Bruno Ganz: “I Know Now What No Angel Knows”

ON FILM / THE DAILY — FEB 18, 2019
Bruno Ganz in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987)

The loss of any beloved actor hurts, but there’s an extra tinge of poignancy to the passing of Bruno Ganz at the age of seventy-seven. Delivering one of his most subtly moving performances in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), Ganz plays Damiel, one in a flock of angels who wander the still-divided city of Berlin, listening in on the innermost thoughts of people unaware of their presence. Their eavesdropping is “both empathetic and voyeuristic,” as Michael Atkinson points out in the essay accompanying our release, and “most of what the angels hear from their earthling subjects is worry, worry, worry.” Nonetheless, as Damiel confides to his close friend (Otto Sander), he’s been tiring of his “transcendent existence” and yearns to feel “a weight within that would end this boundlessness and tie me to earth.” He’s tempted to experience even the simplest of pleasures such as a smoke or a cup of coffee—“and if you do it together,” Peter Falk tells him, “it’s fantastic”—and reaches his breaking point when he falls for a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin).

Damiel casts off his wings, and with them, his immortality, plunging to earth where he can touch and smell and love and sense the passing of time. He can also cheat death by setting down an immortal record of his mortal life. He can write: “I know now what no angel knows.” Ganz is gone, but we still have that declaration, along with more than a hundred film and television performances.

Ten years before Wings, Ganz and Wenders first worked together on The American Friend, a loose adaptation of two of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Dennis Hopper plays the devious and seductive con artist and serial murderer Tom Ripley, who arranges to have Ganz’s Jonathan Zimmermann, a terminally ill picture framer, ensnared in a plot to kill one of Ripley’s rivals. As Francine Prose wrote for our release three years ago, Zimmermann is “a tragic figure, a hero for whom we are actively rooting in his struggle against the forces unleashed by the reprehensible caprice of his American friend. How can we not side with a character played by Bruno Ganz at his most radiantly handsome, an actor who can manage to perform the deceptively simple but in fact challenging feat of making a mild and fundamentally decent family man both interesting and charismatic?”

Hopper and Ganz would eventually get along just fine, but not before coming to blows at the outset. Ganz once told the Irish TimesDonald Clarkethat he was “jealous because [Hopper] was a Hollywood star and I was nothing, really.” Which wasn’t entirely true. Born to a working class family in Zürich, he was acting professionally by the time he was twenty, working with top theater directors within just a few years, and in 1970, he became a cofounding member of Peter Stein’s famously radical Schaubühne ensemble. Around fifteen years into an off-and-on career in movies, Ganz starred in Eric Rohmer’s The Marquise of O (1976). That’s not nothing.

Between The American Friend and Wings of Desire, Ganz worked with novelist, playwright, and Wenders collaborator Peter Handke on The Left-Handed Woman (1978), turned in a wrenching performance as a man shot by police who then unwittingly becomes an enemy of the state in Reinhard Hauff’s Knife in the Head (1978), worked alongside Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979), and appeared with Hanna Schygulla and Jerzy Skolimowski in Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit(1981). In Circle, he played a journalist sent to Beirut to cover the Lebanese Civil War, a man “horrified and bewildered by the spectacle of violence and drawn into violence himself,” as Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian. “In all these roles, Ganz was excellent as the morally literate, cultured man gazing into an abyss of evil or sadness.”

Over the weekend, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung ran several remembrances, including Schlöndorff’s, in which he recalls that Ganz had wanted Romy Schneider, with whom he’d had an affair ten years before, for Schygulla’s role. But by this point in her life, Schneider was ailing “both physically and emotionally” and wouldn’t have been able to withstand conditions on the set of film shot on location in an actual war zone. Schygulla turned out to be a trooper, calming Ganz’s nerves as sharpshooters carried out their “macabre target practice” on innocent civilians simply trying to cross a street. Before they arrived in Lebanon, Ganz and Schygulla had clashed during rehearsals in Munich. He couldn’t take her seriously as an actress, even after “her great success” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978). Schlöndorff notes that even twenty years after Fassbinder’s death, following a screening of Schlöndorff’s Baal starring Fassbinder as Brecht’s poet, Ganz couldn’t get over how “unbearably arrogant this guy” was. For her part, Schygulla couldn’t relate to the methods Ganz had developed during his Schaubühne days.

But neither Ganz nor Schygulla wanted to give up a role in Circle of Deceit.At Schlöndorff’s insistence, they talked it out during a long walk through Munich’s English Garden. After all, “they were professionals.” During the shoot, Schlöndorff “discovered anew each day” that Ganz was the “ideal” actor to portray an observer who had begun to doubt his own profession, journalism. Also writing in the NZZ, Urs Bühler argues that Ganz “knew how to use his presence to fill empty spaces on the screen without dominating them.” For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, Ganz was “sly, pensive, puckish yet woeful, inwardly commanding, almost always intensely becalmed, an actor with a light in his eye that could radiate anything from merry deviousness to the fiercest of existential distress.”

Existential distress doesn’t get any more fierce than in a scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) that’s become one of the most popular memes of the past decade. As Adolf Hitler—and, as a testament to Ganz’s range, it’s a deep plummet from Damiel hovering in the heavens over Berlin down to the hellish underground bunker beneath that same city—Ganz rants and raves as the realization begins to sink in that the war is lost. A little over two years after the film’s release, the scene, its video and audio intact, began to appear with fresh subtitles—because, yes, it is funny to see the Führer working himself into a lather over an iPod Touch without a camera or the results of a Glasgow East by-election. “It’s amazing, the creativity from these kids!” Ganz once exclaimed in an interview. “How they come up with these ideas!”

The meme tends to overshadow the daring brilliance of Ganz’s performance. “The decrepit individual shuffling through the bunker rooms, his mood ricocheting unpredictably from bleak resignation to wildly unreal flurries of optimism, is brilliantly played,” argued historian Ian Kershaw, author of an award-winning series of biographies of Hitler, in the Guardian in 2004. “The towering outbursts of white-hot rage, subsiding into pathetic self-pity, the fury directed at the alleged ‘betrayal’ of generals who had strained every sinew to fulfill his commands; his cold indifference to the fate of the German people; his last wishes to continue the fight against the Jews . . . Of all the screen depictions of the Führer, even by famous actors such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler’s voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic.”

Fifteen years on, it’s easy to forget how heated the debate over Downfallbecame in the mid-2000s. “To play Hitler is to walk into a paradox,” wrote A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “We still want to understand not just the historical background of German National Socialism, but also the psychological and temperamental forces that shaped its leader. At the same time, though, there is still a powerful taboo against making him seem too much like one of us. We want to get close, but not too close.” One of the film’s harshest critics argued in an open letter published in Die Zeit, a widely read weekly in Germany, that Downfall takes its viewers “into a black hole in which they are led, almost unnoticeably, toward looking at this time through the eyes of the perpetrators, and generates a kind of benevolent understanding of them.” That critic was Wim Wenders.

One counterargument would be that it’s precisely because the Nazis were not supernatural incarnations of evil, but rather, human beings caught up in the fever of an ego-stroking ideology espoused by a charismatic personality that we need to be reminded that fascism can take hold anywhere and at any time. But if anyone is to have the last word on Downfall, it should, of course, be Bruno Ganz. “Having played him, I cannot claim to understand Hitler,” he told the Guardian in 2005. “He had no pity, no compassion, no understanding of what the victims of war suffered. Ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none.”

Ganz had appeared in dozens of international productions before Downfall,but the film’s success—it was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film—had directors calling on him from around the world. He played professors in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008); he reunited with Theo Angelopoulos, who’d directed him in Eternity and a Day (1998), for The Dust of Time(2008); Ridley Scott cast him in The Counsellor (2013); he was a delightfully amusing guest in Sally Potter’s The Party (2017), a Virgil-like guide in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018), and Sigmund Freud in Nikolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist (2018).

And we have at least one more performance from Ganz to look forward to—if he’s made the cut. Ganz was cast as Judge Lueben in Terrence Malick’s Radegund, which was shot in 2016 and will hopefully be released later this year. That judge is likely Werner Lueben, Senate President of the Reich Military Tribunal, who, directly or indirectly, sentenced hundreds of people whom the Nazis perceived as enemies to death, among them, the conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who’ll be played by August Diehl. Radegund would be Ganz’s 121st credit at the IMDb. Not every single one of those performances will prove to be immortal, but a good number of them, certainly including his films with Wenders, possibly his work with Rohmer, Schlöndorff, Herzog, and yes, his Hitler, will.

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