Thursday June 10, 2021
“The boat” and a piercing look
How Jürgen Prochnow achieved world fame
Anyone who has seen “Das Boot” never forgets their eyes. But Jürgen Prochnow has a lot more to offer than just his piercing look. He was one of the few Germans to have a great career in Hollywood. Now he’s 80.
It started under water, with the gloomy “ping”, the sounding sound of a submarine. Anyone who saw it back then in the cinema or on television will not have forgotten: “Das Boot” by Wolfgang Petersen in 1985 was a sensation. More than 20 million people worried about the crew of a German submarine in World War II.
A viewer reported to a broadcaster that she had not been able to sleep for three nights. Many people couldn’t get Klaus Doldinger’s music out of their heads. And then the cast: Herbert Grönemeyer and Martin Semmelrogge, then still very young. For an actor it was the role of his life: Jürgen Prochnow. He was the “Kaleu”, the lieutenant captain with the piercing, clear look.
Thanks to the global success of “Das Boot”, Prochnow was able to make a career in Hollywood that only very few Germans have achieved. He will be 80 years old on June 10th.
From banker to actor
His list of roles in plays and films is long and multifaceted: from King Etzel of the Huns at the Worms Festival to Madonna’s lover in “Body of Evidence”, from “The lost honor of Katharina Blum” to “The English Patient”. In the first, he recently played in the road movie “The Old Man and the Nervesaw”, at the Hofer Filmtage he was seen in “A Handful of Water”.
Born in Berlin, after school he learned “first something decent”, as they said at the time: a banker. After studying acting at the Folkwang School in Essen, he was drawn to the theater. “Tatort” and Wolfgang Petersen played a decisive role in his film and television career in the 1970s. The director finally hired him for the film “Das Boot”, which premiered in 1981 and even made it into the Oscar race. Prochnow has a fatherly captain on board for his boys, the “old man”.
Both the theatrical version and the later TV version stirred up a lot of people. The readings were different: many saw the adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s book as a moving anti-war film. “Zeit” critic Fritz J. Raddatz, however, spoke of a “politically questionable heroic epic”.
Proud of “Das Boot”
“Das Boot” is without a doubt film history. Prochnow does not bother that he is repeatedly asked about it, as he makes clear. “I’m of course incredibly proud of the work and success of the film,” he says. He has received a lot of recognition for his other works. That makes up for the permanent label.
Prochnow is also proud of a film that made a difference in society: In “Die Konsequenz” (1977) he played a gay man who was scandalous for some at the time. The Bavarian radio faded out from the broadcast. Homosexuality was still a big taboo subject. “This film had a tremendous response,” says Prochnow.
In his opinion, “The Dry White Season” from 1989, quite unknown in this country, was underestimated. That was an anti-apartheid film that he shot with his “great idol” Marlon Brando in London and Zimbabwe because it wasn’t possible in South Africa at the time for political reasons. For Prochnow it is a “very important and valuable film”.
Between Berlin and Lake Garda
For decades he worked as a German in Hollywood: Prochnow experienced what it is like to be a star there. He flew first class, shot with directors like David Lynch and Anthony Page, actors like Harrison Ford and Eddie Murphy became his colleagues. He was often cast as a villain with his scarred face, but he wasn’t too good for comedy nonsense either.
The attention, the new insights: That was unique and fantastic, says Prochnow, looking back on his time in the USA. He would have liked to have had a role, but didn’t get it – the title character in “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg. “Liam Neeson was brilliant in the role, I have to say, but I would have loved to have played that too.”
Prochnow, who is third married and a grandfather, now commutes between Berlin and Lake Garda in Italy, where he is shortly before his 80th birthday. He sees his age calmly. In terms of sport, it is no longer as active as it was before – the knee. He keeps himself fit by swimming and walking with Beagle Pippo. After the forced Corona break, filming will soon be back.
The planned big celebration for the 80th is canceled due to the pandemic. His wife, the Austrian actress Verena Wengler, is planning a surprise for this, as Prochnow says. “I don’t know what it is,” he says and explains that he will now see whether the weather is good enough for a lap in the pool after the cold spring. Sounds like a good life, doesn’t it? “Yes I am very happy.”