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'The NeverEnding Story,' 'Das Boot' director at 80

March 13, 2021

He's one of the most successful German filmmakers in Hollywood. Wolfgang Petersen's "Outbreak" also gained renewed popularity during the pandemic.

Wolfgang Petersen, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Munker
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Munker

When the COVID-10 pandemic broke out a year ago, many people turned to movies depicting the outbreak of a mysterious, deadly illness.

Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak from 1995 was one of those titles that suddenly reappeared on the list of most-watched movies, ranking for instance as the fourth most popular film on Netflix in the US on March 13, 2020. Featuring an all-star cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland, the medical disaster film was packed with action, helicopter chases and explosions.

But things turned out to be comparatively quiet in real life; the film director who was born on March 14, 1941 in the seaport city of Emdem, in north-western Germany, spent the past year mostly isolated in his Los Angeles home. 

Vaccinated against COVID-19 shortly before his 80th birthday, he now feels "really free," he told German press agency dpa, describing the experience of getting the shots as an "amazing" one. He was among the people vaccinated at the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, a vaccine super site, with 12,000 cars driving through every day and passengers getting vaccinated without even leaving their vehicle. 

Rene Russo in 'Outbreak'
An unknown deadly illness hits the fictional small town of Cedar Creek in California: Here, Rene Russo in 'Outbreak'Image: picture-alliance/United Archives

The director of cult films 'Das Boot' and 'The NeverEnding Story' 

Wolfgang Petersen's films combine solid skills with art — at least often enough to secure the northern German filmmaker a place of honor among Hollywood's foreign directors.

No other German director, apart from Roland Emmerich, has worked so successfully in the US since the end of World War II.

It all began with television, where Petersen learned the trade. At some point producers realized that the friendly young director held more promise than simply creating solid TV fare — and asked whether Petersen might be interested in filming the lengthy war novel Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. He said yes, and the rest is history: Das Boot was a huge success at home and abroad when it was released in 1981. The German film was even nominated for six Oscars.

In 1984, Peterson completed his next film, The NeverEnding Story — the most expensive film in German film history back then — back home in Germany. Just a year later, he was already working for an American studio, albeit in a film studio in Munich, where he shot the sci-fi film Enemy Mine.

Working with the Hollywood greats

Petersen's first real Hollywood movie was Shattered, in 1991. But it was In the Line of Fire two years later, a movie starring Clint Eastwood as a secret service agent, that made a difference.

Top US film stars including Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, George Clooney, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt followed Petersen's direction over the following years. He had gained the reputation of being a reliable worker and a compassionate colleague.

Petersen never made a secret of his enthusiasm for the US. He explained it probably went back to the post-war era, when Germans were so fed up and demoralized by everything that had happened during WWII. In contrast, "These Americans on their ships, well-fed and laughing, were a salvation," he once said. For him, the Americans were "representatives of a better world, rich, powerful and friendly."

"That was deeply engrained in me," he added — a gratitude still noticeable many decades after the war in his patriotic US film Air Force One.

Petersen's last Hollywood film was the 2016 Poseidon. A decade later, he returned to Germany to direct the crime comedy Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), starring  four of Germany's most popular actors, Til Schweiger, Matthias Schweighöfer, Michael "Bully" Herbig and Jan Josef Liefers.

Not planning on retiring any time soon, the 80-year-old filmmaker still has projects up his sleeve. He told dpa that the film he is now working on is a love story between a KGB agent and a young East German woman, set shortly before the Berlin Wall was built and based on a true story. While the production was interrupted because of the pandemic, Petersen hopes to get to shoot the film, with scenes set in Germany, Moscow and the Ukraine, during the summer of 2022.  

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture