Ganz, Bruno: Intimate Talk

The interview with the international star took place at the Palm Springs Festival, where Downfall, Germany's submission for the foreign-language Oscar, received its American premiere.

Levy: I was impressed with your performance, which was very detailed, and would like to begin with its more technical aspects, such as the voice, accent, and gestures.

Ganz: If you talk about the emotional part, this is very difficult to explain. But we can talk about the skills and techniques that went into the performance. For instance, Parkinson's. We know today that Hitler had Parkinson's. I saw it in footage when he was decorated, and you can see that he already has this shaking hand. But at that time, it was not familiar. They didn't know much about Parkinson's so they didn't talk about it. Nobody knew, but now we know what it is. I went to a clinic in a hospital in Switzerland and watched for several hours Parkinson's patients, and the way that it is stopping and then starting, the whole movement, how strong it is, how it gets weaker. As for diction, I speak in the film in an Austrian accent. The basic German–East German–was not heavy, but the origin was Austrian. There's also a touch of military sound that Hitler produced, the whole German society was militarized after the First World War. The officers had to be tough, they had to be persuasive to get other people involved. This was something that Hitler was very good at, and it's something I could train for.

Levy: Did you work with a coach

Ganz: Yes, I worked with a young Austrian actor who happened to be in a German play about Hitler, a parody. He was from the same area as where Hitler was born, and he knew exactly what Hitler did between the Austrian original dialect and the Austrian-German and the real German. My coach was a good teacher.

Levy: What about the tone of your voice, the frequent explosions of temper

Ganz: You listen to Hitler talking in a very relaxed way that you never heard before, because all you know, or you are used to hearing, are his speeches, which are violent and rude and make terrible sounds. There is a tape of Hitler talking to a Finnish diplomat somewhere, I think in Helsinki. It's a seven-minute tape of Hitler. And it was recorded secretly, so he wasn't aware of it. And he is completely relaxed. And so his voice is very much lower than when he was really screaming and yelling. I like that kind of voice, and I thought that for the most part, in the bunker, Hitler would be not screaming at the leading officers of his army, but talking to secretaries

Levy: I love the scene when, all of a sudden, in the midst of despair and anger, he talks softly to the cook and women over dinner.

Ganz: He was Austrian and quite polite with women, courting them with flowers.

Levy: Did you have any doubts about playing the role

Ganz: Yes. Yes.

Levy: What kind of doubts

Ganz: Moral doubts. It was an interesting thing to approach these 12 years of history, because it was such a crucial era, from 1933 to 1945. And it changed the whole world because a power like Russia, which was nothing, became a really big thing. And America got involved in the War and it changed. The whole bourgeois area of Europe was finished. The French use bourgeoisie in a double meaning, it's also an inferior thing. But the high bourgeoisie in Europe was, together with the Jewish people, a very educated group. They had manners, and they got money, and they were in key positions. It was a society of really intelligent people. And this was something Hitler destroyed completely throughout Europe. I would say that he changed, especially for Europe, the world. It speeded up the whole thing, because it happened within 12 years, and it's amazing what happened.

But as a person, Hitler was shocking and it was horror to get close to him. Once I overcame my moral problems, they said, “For the rest of your life, people will recognize you as the one who portrayed Hitler, and all that. And they would always ask you, in Germany, Why did you do this, and why this way' And the film would take several years of your life, you would stay involved with this figure, Hitler. I didn't like that aspect very much, so at first I was very reluctant. I didn't want to it.

I shared, as many German actors shared, the thought that it not possible to portray Hitler in a serious way. Chaplin did it “The Great Dictator,” and you can't do the same thing again, because youre not Chaplin. It's not possible to make a remake of the Chaplin film. And the other side was, in Germany especially, to give this kind of evil a face. That's impossible, because the evil is so tremendous, so enormous. You are too weak as a human being to pretend to be Hitler. It's not a normal actor's job.

The producer sent me the script, some videos, and a film that was shot in 1955 by Georg Wilhelm, with Oskar Werner, “The Last Act” (“Der Letzte Akt”). Absolutely the same period, the last three weeks of Hitler's life. Oskar Werner is an invented figure in the film, but the others are not. One is Hitler and Goering and all these leading persons from National Socialism. I also saw a lecture from famous Austrian-born author and theater actor called Albin Skoda, which is not very similar to Hitler. I mean it's clearly another person.

But after three or four minutes, I said, Well, okay, I accept it.' So I learned by watching this film. That actor made a great effort on the emotional level, but he did nothing with the voice or the language. And I thought that if I worked at this, I could be even better than him. I mean, seeing this film was like a curtain going down, and I said, It's open. I can do it. I experienced it. It's possible. Now, let's go.”

On the other hand, youre an actor and you say, Jesus Christ, I meet a lot of nice guys in the movies and on stage. Let me do a real bad guy, but a real bad guy.' Not this usual thing, what is called bad guy' in American film, where these very attractive gangsters that you like. Hitler was an evil guy, and I thought, Okay this time, I really [laughs] can say what actors love to say: It was a challenge. It was really a great challenge.

Levy: Do you consider it the toughest role in your career

Ganz: Yes. Well, in a technical way. I did a lot of stage roles that were much more difficult than this. What was really difficult was to learn by lectures, by reading books. I was very interested I what was going on in Hitler's brain What was behind this Not in theories about his childhood and his relationship to his father. There are many ways to explain Hitler, to get into him. But considering all of the research, and reading all of these books, I still don't completely understand what was the center of Hitler's mind A lot of witnesses say that there was a kind of a hole, emptiness, something you couldn't touch, and you couldn't get into. It was something completely hidden. Hitler was so pitiless and brutal, that I sometimes think it did not exist. And when Hitler started to talk about it in a theoretical way, all this justification, why the Jewish and hatred, you still ask, why and why. Sometimes Hitler tried to justify, and it's so ridiculous, so stupid, and it still remains hidden. You can see the energy Hitler put into it, which was enormous. He had huge amount of energy, which people liked. This energy made part of his leadership.

But the hard core of what he was saying is Darwinism. He said, The strongest survives.' That's it. That's his reason. The favorite race should rule the world. In Germany, it's the Aryan. The Aryan race is number one. This is completely stupid and ridiculous, but at that time, a lot of theories, unfortunately, fit this Darwinism. And ultra-Darwinism was widely spread, and in other times, Hitler wouldn't have become a leader. But at that time, the circumstances, historically, seemed to be in favor for him. At the time, Germany seemed to need such a person.

Levy: The movie was a huge commercial success in Germany. Downfall broke box-office records. What was the critical response to the film

Ganz: For this kind of genre, tragedy or drama, it was very successful. Four and a half million admissions, that's a lot in Europe.

Levy: Did you anticipate such popular success when you worked on the film

Ganz: No.

Levy: Was there fear that maybe the audience would not accept it

Ganz: No, not really. I was beyond fear. I heard that the neo-Nazis, the young people in East Germany especially, would try to use “Downfall” as propaganda. Because it was the first time in Germany that German producers and actors did a German feature about Hitler in action. We see Hitler, not from behind, 60 years after the War, as they do in documentaries. But there was never, never a feature film. This was the first time.

Levy: What about the film critics

Ganz: That was what surprised me. There seems to be a gap between an ordinary audience like me and all the people working in medias, because they demand a Special You' that fits into this special subject. So if you use mainstream cinema language, the way you tell this story, if it's not according to what they feel, it has to be a special point of view. The critics feel that you have to deliver moral statements with the images. It's the very sensitive European filmmaking. This is the first time I really disagreed heavily with the critics.

Levy: Do you talk about German or European critics

Ganz: No, Im talking now about German critics, and how they approach a film about Hitler. It makes me really sad because they reproached me for being a “too human” Hitler. They want to see the icon of the evil, the evil itself. But Jesus Christ, what IS evil But I can understand them, because Hitler did things that excluded him from the human community. Napoleon did very ugly things as well, but never such genocide, I mean, it was within some limits. Napoleon killed a lot of people, and his trace of blood throughout Europe is big, and it's not funny. But Hitler went too far. And so he is excluded from being part of the human race. People want to see, Germans especially, something that corresponds to their view of how it should be. And they do not support, or have problems supporting a film that is mainstream, they way it's told, that Hitler was charming to the ladies and loved his dog. I didn't really dare to make risky moves, or invent anything as an actor. What you hear in the film comes from Hitler's mouth, or what he was doingit was described and reported by witnesses.

Levy: Is you portrayal completely accurate

Ganz: We made a kind of historical reconstruction of this month of April 1945. This was the goal, and I think that's something we achieved.

Levy: Is there any element in your portrayal that's fictionalized for the sake of dramatic or emotional involvement

Ganz: No, not emotionally. The way I react as Hitler to the betrayal of his friends–Himmler was one of themwas realistic. They were part of a group of ten people that were together from the beginning of the National Socialist movement in Munich. And so Hitler had very high regard and he respected these people. But he didn't really like them. He had no friends, except maybe his architect, Speer, because he represents everything that Hitler was not. He was a very handsome, intelligent, educated person from a rich bourgeois family of architects. They lived in a part of Heidelberg, which is a solid bourgeois city. Speer was incredibly intelligent and gifted, and he got away with 20 years of prison on the Nuremberg Trial. He's the only one; the rest were all hung.

Levy: You were a baby in 1945, if I am correct.

Ganz: I was born in 1941. I was a young boy.

Levy: What's your earliest memory of the War or post-War era Where were you in 1945 or 1946

Ganz: I was in Zurich. In 1945, I was four years old. I remember seeing my mother very nervous one day. She said, Now, let's get out of this place.' We were in a cellar. And she heard something outside, and she took me by my hand, and we climbed up the staircase outside in a small garden. And there in the middle of this garden, we saw two pieces of metal, which appeared as parts of the wing of an American bomber. The Americans confounded Zurich with Stuttgart, and the Swiss Army warned them, but they didn't react. And so they came down. They were shot. I saw in the garden two pieces of metal of an American bomber. Later on, a policeman came and explained this. This is the only thing I remember about the War, or sign of the War. Later, when I was working on this Hitler stuff, reading books, I thought that I must have heard Hitler's speeches. But Im not sure that, as a four year-old boy, I was listening much to the radio.

Levy: Do you have siblings whore older than you

Ganz: I was the only child until the early 1950s; my brother is seven years younger.

Levy: I am curious about your parents

Ganz: My father was in the Swiss Army. All the men were because they had to protect the Swiss borders. I don't know what exactly they did (laughs). This Army matter, and Switzerland and the War are such a ridiculous part, because we never were really in trouble.

Levy: How will playing Hitler affect your career

Ganz: I don't know. I mean, I thought it might attract the awareness of some important people. That they would say, Well, that's a good actor, and we are planning a film, and he could do a part for us.' Maybe they will just discover me as an actor. That's what I hope. I had a very, very beautiful experience recently while shooting the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Denzel Washington. It was right after “Downfall.” We spent together three or four days in a loft in Brooklyn. And working with these two guys was great. I really admire Denzel Washington, who right now is my hero.

Levy: Why the admiration

Ganz: Watching Denzel in “Man on Fire,” which is a doubtful film, the way it treats violence is to me, as a European, really bad. But he's an incredible actor. And Demme, I don't know all of his work, but I have seen “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia.” I was so touched by this AIDS film. And when I met Demme, I discovered a man who was so generous, charming, and intelligent. He treated me very nicely. I hope that Hitler would open some roads for me.

Levy: Hollywood must have knocked on your door a number of times. You speak English well, unlike European or French actors, like Gerard Depardieu.

Ganz: I got three or four Hollywood scripts and I read them. And I thought they were so stupid. I didn't like them. I liked the Demme script for Manchurian Candidate, even after I watched the John Frankenheimer film with Sinatra. The 1962 film is very strange. I prefer the script of the Demme film. I saw it last week on the flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco, and somehow it doesn't really work. The Demme version may be too intelligent, but, on the emotional thing, it doesn't work.

Levy: How did you get cast in “Manchurian Candidate”

Ganz: Demme asked my agent, and I said, please send me the script I was shooting Hitler at the time, and I didn't have time to read the whole thing. So I was just reading the scenes that concerned me, playing a scientist. That's what were allowed to do as Europeans in an American film: Hitler, bad scientists. And one evening after shooting, Demme called me on the phone and he was so charming. He was speaking about my soulful eyes. He treated me like a woman. It was incredible. And I said, “Well, if Im still in good shape after shooting “Downfall,” Ill come and do this.

Levy: Generation-wise, you belong to the same age America's best actors: Pacino, De Niro, and Hoffman. When we talked about it in Locarno Festival, you told me that Pacino was brilliant.

Ganz: Well, Hoffman, he slipped somehow a little bit aside. I don't know why. I don't know the mechanism of the acting marketplace in Hollywood. De Niro, too, is clearly on another road, doing comedies like “Meet the Fockers.” But Pacino is still doing interesting things. I saw a film Pacino did with Colin Farrell, a film about the CIA, “The Recruit.” The film is not good but what Pacino is doing is riveting. I still like him a lot, and I follow what he's doing. Im somehow disappointed With De Niro because, it's just hiding and saying, Well, let me be producer, let me do comedies.' And that's okay. But even his comedies are not really funny. It might be my problem. You see, when youre so impressed by an actor as I was with him in “Raging Bull,” you ask yourself, What is this guy going to do But you would never think this would be the way it turns.

Levy: Do you have an American agent

Ganz: I have an agent in Munich. She used to have a lot of connections. She was sending a lot of people like Maximilian Schell, who got an Oscar once. But I don't really feel represented here. Besides, she's 85 years old.

Levy: Would you like to make Hollywood movies

Ganz: Yeah, I would like to do Hollywood movies. If you get so close as I am now, you should do one or two good ones. I would like to shoot more than three days with Denzel Washington. I still like what they do. Not all of it, but I like it.

Levy: Youre very much an international actor.

Ganz: Because this is Europe! There's Germany, there's France, there's Italy, and it's all connected and close together. And if youre able to speak a few languages, like I am, it's no problem to work with them. This is one of the qualities of Europe, the diversity. We are rich in culture because we are so many countries.

Levy: Do define yourself as a European actor

Ganz: I am European, but Im very strongly Swiss. I can't hide it. My childhood was in Switzerland, and this is my home. Maybe because my mother was Italian, from the beginning of my life, I had two languages in my ear. I always felt the world is bigger than one nation, and Switzerland is a very small country.

Levy: You do a lot of stage work. What about TV

Ganz: No, no television, I don't like it. I like both stage and film. I think film is more rhythmical, but when nobody's offering something, it's a kind of emptiness, so it's great to get back to theater. Because I feel more hidden, more secure. It's very calm, and youre on stage, and it's dark, and you start with the very first line, and you don't have to worry if the sun is there or not.

Levy: You worked on “The Boys from Brazil” with Olivier.

Ganz: I have memories of the attempt Olivier made to have a German accent in his English. It was impressive. But the most impressive moment with Olivier was some years ago, when I worked with his fencing master. We did “Hamlet” in Germany, and this young actor, who was a very good master. One day he said, We have to interrupt our training for the “Hamlet” fight, because Im in “Othello,” and we are recording this for television and I have to go back. Then I saw at 6 in the morning a man arriving in his car. And this guy said, Now, have a look. This is sir Lawrence Olivier.” And this old man came out of his car with a newspaper and slowly walked toward the studio, before disappearing. And one hour later, I saw Olivier on stage, a man twice as huge as the one I saw an hour before, in black and movement and body language. He was strong and arrogant like an animal, but it was an incredible transformation. And I said to myself, Well, Bruno, you can see what a real actor is.