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Wolfgang Petersen, Oscar-nominated director of ‘Das Boot,’ dies at 81

He was later known for making action-packed blockbusters like ‘Air Force One’ and ‘The Perfect Storm’

Filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen earned two Oscar nominations as the writer-director of the 1981 film “Das Boot,” set on a German U-boat during World War II. (Mary Evans/Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection)

Wolfgang Petersen, a German filmmaker whose 1981 drama “Das Boot” earned global acclaim for its humane depiction of U-boat sailors during World War II, and who later had a long Hollywood career directing action-driven blockbusters including “Air Force One,” “The Perfect Storm” and “Troy,” died Aug. 12 at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to a statement shared on Tuesday by his representative Michelle Bega.

After launching his directing career in the 1960s on West German television, Mr. Petersen was vaulted to international prominence by “Das Boot,” or “The Boat” (1981), a harrowing antiwar film that brought audiences inside a cramped, sweaty German submarine during World War II. “The film is like a documentary in its impact,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert, observing that there were sequences “when we feel trapped in the same time and space as the desperate crew.” He added, “Wolfgang Petersen’s direction is an exercise in pure craftsmanship.”

Mr. Petersen said he had initially worried about the film’s reception in the United States. When he went to the Los Angeles premiere, he was alarmed to see the audience burst into applause as an opening title card noted that 30,000 German submariners died during the war. By the time the film ended 2½ hours later, he told the New Jersey Record, “the audience was in tears, in shock, and totally turned around by the message: ‘OK, I know these guys were the other side, but if you cut through to the bottom, what war is all about, is kids on all sides getting killed.’ ”

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Mr. Petersen receiving two Oscar nods for his direction and screenplay, which he adapted from a novel by German author Lothar-Günther Buchheim. “Das Boot” grossed more than $80 million worldwide and reportedly became the highest-earning foreign-language movie ever released in the United States, where Mr. Petersen went on to work with Hollywood stars such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Glenn Close, Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman.

Even as he transitioned to big-budget action thrillers, Mr. Petersen sought to maintain a focus on intimate human drama in movies such as “In the Line of Fire” (1993), featuring Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent trying to hunt down a would-be assassin, and “Air Force One” (1997), which made $315 million at the global box office and became one of the decade’s most popular action films, starring Harrison Ford as a U.S. president battling terrorists hijacking the presidential jetliner.

He also ventured into fantasy with “The NeverEnding Story” (1984), his first English-language movie, adapted from a best-selling children’s novel by Michael Ende. After three years working on “Das Boot,” Mr. Petersen said he was rejuvenated by the film, which celebrated the power of imagination and featured a flying dragon-dog and a magical kingdom called Fantasia. “If people don’t dream anymore, they won’t survive,” he told the New York Times, adding, “The whole idea of the film is that we need your imagination, your dreams, your wishes, your creativity to fight against all these dangerous problems in the world.” (The film spawned two sequels made without his involvement.)

Mr. Petersen later transported viewers to the world of Homer’s “Iliad,” directing the big-budget war film “Troy” (2004) with Pitt. He seemed especially comfortable working from historical material and journalistic research, adapting Richard Preston’s nonfiction book “The Hot Zone” into “Outbreak” (1995), a medical thriller about the spread of an Ebola-like virus. He later directed Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in “The Perfect Storm” (2000), based on Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction account of a Massachusetts fishing vessel lost at sea.

The film grossed more than $180 million at the box office, and offered Mr. Petersen a chance to return to a maritime setting without having to reenter the narrow tube of a submarine. Much of the movie was filmed in a specially constructed studio tank that helped Mr. Petersen create the illusion of monster waves threatening to capsize the Andrea Gail, which was tossed about like a toy boat.

“When the water crashes over the boat, we provided that with our dump tanks,” he told an interviewer with the Directors Guild of America. “The tanks were high up and filled with about 2,000 gallons of water. They slide down with enormous speed and crash onto the floor, and send mountains of water over the boat with unbelievable power. All 200 people on the stage had a wonderful time watching it, with the exception of the six actors on the boat.”

Wolfgang Petersen was born in Emden, Germany, a port city near the North Sea, on March 14, 1941, and grew up in an era of postwar deprivation. He often lingered with other young Germans at the harbor, in the hope of catching candy thrown by American sailors coming into port on warships he described in almost mythical terms.

“They were like a spaceship, like a close encounter thing, and we were crazy about those beautiful ships,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “On them were Americans with these big smiles on their faces, and they were throwing food down to us. I had never seen before these oranges and bananas and chewing gum. We kids were like little rats down there, hungry, jumping on all that stuff. I have never forgotten that image of America. To us America was something like a paradise.”

By the early 1950s, his family had settled in Hamburg, where his father was a shipbroker and Mr. Petersen embraced American pop culture that had flooded Germany after the war — especially cinema. He hunted down every book he could find about filmmaking and used an 8mm camera to direct a western short with a few friends, paying homage to Hollywood tropes by including a card game scene, a saloon fistfight and a high-noon shootout.

At 19, he became an assistant director at a theater in Hamburg. He also studied acting at schools in Hamburg and Berlin before earning an apprenticeship for German TV in the late 1960s, gaining recognition for his taut direction of crime dramas and stories about obsession. One of his earliest feature films, “One or the Other” (1974), about a student who blackmails a professor, earned a national cinema honor. That he completed it on a budget of less than $1 million also boosted his stature as a director who excelled under financial pressure.

His later work included “The Consequence” (1977), a melodrama about the sexual relationship between an incarcerated young man and the prison warden’s teenage son, which generated controversy in Germany for its sensitive, forthright depiction of gay love. That same year, he directed “For Your Love Only,” a feature-length episode of a TV crime series, about the affair between a teacher and a schoolgirl, played by Nastassja Kinski, who was promptly launched to stardom in Germany.

Around that time, executives from Bavaria Studios persuaded him to make “Das Boot,” his first higher-budget film. Mr. Petersen insisted on unswerving accuracy to re-create the look and feel of a submarine, evoking what he described as “the smell of reality, the blood, the sweat and the tears, the claustrophobia.”

“We wanted to make sure every bolt and every screw in the boat was real,” he told the Silicon Valley newspaper Metro. “Our designers were obsessed with reality. I cannot imagine that almost 50 people spent months in one of these cigars without killing each other. That was our task and the challenge — me and my cinematographer, Jost Vacano — we’d either kill each other or make a great movie.”

It took two years and hundreds of artisans to build two submarines and giant machines that would jostle them to re-create an aura of fear and turbulence. Wielding an Arriflex camera outfitted with a gyroscope, Vacano moved through the set while wearing “padding like an ice-hockey player,” Mr. Petersen recalled, “which was good because he was always running into things. Sometimes it took 16 takes to get the right shot.”

His first marriage, to actress Ursula Sieg, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Maria-Antoinette Borgel, who worked as an assistant director on several of his early films; a son from his first marriage, Daniel Petersen; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Petersen moved into American filmmaking with a pair of box-office disappointments — the science-fiction movie “Enemy Mine” (1985) and the Alfred Hitchcock homage “Shattered” (1991) — before bouncing back with “In the Line of Fire,” which grossed nearly $190 million and earned John Malkovich an Oscar nomination for his performance as a CIA veteran trying to assassinate the president.

After the release of “Troy,” which grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide but received mixed reviews, Mr. Petersen directed “Poseidon” (2006), a big-budget remake of the 1972 disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure,” which was savaged by critics. Mr. Petersen professed not to care about bad reviews, saying that too often reviewers were snobbish about his movies, failing to recognize the fact that they kept viewers glued to their seats.

“I want to tell a story everybody loves,” he told the Times after the premiere of “The NeverEnding Story.” “Another director might say: ‘That’s my vision and whoever understands it and loves it, fine. Whoever doesn’t, please go out!’ But that’s not me.”

Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.