Swiss actor Bruno Ganz has specialized in nice guys for most of his 40-year career. In 1987, he appeared as a poetic, ponytailed angel in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire," arguably his most memorable outing. Five years ago, he was a waiter offering his spare room to a runaway housewife in "Bread and Tulips," another in a series of art-house hits that brought him international acclaim.
The gentle-eyed Ganz makes a 180-degree turn, however, in Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall," Germany's entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film. In the movie, which debuted in Los Angeles on Friday, he plays Adolf Hitler -- the first head-on portrayal of the Fuhrer in a feature film from that nation. The Newmarket Films release takes place in an underground bunker 10 days before Hitler took his life in 1945. A far cry from the demonic madmen delivered by Alec Guinness in 1973's "Hitler: The Last Ten Days" and Anthony Hopkins in the 1981 miniseries "The Bunker," Ganz's dictator is a lonely, embittered soul, far more man than monster. Power-hungry and mean, he's also capable of tenderness with children, his dog and his secretary, Traudl Junge, from whose vantage point the story is told.
This approach has engendered controversy in Germany and abroad. But that hasn't hurt it thus far. Drawing raves for his performance, Ganz has walked off with numerous honors, including the best actor award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. "Downfall," for its part, won Germany's prestigious Bambi Award for best German film.
Unlike "The Last Act," a 1956 Austrian production on the same topic to which few people came, the picture was the top-grossing film in Germany on its opening weekend in September -- a position it held for five weeks. Still playing in German theaters, it has sold nearly 5 million tickets there and has been a hit as well in the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and Belgium. "Downfall" drew half a million people in France during the first two weeks of its run.
"The film is huge for Germany, a sign the nation is coming to terms with its guilt," said Ganz, unwinding in a Beverly Hills hotel during a trip to Los Angeles. "It's one thing to read a book or watch a documentary and another to give Hitler -- evil, itself -- a face. Tackling that has been unthinkable for a German actor because he was always considered too 'big.' "
A master of on-screen wistfulness, Ganz was not an obvious choice. But despite his sweet and low-key disposition, Hirschbiegel says, he's a veritable "revolutionary" onstage. Watching a tape of the actor in a production of "Faust," Hirschbiegel got a sense of Ganz's fire. A onetime artist, the director bolstered his instincts by drawing a mustache and the dictator's plastered-down haircut on a photo of Ganz.
"The resemblance was shocking," Hirschbiegel said on the phone from his home in Vienna. "Besides, Bruno is the gros seigneur of all German performers -- the big guy, the wise guy. He's one of the greatest actors in Europe, a legend with whom I've wanted to work."
When writer-producer Bernd Eichinger approached Ganz in March 2003, Ganz was mindful of his legacy. The actor wondered, would the public forever associate him with Hitler?Would this performance obliterate his turns as the seducer in Eric Rohmer's "The Marquis of O," the real estate solicitor in Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre," the war correspondent in Volker Schlondorff's "Circle of Deceit," the alienated sailor in Alain Tanner's mood piece "In the White City"?
The project, he decided, was worth the risk -- particularly with the rise of Neo-Nazism in Europe. (Two fanatics were arrested for giving the outlawed "Hitler salute" and applauding during a screening of the film in eastern Berlin.) Possessed by the "ambition" common to actors, he says, he summoned the courage to plunge in.
Devil's in the details
Suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, Hitler was camera-shy at the end of his life, so no footage could be tapped. Instead, Ganz read up on the period and spoke with the few remaining eyewitnesses. To capture the dictator's clipped Bavarian-Austrian accent, he studied a secretly recorded dinner table conversation between Hitler and a Finnish diplomat rather than the rantings of his speeches. In full costume during the St. Petersburg part of the shoot, Ganz drew frightened stares from passersby as he crossed the street.
Making Hitler's choices comprehensible, almost acceptable, was the goal of the film, maintain the filmmakers, who believed that painting the dictator as a demented aberration would absolve the German people from responsibility and suggest that such an episode could never happen again.