Since I’ve been watching The NeverEnding Story this year as part of the Cinema 52 experiment, I thought I might gain a greater understanding of the movie by watching as many Wolfgang Petersen films as I could get my hands on. There are certainly more in his filmography than the ones I plan to watch, but they are nearly unattainable here in the United States. Come with me as I watch the evolution of Petersen across more than three decades of movie-making.

DIE KONSEQUENZ (1977)

Die Konsequenz is the story of Martin (Jurgen Prochnow), an actor who is sent to prison for having sexual relations with a teenage boy. While serving time, the warden’s young son, Thomas (Ernst Hannawald), falls in love with Martin and the two begin a relationship.

Thomas needs a little work on his pick-up lines.

When Martin is released, he and Thomas begin a life together. Martin convinces Thomas to tell his father their plan and hopefully get his blessing. Angry and in denial, Thomas’ father calls the authorities and sends his son to a reform school in Switzerland. Thomas endures the brutality there while still pining for Martin. As time passes, more obstacles stand in the way of the two lovers ever finding happiness together. Thomas spirals into depression and Martin does all he can to assure the young man that they can make it as long as they are together.

These sickos could be living next to you right now.

Based on a book by Alexander Ziegler, Die Konsequenz is an honest look at Germany’s view of homosexuality at the time. Wolfgang Petersen portrays Martin and Thomas as fallible people who just want to live together like any other couple. Martin is not always faithful and Thomas cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. The film does not judge the characters, but rather casts a harsh light on the personal consequences of society’s treatment of homosexuality.

Germany, I thought you’d learned your lesson from that Hitler guy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Petersen pulled amazing performances from Prochnow and Hannawald. The two men are wholly believable as lovers. Petersen fearlessly handles an important subject without becoming sentimental or idealistic. Die Konsequenz was an important film at the time and remains important now as it holds up a record of where society once was and what still needs to be addressed. Die Konsequenz deals not only with the issue of homosexuality but also with consent, fidelity, abuse, and depression.

DAS BOOT (1981)

In the midst of World War II, a war correspondent (Herbert Gronemeyer) joins a German U-boat crew. Das Boot tells the story of the daily life of a submarine crew as it faces boredom interspersed with sheer terror. The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) must somehow maintain morale with his young, idealistic crew despite knowing that the German navy is grossly overpowered.

Young and dumb and full of cüm.

The crew encounters depth charges, sickness, suicide missions, and the newest naval technology: sonar. They continue to do what they must because their lives literally depend on their success.

Das Boot is based on a novel by Lothar G. Buchheim and cannot be fully appreciated until seen. It is an epic powerhouse that portrays the everyday lives of our wartime enemies. We are allowed to see the crew as they are: young men sent to fight a losing war. Once on the submarine, all pretense of nationalism is forgotten and there is only a sense of survival. One man alone, the 1st Lieutenant, maintains his appearance and he’s the only man on board who is a true believer in the Nazi Party. The film takes an unbiased look at the crew and manages to garner sympathy, showing that war is tragic, no matter what side people fight on.

Things always get out of hand on Spaghetti Night.

Wolfgang Petersen handles a large cast of characters expertly. Prochnow impresses once again and may be my new favorite actor. Perhaps my favorite character is the medical officer and radio man Hinrich (Heinz Hoenig), whose amazingly subtle performance should not be overlooked. The camera work left me breathless and conveyed the intensely claustrophobic quarters.

Do they eat sardines ironically?

Since we never leave the submarine or see the enemy crew during attacks, we are also stuck in the bowels of the sub, unsure of what dangers are lurking in the deadly waters. Das Boot is an international success for a reason. Anyone who has even a little love for film needs to see this movie at some point in their lives.

THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)

You can read more about how watching Wolfgang Petersen’s earlier films affected my viewing of The NeverEnding Story here.

ENEMY MINE (1985)

Enemy Mine is set in the future during an ongoing war between humans and the reptilian Dracs. Space fighter Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid) crash lands on a planet while pursuing an enemy vessel. He ends up finding the Drac, named Jeriba (Louis Gossett Jr.), and the two must combine forces to survive the inhospitable planet. As time goes on, the two form a friendship and learn about each other’s cultures. Jeriba teaches Davidge all about the Drac belief system and Davidge teaches Jeriba English. And just to keep things interesting, the Drac race is asexual, so Jeriba ends up giving birth to a child, forcing Davidge into a parental role he is wholly unprepared for.

Even Drac babies are gross-looking.

Enemy Mine is based on a novella by Barry B. Longyear. The premise is simple, but the execution is well-done. There are bits of goofiness as Davidge and Jeriba learn about one another, but it’s all in character. It makes sense for two soldiers (even enemies) to band together for survival. Their deaths would have no affect on the larger war and waiting to be saved so they can continue to fight is a logical path to take. The addition of a Drac child creates all sorts of difficulties and gives the film a solid second half. Also, there is an actual mine.

The mine is there for people who don’t understand possessives.

Wolfgang Petersen was handed a lame duck with this film, but managed to infuse the story with some heart. Enemy Mine is by no means a perfect film, but it is enjoyable. Petersen takes a science fiction story and turns it into a commentary on war and bigotry.

Just kiss already.

When it comes to survival, we’re all more alike than we’d like to believe. Davidge and Jeriba represent their two races coming to an understanding. The script is reasonably okay, but Louis Gossett Jr. and Dennis Quaid deliver their performances with conviction.

THE ROAD SO FAR

After watching these first four movies, here’s a list of the qualities that make them “A Film by Wolfgang Petersen”:

  • They handle big issues.
  • They’re unafraid of special effects.
  • They’re adaptations of books.
  • Their screenplays are written by Wolfgang Petersen.

Petersen isn’t afraid to look at the problems with society. He makes all of his stories very personal so that the audience can feel sympathy for the characters and rethink their own viewpoints. Petersen also enjoys utilizing practical effects such as model work and matte paintings. The films also have a very distinct non-Hollywood feel to them that’s hard to describe. Petersen addresses important issues, but without pretense and with a keen love for the entirety of the production. Actors are not the stars; they are another facet, like the sets, that make up the film. Every part of these films feels lovingly crafted.

[Care to keep Wolfgang Banging? Here’s Part 2.]