Ganz, Bruno: Major European Actor (Downfall, Wings of Desire), Dies at 77

Bruno Ganz, the Swiss-born actor best known for dramatizing Adolf Hitler’s final days in 2004’s Downfall, has died. He was 77.

I got to know Bruno Ganz and his wife quite well, when I served on the grand jury of the 2002 Locarno Film Fest, which he headed, alongside with Iranian director Jafar Panahi and Hungarian Bela Tarr.

It was one of the highlights of my career as a scholar and critic, benefiting from 11 days of participating in–and listening to–numerous conversations about film art with Ganz and the other jury participants.

By the way, when I asked Ganz who were his favorite American actors, he was hesitant to mention specific names, being truly a pro and a gentleman.  When I pressed harder, he said that he always enjoyed watching the work of Al Pacino and Denzel Washington.

Ganz died at his home in Zurich on Friday, with the cause of his death listed as colon cancer.

In addition a definitive portrayal of Hitler, Ganz played an angel who gives up immortality to experience earthly pleasures in Wim Wenders’ 1987 classic Wings of Desire, which has become a cult movie.

Ganz reprised that role in Wim Wenders’ 1993 follow-up, Faraway, So Close! which was not as acclaimed or impactful.

Reel Vs. Real Impact

Ganz performance was so memorable that people ascribed special powers to him when they recognized him in public. Ganz recalled: “People in planes said: ‘Ah, no need to be afraid, because with you here, nothing can happen. Now we are safe.’”

Ganz told the Danish film journal P.O.V. “Or a mother said to her child: ‘Look, there’s your guardian angel.’ They weren’t joking.”

Other notable roles included turns in Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-nominated “The Reader” (2008), Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu” (1979),  Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004),  and Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Boys from Brazil” (1978), in which he played a professor who discovers a Nazi plan to create clones.

For Downfall, Ganz researched Hitler for four months, delivering a portrait of an alternately defiant and despondent Führer whose dark dreams of ruling Europe end in a nondescript bunker, with only a few sycophants and loyalists at his side.

Though most reviews were favorable, “Downfall” by some for humanizing Hitler. In a 2005 interview, Ganz responded to that criticism, saying: “What people need is for Hitler to actually represent evil itself. But what is evil itself? That means nothing to me. I have to perform a living human being.”

“We know how to judge Hitler,” he added. “We don’t need another film that condemns him. We already know where we stand on this.  There is certainly no sympathy for Hitler in the film.”

Scenes of Ganz as Hitler raving and pounding the table became the basis for “Hitler Rant” parody videos on YouTube that purported to show the Nazi dictator losing it over everything from Coldplay breaking up to the new “Star Trek” movie. These videos were later taken down by the film’s producers as a copyright violation.

Ganz also enjoyed a successful stage career, performing in such plays as Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and Goethe’s “Faust.”

More recent works included Sally Potter’s 2017 British social comedy “The Party,” which screened at the Berlin Film Fest, and another Berlinale title from that year, Matti Geschonneck’s ensemble drama “In Times of Fading Light,” based on a bestselling novel about a family in communist East Germany.

Ganz’s last screen appearance was in Lars von Trier’s serial killer drama, “The House That Jack Built,” which premiered to mixed reviews last year at the Cannes Film Fest.