Actor Bruno Ganz, whose 60-year career ran the gamut from soulful angels to ranting fascists, has died. Best known for his many collaborations with director Wim Wenders—and, in internet circles, for his mesmerizing, easily “adaptable” performance as Adolf Hitler in the 2004 war drama Downfall—the twice-Oscar-nominated Ganz appeared in more than 100 films, in both Europe and the U.S.
Born in Switzerland, Ganz spent the first decades of his career on the stage, rising through the ranks of the German theater scene and doing occasional TV movie work. An appearance in 1976's Summer Guests (a film adaptation of the Maxim Gorky play) launched him into the world of film acting; by 1980, he had starred in movies for Werner Herzog (as the doomed protagonist of his Nosferatu remake), Eric Rohmer (The Marquise Of O), and Wenders, who cast him opposite a cowboy-hatted Dennis Hopper in his stylish 1977 Patricia Highsmith adaptation The American Friend.
Ganz and Wenders reunited a decade later for the movie that would become a celebrated high point of both men’s careers: 1987's Wings Of Desire, in which Ganz plays an invisible angel so enraptured by humanity (and trapeze artist Solveig Dommartin) that he gives up his immortality to be with them. As an unseen force of comfort and grace—unable to touch the people he spends eternity trying to save—Ganz’s performance in the film is equal parts beatific and tortured. In the hands of a less restrained directing-acting pair, Wings’ material would flirt with melodrama, maybe even silliness, but Ganz found its wounded, understated soul. (The film’s unlikely sequel, Faraway, So Close! has a more complicated critical legacy, but it’s hard to fault Wenders for wanting to give Ganz’s Damiel and Dommartin’s Marion something approaching a happy ending together.)
And then, of course, there’s Downfall. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel could never have anticipated the second life that his 2004 bunker drama would pick up on YouTube, with Ganz’s rant-heavy tantrums against Hitler’s generals spawning hundreds of “Hitler reacts to…” memes. Partly that’s just our lingering cultural fascination with the Austrian psychopath, of course. But it’s doubtful that the clips would have had such a long shelf-life if Ganz hadn’t managed to pack so many different emotional beats into these brief windows into the Fuhrer’s madness. His Hitler transitions from calm, to venomous, to sulky, to resigned, all while never being anything less than a) completely terrifying and b), totally pathetic. In an objective sense, it’s probably over-the-top, pressing on the boundaries of good taste. In execution, it’s damned difficult to look away from.
(Okay, fine: Here’s a meme, just for old time’s sake.)
Although he was diagnosed with cancer last year, Ganz continued to work up until shortly before his death at his home in Switzerland this week. One of his last roles arrived on the festival circuit as recently as last December, when he played the otherworldly interrogator listening to Matt Dillon’s serial killer Jack in Lars Von Trier’s latest cinematic provocation, The House That Jack Built.
Ganz was 77.