Most English-speaking audiences mainly know Swiss actor Bruno Ganz from those memes of him playing Hitler, losing his temper at a variety of different subjects depending on how the scene is subtitled. For the record those memes are hilarious, but it is a bit of a shame that one of the finest character actors of European cinema should achieve his deserved recognition for playing one of the worst men in history and mostly among our generation in a silly meme at that. Sadly, it is somewhat typical of the way European actors are often treated in English speaking countries, Ganz worked hard to achieve his “that bloke” status in small character appearances in bad movies, as for example, a laboratory assistant in The Boys from Brazil, a diamond merchant in The Counsellor or a weary psychopomp in The House that Jack Built. Like many, he never achieved the kind of exposure outside of mainland Europe that his talent deserved. But if you have delved into the European cinema of the last 40 years at all, then you will likely have felt a sense of loss when on the 16th of February this year the Intestinal cancer he had spent the last 12 months of his life fighting claimed his life.
He first achieved international recognition in the late seventies through his first collaboration with director Wim Wenders, The American Friend, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, where he played an unassuming family man, coerced into becoming a contract killer by Dennis Hopper’s titular manipulative American after he learns he is dying of the same disease that claimed Ganz’s own life. He once again found himself a very different sort of pawn to a Machiavellian evil in his next big role as Jonathan Harker in Werner Herzog’s hypnotic remake of Nosferatu. For all the extraordinary work done on that film by his co-stars Isabelle Adjani and Klaus Kinski, it was the final chilling moments of Ganz as Harker that stayed in the memory longest.
His next collaboration with Wenders brought him perhaps his career-defining role as Damien in the spellbinding Wings of Desire, a truly wonderful supernatural celebration of being human as Ganz’s angel decides that after having watched over the people of Berlin for years, his yearning to be human becomes too great and he hands in his wings to like as a mortal. There is something inexpressibly moving in the simple joy Ganz brings out of the character as he experiences his first tastes of being alive and the movie shifts from black and white to colour.
Although it must be admitted that as much as we may want to remember him as the innately sincere angel filled with the simple joys of living, we have to address the fact this man is best known for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler. And it really must be said that it was in Downfall where Ganz truly showed what an incredibly talented actor we have lost: depicting Hitler as a shuffling, petulant old man living out his last days in a state of dejected misanthropic spite.
Throughout his Bruno Ganz showed an all but unmatched ability to master portraits of good and of evil with as much sincerity as anyone could muster, but shedding himself of his natural warm to play some of these roles always seemed like a far greater task to him than merely letting it shine through.