Swiss actor Bruno Ganz has specialized in nice guys for most of his 40-year career. In 1987, he appeared as a poetic, ponytailed angel in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” arguably his most memorable outing. Five years ago, he was a waiter offering his spare room to a runaway housewife in “Bread and Tulips,” another in a series of art-house hits that brought him international acclaim.
The gentle-eyed Ganz makes a 180-degree turn, however, in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” Germany’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film. In the movie, which debuted in Los Angeles on Friday, he plays Adolf Hitler -- the first head-on portrayal of the Fuhrer in a feature film from that nation. The Newmarket Films release takes place in an underground bunker 10 days before Hitler took his life in 1945. A far cry from the demonic madmen delivered by Alec Guinness in 1973’s “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” and Anthony Hopkins in the 1981 miniseries “The Bunker,” Ganz’s dictator is a lonely, embittered soul, far more man than monster. Power-hungry and mean, he’s also capable of tenderness with children, his dog and his secretary, Traudl Junge, from whose vantage point the story is told.
This approach has engendered controversy in Germany and abroad. But that hasn’t hurt it thus far. Drawing raves for his performance, Ganz has walked off with numerous honors, including the best actor award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. “Downfall,” for its part, won Germany’s prestigious Bambi Award for best German film.
Unlike “The Last Act,” a 1956 Austrian production on the same topic to which few people came, the picture was the top-grossing film in Germany on its opening weekend in September -- a position it held for five weeks. Still playing in German theaters, it has sold nearly 5 million tickets there and has been a hit as well in the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and Belgium. “Downfall” drew half a million people in France during the first two weeks of its run.
“The film is huge for Germany, a sign the nation is coming to terms with its guilt,” said Ganz, unwinding in a Beverly Hills hotel during a trip to Los Angeles. “It’s one thing to read a book or watch a documentary and another to give Hitler -- evil, itself -- a face. Tackling that has been unthinkable for a German actor because he was always considered too ‘big.’ ”
A master of on-screen wistfulness, Ganz was not an obvious choice. But despite his sweet and low-key disposition, Hirschbiegel says, he’s a veritable “revolutionary” onstage. Watching a tape of the actor in a production of “Faust,” Hirschbiegel got a sense of Ganz’s fire. A onetime artist, the director bolstered his instincts by drawing a mustache and the dictator’s plastered-down haircut on a photo of Ganz.
“The resemblance was shocking,” Hirschbiegel said on the phone from his home in Vienna. “Besides, Bruno is the gros seigneur of all German performers -- the big guy, the wise guy. He’s one of the greatest actors in Europe, a legend with whom I’ve wanted to work.”
When writer-producer Bernd Eichinger approached Ganz in March 2003, Ganz was mindful of his legacy. The actor wondered, would the public forever associate him with Hitler?Would this performance obliterate his turns as the seducer in Eric Rohmer’s “The Marquis of O,” the real estate solicitor in Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” the war correspondent in Volker Schlondorff’s “Circle of Deceit,” the alienated sailor in Alain Tanner’s mood piece “In the White City”?
The project, he decided, was worth the risk -- particularly with the rise of Neo-Nazism in Europe. (Two fanatics were arrested for giving the outlawed “Hitler salute” and applauding during a screening of the film in eastern Berlin.) Possessed by the “ambition” common to actors, he says, he summoned the courage to plunge in.
Devil’s in the details
Suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, Hitler was camera-shy at the end of his life, so no footage could be tapped. Instead, Ganz read up on the period and spoke with the few remaining eyewitnesses. To capture the dictator’s clipped Bavarian-Austrian accent, he studied a secretly recorded dinner table conversation between Hitler and a Finnish diplomat rather than the rantings of his speeches. In full costume during the St. Petersburg part of the shoot, Ganz drew frightened stares from passersby as he crossed the street.
Making Hitler’s choices comprehensible, almost acceptable, was the goal of the film, maintain the filmmakers, who believed that painting the dictator as a demented aberration would absolve the German people from responsibility and suggest that such an episode could never happen again.
“Though delusional and pathetic, Hitler’s behavior had to be understandable,” Ganz, 63, explained in more than passable English. “He had to be charismatic, likable in some way, or no one would have followed him. Attempting to restore the ‘dignity’ of the German people who felt humiliated by the first World War, he was viewed as a savior. I tried to get into his mind and his heart, though it’s unlikely he had one.”
“Find the evil inside you,” Hirschbiegel advised the actor.
Trained as a boxer, Ganz concedes he’s no stranger to violence and rage. On the set of Wenders’ “The American Friend” (1977), he became embroiled in a “skirmish” with Dennis Hopper, who made a disparaging remark about blindness -- a condition afflicting Ganz’s son, now 30. In the mid-'70s, the actor also picked a fight with a night porter at a Berlin hotel who tried to keep him from checking into the same room as his girlfriend, the late Romy Schneider, because the two weren’t married.
Flaunting convention comes naturally to the actor, those around him attest. Charming and amusing, Hirschbiegel says, he’s also enigmatic.
“Bruno can be silent, internal, which makes some people uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s hard to know what makes him tick. But then many brilliant actors, Tom Hanks for one, are often the most laid-back. Maybe they have to be to give so much when they’re performing.”
On the set of “Strapless” (1990), Ganz would disappear for hours, taking long walks in the woods. Director David Hare hired an assistant just to keep tabs on his actor. “A product of World War II,” Ganz “is displaced, alienated, and rootless,” the director once observed. “He lives out of a suitcase and doesn’t know where he belongs.”
The comment, read to the actor, brings a slow smile to his face. “Still me, but less so,” he suggested. “As an actor, I have to travel, speak in different languages, stay in places I don’t like. I sometimes wonder what I’d be like if I were in another profession.”
Splitting the critics
“Downfall,” the most expensive German-language release since the 1980 U-boat drama “Das Boot,” has attracted mixed response. Critic Frank Schirrmacher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung labeled it a “masterpiece.” History professor Hermann Graml told Der Spiegel: “I know of no other film that brings history so painfully alive.” Columnist Georg Seesslen, for one, was less impressed. The voyeuristic approach is “Hitler for the children of CNN and ‘Big Brother,’ ” he charged in Die Zeit.
Some journalists have challenged the movie’s perspective, asking why there is no footage of Jews and Russians being killed, why only Germans are shown as victims. Focusing solely on life in the bunker and the chaos above it is tunnel-vision, they suggest. Not until the closing credits is the audience informed: “Six million Jews died in German concentration camps.”
Ganz chooses his words carefully when asked his opinion of the film. Known for his brutal honesty, he takes the diplomatic tack this time.
“I’m satisfied with what I did in the film,” he said. “At the risk of sounding cowardly, I put all moral questions aside and turned in the best performance I could. Had I written the script, I would probably have inserted a scene in which someone from the ministry discusses the Holocaust with Hitler -- something the filmmakers rejected because no such conversation occurred in the bunker. Still, the movie is clean politically, far from pro-Hitler. It doesn’t soft-pedal the downfall of Germany. It’s not sympathy for the devil.”
Ganz’s work will be featured in a retrospective organized by the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles. It begins Tuesday at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood.
Retrospectives notwithstanding, he says, he’s looking forward rather than back. Next month, he begins rehearsals in Berlin for “Disgrace,” a contemporary version of “Titus Andronicus” by German writer Botho Strauss. And the big screen is part of his plan, of course, though no deals are in place.
“Every actor has the need to share,” Ganz suggested, “and movies are forever. For big American actors, it’s about immortality. For me it’s about leaving traces.”