Famed Action Director Wolfgang Petersen Has Died

Wolfgang Petersen, the acclaimed director of Das Boot, Air Force One, and The Neverending Story has passed away.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

Wolfgang Petersen

Wolfgang Petersen, the Academy Award-nominated director of action, fantasy, and war films has died. The German director had a career that spanned decades, languages, and multiple genres of film. According to Variety, Wolfgang Petersen was 81 and had been suffering from pancreatic cancer for some time. He died in his Los Angeles home, survived by his second wife, script supervisor and assistant director Maria-Antoinette Borgel, and his son, Daniel Petersen.

While Wolfgang Petersen gained his greatest successes with big-budget Hollywood pictures, he began with much smaller projects. Born in the German city of Emden in 1941, Petersen directed theatrical productions in Hamburg and eventually, television programs. In particular, Wolfgang Petersen was noted for his work on the well-regarded German police procedural Tatort; he would go on to direct six episodes of the series and meet actor Jürgen Prochnow, who he would direct in Das Boot and Air Force One

Concurrently with his work on Tatort (which is still airing as the longest-running German television drama ever), Wolfgang Petersen directed a number of made-for-television movies and film shorts. He would gain international fame for Das Boot, an adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, which drew on his experiences during World War II. Das Boot was written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen and was released as both a theatrical film and a television mini-series. It was widely acclaimed for its portrayal of German men serving in a submarine during wartime and was nominated for six Academy Awards (with Wolfgang Petersen personally receiving nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay). 

Wolfgang Petersen would make his English language film debut with 1984’s fantasy film The Neverending Story, adapted from a novel by Michael Ende. The movie was a box office success, grossing $100 million, and was mostly well received by critics for its philosophical tone and visual effects. It also began a franchise, with several sequels and a television series following it. From there, Wolfgang Petersen would begin to rapidly switch dramas and become known in Hollywood for increasingly large-scale films. 

He directed Enemy Mine, a science fiction film starring Dennis Quaid and Lou Gosset Jr as marooned soldiers that form a bond through hardship and survival in the midst of an interstellar war. The director followed that with a psychological thriller titled Shattered. Both movies were not enormous financial successes, but the following Clint Eastwood/John Malkovich spy thriller In the Line of Fire, the Dustin Hoffman pandemic movie Outbreak, and Harrison Ford’s presidential action movie Air Force One all were.

In the 2000s, Wolfgang Petersen made increasingly large and special effect-heavy movies. The Perfect Storm, starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, and Troy, starring Brad Pitt and Eric Bana, were both massive successes. Wolfgang Petersen left a massive and lasting impact in Hollywood through his multigenre talents and his ability to turn what could be ridiculous premises into huge successes. His last film Vier gegen die Bank was released in 2016 and he seems to have settled into peaceful retirement before his death. Rest in peace, Wolfgang Petersen.