Wolfgang Petersen directed more than a dozen movies, including the submarine classic Das Boot and such big-budget ventures as The Perfect Storm and Poseidon, and they can be ranked from worst to best. The German-born filmmaker began his trade by directing plays, then he moved into German television and eventually feature films, often working with actor Jürgen Prochnow. He shot to fame in Hollywood by helming the big-budget English-language adaptation of The NeverEnding Story, which at the time was the most expensive movie made outside the U.S.
Petersen’s first U.S. production was the sci-fi thriller Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr., which was a flop at the time. He took six years after that to direct his next movie, the psychological thriller Shattered starring Tom Berenger. That release course-corrected Petersen’s U.S. feature work, leading to 1993’s In The Line of Fire starring Clint Eastwood, which was a massive success, both critically and commercially. That led to Petersen’s most successful run, including the blockbuster hits Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman, Air Force One starring Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman, The Perfect Storm with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, and Troy starring Brad Pitt, all of which enjoyed good-to-great box office.
Wolfgang Peterson hit a rare snag with his 2006 movie Poseidon, which was geared to be a big summer blockbuster but failed to draw in the same appeal as the director’s previous efforts. Poseidon would serve as Petersen’s last venture into big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, with him taking a 10-year hiatus after its debut and then returning to direct the German-language heist film Vier Gegen die Bank in 2016. He seemingly retired after that. Wolfgang Petersen died in August 2022 of pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a bold and diverse filmography, as well as a reputation for being an astute director who helped propel the model of blockbuster filmmaking throughout his career. Below are all of Wolfgang’s Petersen’s movies, ranked from worst to best.
Vier Gegen Die Bank (2016)
Made 10 years after the failure of Wolfgang Petersen’s last Hollywood blockbuster, Vier Gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank) is a remake of his own 1976 German TV movie of the same name. Also based on Ralph Maloney’s 1972 novel The Nixon Recession Caper, the film stars Til Schweiger (Inglorious Basterds), Antje Traue (Man of Steel), Matthias Schweighöfer (Army of the Dead and Army of Thieves) and follows the exploits of four friends who team up to rob a bank in order to solve their individual financial woes. Making a paltry $9,000 worldwide, it was the last of Petersen’s filmmaking endeavors.
One Or The Other (1974)
The first theatrical film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, One or the Other is a twisty thriller that stars Jürgen Prochnow as a struggling former student turned blackmailer. He uncovers that a successful professor got his degree by translating someone else’s work from English to German, and he attempts an extortion scheme. Based on the novel by Horst Bosetzky, One or the Other showcases Petersen’s talent for building suspense but is less developed in other stylistic areas he would become known for.
The Consequence (1977)
Wolfgang Petersen’s The Consequence tells a complex and necessary LGBTQIA+ story about the son of a prison warden (Jürgen Prochnow) who falls in love with an inmate (Ernst Hannawald). Eventually, he confesses his homosexuality to his father, who kicks him out as the two lovers attempt to live their lives together. The story finds both men faced with one obstacle after another to be together, eventually leaving them physically, mentally, and emotionally damaged. Ahead of its time for the era, The Consequence dealt with the subject of LGBTQIA+ rights and acceptance before it became a more open conversation. This is a melodramatic affair with strong performances and an early look at Petersen’s strengths at handling dramatic tension.
Wolfgang Petersen’s last Hollywood production was the disaster movie Poseidon, which was the third adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel The Poseidon Adventure. The movie debuted in 2006 to poor reviews and a disappointing $60 million domestic haul at the box office. Poseidon stars Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, and Emmy Rossum as passengers on a luxury cruise liner that is flipped by a rogue wave, forcing the surviving occupants to attempt to find a way out of the crumbling ship. While it has all the makings of one of Petersen’s successful big-budget films, Poseidon sadly doesn’t reach the balance of character and spectacle that his previous efforts did, and it doesn’t do much to improve upon the more revered 1972 adaptation, The Poseidon Adventure, starring Gene Hackman. Sadly, the movie’s failure would keep Petersen from ever venturing back into big-budget filmmaking again.
After the critical and commercial failure of Enemy Mine, Wolfgang Petersen took a six-year hiatus from feature filmmaking. He then returned with Shattered, a psychological thriller starring Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins, Greta Scacchi, Joanne Whalley, and Corbin Bernsen. Shattered focuses on a man (Berenger) who gets amnesia after a car accident and struggles to unravel his identity, which reveals more twists and turns than he bargained for. The mystery thriller is more in line with Petersen’s German-language films, taking a page from director Alfred Hitchcock in weaving a complex, yet overwrought tale that benefits from a strong, convincing cast and a noir-like style that sells the sillier aspects with ease.
Enemy Mine (1985)
Based on the novel of the same name by Barry Longyear, Enemy Mine was Petersen’s first U.S. production. The sci-fi drama stars Dennis Quaid as a 21st-century pilot fighting against an alien race known as Dracs in an interstellar war. In a dogfight with a Drac played by Louis Gossett Jr., both pilots crash-land on a volcanic planet where they must learn to survive together or face their end in the harsh environment. The film was a failure at the box office but has since gained a strong cult following, even if it stalled Petersen’s directing career by six years after its initial release.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Based on the nonfiction novel by Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm stars actor/director George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, and John Hawkes as the crew of the commercial fishing boat the Andrea Gail. The movie reenacts the Perfect Storm of 1991, which claimed all of their lives, among many others. Petersen was able to craft the film’s tragic story with a deft touch, allowing for big-budget spectacle, but not at the expense of character or emotion. The Perfect Storm was critically panned, but audiences weren’t turned away, with many calling Petersen „critic-proof“ after the movie’s success.
Troy (Director’s Cut) (2004)
Wolfgang Petersen ventured into Greek epics with Troy, a sprawling action film loosely based on Homer’s The Illiad. The all-star cast is led by Brad Pitt as the legendary warrior Achilles. He’s joined by Eric Bana as Hector of Troy, Orlando Bloom playing Paris, Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy, and supporting actors Peter O’Toole, Sean Bean, Brian Cox, and Brendan Gleeson rounding out the cast. While not considered a faithful adaptation, the action, battle scenes, and performances managed to win over audiences, especially the brutal fight between Achilles and Hector. Petersen’s director’s cut of Troy includes more than 30 minutes of additional footage, which includes extended cuts and sequences, making for a far bloodier, emotional, and intense film that plays better than the theatrical version.
Air Force One (1997)
A high-concept action-thriller, Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One stars Harrison Ford as the President of the United States during the hijacking of Air Force One. Ford is perfectly cast in the role, with versatile actor Gary Oldman playing the lead terrorist with menacing zeal among strong supporting players that help amplify the proceedings. Petersen hit his stride with Air Force One in terms of formulating a smart, balanced, and exciting thrill ride that feels more convincing than it should, given the frequently unbelievable events that transpire. Full of rousing moments, memorable one-liners, explosive surprises, and a patriotic score by Jerry Goldsmith, Air Force One feels like the most commercial work in Petersen’s filmography, with all the chaotic spectacle falling into place like a carefully orchestrated stage play.
In what has become an even more popular thriller since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the realistic movie Outbreak is both a cautionary tale and an invigorating thrill ride at once. Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey, and Donald Sutherland star in the movie, which focuses on the spread of an Ebola-like virus in the U.S. and the quick action to stop it before it spreads. Petersen employs some amazing sequences throughout Outbreak, not just in action and suspense, but in showing how the virus spreads, including a scene in a movie theater that shows how droplets from a cough spread throughout the air. The attention to detail, the performances, and suspense make Petersen’s work on Outbreak a textbook example of showmanship in the thriller genre.
In The Line of Fire (1993)
One of the few movies in Clint Eastwood’s modern-day filmography that he didn’t direct himself, In The Line of Fire is also one of his best films ever as an actor, thanks largely to Wolfgang Petersen’s execution. Eastwood plays an aging Secret Service agent, joined by co-stars Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, and John Mahoney. John Malkovich, in one of the best performances of his career, plays a would-be assassin targeting the U.S. president. He forms a bond with Eastwood’s agent as they play a game of cat-and-mouse, leading to a pulse-pounding conclusion that builds momentum with precision. With In The Line of Fire, Petersen proved his talent for crafting suspense while guiding performances that pull in the audience in and make them invest in the unfolding journey with nail-biting anticipation.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
While Wolfgang Petersen’s later works would paint a better picture of the director’s fully-realized visual language, The NeverEnding Story is his most endearing film, and it continues to be revisited and celebrated for the layered, emotional, and fantastical elements that continue to inspire each new generation that sees it. The plot follows a young boy named Bastian, who stows away in his school to escape bullies. Throughout the night, he reads a forbidden book that has the film jump back and forth between him and the seemingly fictional characters in the book’s narrative. The NeverEnding Story is a wild, immersive, visually-stunning fantasy film that houses strange characters and locations, as well as strong, mature themes that take it far beyond a simple children’s movie. Petersen later became a strong spectacle filmmaker with mostly real-world scenarios, but The NeverEnding Story is one of his finest achievements and one that steps well outside the director’s wheelhouse early on.
Das Boot (1981)
One of the best movies set on a moving vehicle, Das Boot is also perhaps Wolfgang Petersen’s most famous film and the one that made Hollywood pay attention. It still stands out as the director’s most raw and visceral work and one of the best war films ever made. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Director, Das Boot (The Boat) stars Petersen’s frequent collaborator Jürgen Prochnow as the captain of a German U-Boat during World War II. Its crew conducts missions during the „Battle of the Atlantic“ while trying to survive the harsh conditions aboard the craft, as well as struggling with their place in the war. Das Boot is a compelling, intricate, and harrowing tale, which takes audiences into the claustrophobic world of the U-Boat crew while showcasing Petersen’s burgeoning brilliance as a masterful storyteller.