Actor, Adolf Hitler, Career, Damiel, Downfall, Swiss, Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire
Bruno Ganz (22 March 1941 – 15 February 2019)
Although he made his start in a variety of German movies and stage productions, where he made his reputation, Bruno Ganz was actually Swiss by birth, having been born in Zurich. He knew he wanted to be an actor quite early on, and his initial attraction was to the theatre. He made his screen debut though in 1960, and his theatre debut the following year, and switched between the two over the course of the Sixties, but had more success on the stage. In the early Seventies he co-founded the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble, and was given the Actor of the Year award by Theater heute in 1973. In a few short years though it was to be a collaboration with Wim Wenders that would bring him to international attention, as the terminally ill picture framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, who is coerced into becoming an assassin in Wenders’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. With his screen reputation now firmly established, Ganz was able to move back and forth between screen and stage with even greater confidence.
During the Eighties, Ganz worked solidly in a variety of movies and genres, always giving good performances, even if the majority of them were in productions that were barely seen outside their countries of origin, or were included only as part of the festival circuit. In 1987 he made the first of three screen appearances as Damiel the angel in another Wim Wenders movie; the role became so iconic that some people in real life actually regarded him as a guardian angel. He continued to work mostly in European productions, and began playing people such as Ezra Pound and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but it was his second iconic role, as Adolf Hitler for director Oliver Hirschbiegel, that truly cemented his position as one of the greatest actors, both in the German language, and of his generation. He made more English language movies from then on, but often in supporting roles that didn’t allow him to do more than make a minor impression before his character was sidelined. Still, he remained a pleasure to watch, and he continued to make interesting choices.
Indeed, it’s not until you take a closer look at the movies Ganz has made that you begin to realise just how many quality directors he worked with. Wim Wenders aside, Ganz made movies with Barbet Schroeder, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, Franklin J. Schaffner, Éric Rohmer, Theo Angelopoulos, Volker Schlöndorff, Stephen Daldry, Ridley Scott, Lars von Trier, Gillian Armstrong, Jonathan Demme, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Jeanne Moreau. He was a subtle actor, always looking for the truth in the characters he played – even Hitler – and his performances reflected the capable, methodical manner in which he explored each role’s vulnerabilities and strengths. A persuasive presence whether on stage or on screen, he has left us with a number of indelibe performances, and the hope that his final role in Terrence Malick’s Radegund won’t end up on the cutting room floor.
1 – The American Friend (1977)
2 – Knife in the Head (1978)
3 – Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
4 – Circle of Deceit (1981)
5 – Wings of Desire (1987)
6 – The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)
7 – Downfall (2004)
8 – Youth Without Youth (2007)
9 – The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
10 – The Party (2017)
He was a wonderful actor, full of warmth and humanity (even though he managed such a great portrayal of Hitler), and it was always good to find him in a film. He traveled everywhere didn’t he – Australia, Italy, Greece, and elswhere and played characters of all nationalities, and in many languages. He was also memorable in the Italian romance Bread and Tulips, and I enjoyed him in The Last Days of Chez Nous, sparring with all those antipodean women. But I guess he will mainly be remembered for his roles as the Angel and the Devil (Hitler). Cheers. Peter
Glad to find out there’s another Ganz fan out there. He was a remarkably gifted actor, and as you say, always found the humanity in his characters, and his portrayals were always emotionally honest. Very sad that he’s no longer with us.
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