NEW YORK — Wolfgang Petersen, the German filmmaker whose World War II submarine epic “Das Boot” propelled him into a blockbuster Hollywood career that included the films “In the Line of Fire,” “Air Force One,” and “The Perfect Storm,” died Friday at his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood. He was 81.
His representative Michelle Bega said he had pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Petersen, born in Emden, Germany, made two features before his 1982 breakthrough, “Das Boot.” Then the most expensive movie in German film history, the 149-minute “Das Boot” (the original cut ran 210 minutes) chronicled the intense claustrophobia of life aboard a doomed German U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic, with Jürgen Prochnow as the submarine’s commander. Heralded as an antiwar masterpiece, “Das Boot” was nominated for six Oscars, including for Mr. Petersen’s direction and his adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s best-selling 1973 novel.
To Mr. Petersen, who grew up on the northern coast of Germany, the sea long held his fascination. He would return to it in the 2000 disaster film, “The Perfect Storm,” a true-life tale of a fishing boat out of Gloucester lost at sea.
“The power of water is unbelievable,” Mr. Petersen said in a 2009 interview. “I was always impressed as a kid how strong it is, all the damage the water could do when it just turned within a couple of hours and smashed against the shore.”
“Das Boot” launched Mr. Petersen as a filmmaker in Hollywood, where he became one of the top makers of action adventures of massive cataclysms that spanned war (2004′s “Troy,” with Brad Pitt), pandemic (the 1995 ebolavirus-inspired “Outbreak”), and other ocean-set disasters (2006′s “Poseidon,” about the capsizing of an ocean liner).
Scenes from “The Perfect Storm,” based on the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, were shot in Gloucester. The book details the final voyage of the Andrea Gail at the end of October 1991 into the teeth of one of the most powerful noreasters of the past century. All six crew members would perish.
It was essential, Mr. Petersen told The Boston Globe, that he capture the essence of that historic port.
“Most of my concern was to get the feel of it right,” he said. “The reality of the characters, the world of the fishermen. Maybe being German might be an advantage, to see it at a little bit of a distance.”
He spent much time, with actors George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, in Gloucester before and during filming.
“One night I was sitting around and this captain, this skipper, had a little too many beers and he was dancing with his girlfriend on the dance floor and he came over to me and he put his arm around me and looked very deep into my eyes and said, ‘Make it real,’” Mr. Petersen said. “He had, I would not say a threat in his voice, but he was very clear about it. Again he said, ‘Make it real.’ It gave me a little bit of the shivers.
“I said to myself, ‘Omigod, this guy is damn right! I mean I have some kind of responsibility here. If I really tell the story of the Andrea Gail as a big Hollywood movie, I better get it real and right.’
Mr. Petersen leaves his second wife Maria-Antoinette Borgel, a German script supervisor and assistant director whom he wed in 1978, a son, Daniel, and two grandchildren.