most entertaining and accessible version of that story, one that could have been told with phone-it-in performances or overcooked set pieces. Petersen’s Old School Hollywood approach meets the material where it’s at here. Moreover, he wisely gets out of the movie’s way so audiences get what they paid to see: Harrison Ford punching and shooting terrorists at 35,000 feet. (The posters emphasized this element, marketing the film with extreme close-ups of Ford clutching a machine gun above the “just-take-all-my-money-now” tagline of “Harrison Ford is the President of the United States.”)
Fueling the mid-flight tension is a dizzying B-story on the ground, as the Vice President (Glenn Close, in a full-throated performance) struggles to navigate White House politics while fielding demands from Russian terrorist Gary Oldman to release imprisoned General Radek (Das Boot’s Jürgen Prochnow). Despite the clunky and rushed CG of the crashing plane during the finale, Air Force One delivers exactly the the type of adult-friendly summer movie audiences wish that Hollywood still made—and the type of movie that Petersen was the king of making.