Joseph Vilsmaier, German Director of 'Stalingrad,' Dies at 81

Joseph Vilsmaier
Gisela Schober/Getty Images

The Bavarian filmmaker specialized in costume dramas exploring Germany's past, including 'The Harmonists,' 'Marlene' and 'Autumn Milk.'

Joseph Vilsmaier, the German director of Stalingrad, The Harmonists and Marlene Dietrich biopic Marlene, has died. He was 81.

Vilsmaier's agent on Wednesday confirmed media reports that the director "died peacefully at his home" in Bavaria on Tuesday.

Born in Munich in 1939, Vilsmaier studied music and worked as a technician before gaining a foothold in the film business in the early 1960s, starting as a runner. He worked his way up, initially as a cameraman for German television, lensing episodes of popular crime series Tatort and the cult 1980s trucker drama Auf Achse, before directing his first feature, Autumn Milk, in 1989 when he was almost 50.

The adaptation of an autobiographical account of growing up on a farm in rural Bavaria in the 1920s and '30s, Autumn Milk was a box office hit in Germany. It set the template for Vilsmaier's career. He became known for elegant depictions of the lives of Germans, ordinary or legendary, during periods of extreme upheaval.

Stalingrad (1993) follows a group of Wehrmacht soldiers sent to the eastern front to fight what would become a losing battle against the Soviet Army. The Harmonists, from 1997, depicts the rise and fall of The Comedian Harmonists, a world-famous Germany a cappella group that, because of its Jewish members, fell afoul of the Nazis. Marlene (2000) starred Katja Flint as legendary German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich. Vilsmaier's literary adaption Brother of Sleep (1995), about a 19th century fictional musical genius, was nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign-language film.

Shortly before his death, Vilsmaier finished work on his last film, Der Boandlkramer und die ewige Liebe, a comedy collaboration with German stars Michael Herbig and Hape Kerkeling. Leonine, the new German mini-major owned by equity group KKR, plans to release the movie in Germany this November.

Vilsmaier is survived by his three daughters, Janina, Theresa and Josephina.