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Jurgen Pronchnow in ‘Das Boot,’ a 1981 Wolfgang Petersen-directed film about German U-Boats in World War II.

Mr. Movie: Wolfgang Petersen

Wolfgang Peteresen, who died recently at age 81, was born and raised in Germany. His Dad was a Naval officer and that influenced his interest in the sea and figures in several of his films.


The first bunch of films he directed are German. Frankly, none are very memorable. And then came Das Boot (1981). It got him noticed and an Oscar nomination. He lost to Richard Attenborough for Ghandi


In 1987 he moved to California and for a while was an A-list director with a string of popular films. He very deliberately made movies people would want to see. And they did. 


Das Boot (1981) is a first-rate suspenser about a German submarine's war. In one unforgettable scene, the boat has to dive far below its limit to avoid detection. Rivets start popping like gunshots. We're chewing our nails, and suddenly realize we're pulling for the enemy. The essential humanity of these sailors, and the ironic ending, place Das Boot squarely in the forefront of war movies. Jurgen Prochnow is superb as the captain. The director's cut is available. I usually much prefer subtitles to dubbing, but the dubbing in this one is excellent.


The Never-Ending Story (1984) is a real charmer. A bookish preteen (Bastian) discovers a magic book that transports him to Fantasia, an idyllic place unfortunately being attacked by The Nothing. He is enlisted by the residents to help them and he does amid adventures galore. This is Petersen’s first film in English. 


A complete change of pace is the nail-biting In The Line Of Fire (1993) with Clint Eastwood as U.S. Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan, wracked with guilt by his failure to save John F. Kennedy from the assassin’s bullet in Dallas. He is assigned to help guard the current president who is running for re-election and touring the country. Horrigan’s identity and detail are hacked by Booth, who says he will kill the president. That’s all I’m telling. 


The world was scared xxxless by Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, crafted into an equally scary movie, Outbreak (1995), directed at fever pitch by Wolfgang Petersen. Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo are physicians trying to curb the spread of mobata, which is thinly disguised ebola. There are good and bad guys galore as the couple races to save humanity. 


The special effects, even on a small screen, are alone worth the trip to see The Perfect Storm (2000). George Clooney is the captain of a commercial fishing boat caught at sea during a combined hurricane and nor’easter (hence the title). After a particularly bad streak of fishing, he decides to try once more though the storms are close at hand. Various rescue attempts fail and waves intensify and a rogue wave higher than a skyscraper rolls toward the little boat. 


Mr. Petersen’s directing skills are also on view in Shattered (1991), Enemy Mine (1985) and Air Force One (1997). 


His remake of The Poseidon Adeventure, Poseidon (2006), was so awful it knocked him out of any meaningful work. He made one more film in Germany before his death.


All of the films in this article are available on DVD. All are for adults.