"Though delusional and pathetic, Hitler's behavior had to be understandable," Ganz, 63, explained in more than passable English. "He had to be charismatic, likable in some way, or no one would have followed him. Attempting to restore the 'dignity' of the German people who felt humiliated by the first World War, he was viewed as a savior. I tried to get into his mind and his heart, though it's unlikely he had one."
"Find the evil inside you," Hirschbiegel advised the actor.
Trained as a boxer, Ganz concedes he's no stranger to violence and rage. On the set of Wenders' "The American Friend" (1977), he became embroiled in a "skirmish" with Dennis Hopper, who made a disparaging remark about blindness -- a condition afflicting Ganz's son, now 30. In the mid-'70s, the actor also picked a fight with a night porter at a Berlin hotel who tried to keep him from checking into the same room as his girlfriend, the late Romy Schneider, because the two weren't married.
Flaunting convention comes naturally to the actor, those around him attest. Charming and amusing, Hirschbiegel says, he's also enigmatic.
"Bruno can be silent, internal, which makes some people uncomfortable," he said. "It's hard to know what makes him tick. But then many brilliant actors, Tom Hanks for one, are often the most laid-back. Maybe they have to be to give so much when they're performing."
On the set of "Strapless" (1990), Ganz would disappear for hours, taking long walks in the woods. Director David Hare hired an assistant just to keep tabs on his actor. "A product of World War II," Ganz "is displaced, alienated, and rootless," the director once observed. "He lives out of a suitcase and doesn't know where he belongs."
The comment, read to the actor, brings a slow smile to his face. "Still me, but less so," he suggested. "As an actor, I have to travel, speak in different languages, stay in places I don't like. I sometimes wonder what I'd be like if I were in another profession."
Splitting the critics
"Downfall," the most expensive German-language release since the 1980 U-boat drama "Das Boot," has attracted mixed response. Critic Frank Schirrmacher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung labeled it a "masterpiece." History professor Hermann Graml told Der Spiegel: "I know of no other film that brings history so painfully alive." Columnist Georg Seesslen, for one, was less impressed. The voyeuristic approach is "Hitler for the children of CNN and 'Big Brother,' " he charged in Die Zeit.
Some journalists have challenged the movie's perspective, asking why there is no footage of Jews and Russians being killed, why only Germans are shown as victims. Focusing solely on life in the bunker and the chaos above it is tunnel-vision, they suggest. Not until the closing credits is the audience informed: "Six million Jews died in German concentration camps."
Ganz chooses his words carefully when asked his opinion of the film. Known for his brutal honesty, he takes the diplomatic tack this time.
"I'm satisfied with what I did in the film," he said. "At the risk of sounding cowardly, I put all moral questions aside and turned in the best performance I could. Had I written the script, I would probably have inserted a scene in which someone from the ministry discusses the Holocaust with Hitler -- something the filmmakers rejected because no such conversation occurred in the bunker. Still, the movie is clean politically, far from pro-Hitler. It doesn't soft-pedal the downfall of Germany. It's not sympathy for the devil."
Ganz's work will be featured in a retrospective organized by the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles. It begins Tuesday at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood.
Retrospectives notwithstanding, he says, he's looking forward rather than back. Next month, he begins rehearsals in Berlin for "Disgrace," a contemporary version of "Titus Andronicus" by German writer Botho Strauss. And the big screen is part of his plan, of course, though no deals are in place.
"Every actor has the need to share," Ganz suggested, "and movies are forever. For big American actors, it's about immortality. For me it's about leaving traces."