Wolfgang Petersen, director of Das Boot and Air Force One, dies aged 81

“‘Das Boot’ isn’t just a German film about World War II; it’s a German naval adventure epic

Wolfgang Petersen, one of a handful of foreign directors to make it big in Hollywood, whose harrowing 1981 war film, “Das Boot,” was nominated for six Academy Awards and became one of Germany’s top-grossing films, died on Friday at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to Michelle Bega, a publicist at the agency Rogers & Cowan PMK in Los Angeles. His death was announced on Tuesday.

Mr. Petersen was the most commercially successful member of a generation of filmmakers active in West Germany from the 1960s to the ’80s, whose leading lights included Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. But he was equally known in Hollywood.

Over five decades Mr. Petersen toggled between his native Germany and the United States, directing 29 films, many of them box-office hits like the 1990s political thrillers “In the Line of Fire,” with Clint Eastwood, and “Air Force One,” with Harrison Ford.

With a knack for genre filmmaking — action films were another strong suit — he also made forays into fantasy (“The NeverEnding Story”), sword-and-sandal epic (“Troy”) and science fiction — all while attracting marquee names to star in them, like Dustin Hoffman in “Outbreak,” Brad Pitt in “Troy” and George Clooney in “The Perfect Storm.”

For all his success in Hollywood, however, “Das Boot,” a tense drama about sailors on a German U-boat during World War II, is the work for which Mr. Petersen will mostly likely be remembered. In the English-speaking world, that frequently mispronounced title alone (“Boot” is spoken exactly like the English “boat”) has attained a kind of pop-cultural status, thanks to references on “The Simpsons” and other TV shows.

“‘Das Boot’ isn’t just a German film about World War II; it’s a German naval adventure epic that has already been a hit in West Germany,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review in The New York Times when the film opened in the U.S. in early 1982.

The movie won high praise for its historical accuracy and the clammy, claustrophobic effect achieved by the cinematographer Jost Vacano, who shot most of the interior scenes with a small hand-held Arriflex camera. Although the critical response in Germany was divided, with some accusing the film of glorifying war, it encountered a more uniformly positive response abroad. Nowadays it is considered among the finest antiwar films ever made.

“Das Boot” (also titled “The Boat” in English-speaking countries) grossed over $80 million worldwide, and though it did not win an Academy Award, its six Oscar nominations — including two for Mr. Petersen, for direction and screenplay, and one for Mr. Vacano, for cinematography — remain a record for a German film production. (It was not nominated in the best-foreign-language-film category; West Germany’s submission that year was Mr. Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” which did not make the Academy’s short list for the Oscar).

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