Dieter Laser, the veteran German actor perhaps best known for orchestrating The Human Centipede’s grotesque, meme-spawning raison d’etre, has died. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor’s wife told media on Friday that her husband died in Berlin on February 29, though a cause of death is unknown. He was 78.
Born in Kiel, Germany in 1942, Laser embarked upon a career in theater at the age of 16 as a way of wriggling out of the fundamentalist Christian household in which he was raised. Per THR, he joked that becoming an actor meant making a “pact with the devil” and that he would one day pay for it “in hell.”
But he made quite the splash in the theater world, working with acclaimed German director Peter Stein at the lauded Berliner Schaubühne. With Stein, Laser starred in a successful run of Henrik Ibsen’s epic Peer Gynt alongside Downfall’s Bruno Ganz that would be filmed for German TV. He’d go on to appear in a number of German films and TV series, and, due to his his tight crop of dark hair and severe features, often found himself playing the villain. He did, however, win a German Film Award in 1975 for his leading turn in Ulf Miehe’s John Glückstadt) and a subsequent nomination for a supporting role in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.
As our review of The Human Centipede makes clear, Laser’s imposing presence could elevate even the most tasteless projects. Our review of the film says that, without Laser’s “mesmerizing” performance as a mad scientist who surgically stitches some tourists together, anus to mouth, the movie “may not have advanced further than the ligament-slicing stage of its cult development.”
With a face that suggests melted candle wax—or maybe Christopher Walken after going on Christian Bale’s diet for The Machinist—Laser’s Heiter is clearly meant to evoke Nazi doctors and their notorious experiments (classy reference, that), but he’s such a deeply strange actor that he seems removed from the species entirely. His reasons for creating the centipede are partly sentimental (he loved those dogs) and partly borne out of sadism and contempt, but there’s something else, a professional enthusiasm, that gives Laser’s performance such a giddy kick. He wants his 100 percent medically accurate blueprint to work, dammit, even if said blueprint looks drafted at Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.
Laser would go on to win an acting award at the Austin Fantastic Fest and play a different role, Bill Boss, in the third Human Centipede film. “I’m totally shocked Dieter passed away. He was a force of nature, an unique human being and an iconic actor,” Human Centipede director Tom Six wrote in a tribute. “I’m so damn proud we created pop culture together. Wished we could have made many more movies. RIP my friend, you will live forever on screen!”
Laser’s final role was in a German theater production of Franz Kafka’s The Trial just last year.