Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bruno Ganz: The Hollywood Interview

Actor Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler, in The Downfall.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Venice Magazine.

Bruno Ganz has been one of Germany’s most celebrated actors for more than three decades, first rising to international prominence playing the lead in Wim Wenders’ classic The American Friend in 1976, and later earning accolades for his portrayal of a melancholy angel wandering through Berlin in 1988’s Wings of Desire. On an ironic note, Germany’s celebrated thespian is actually Swiss, born in Zurich on March 22, 1941. Ganz’s latest turn is by far his riskiest and greatest of his distinguished career, playing Germany’s most reviled figure, Adolph Hitler, in director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (English translation, The Downfall) which profiles Hitler’s last ten days in his Berlin bunker. A chilling, documentary-like portrait of a man who’s world is literally crumbling around him, the film has one numerous awards in Europe, including a German Oscar (the Bambi) for Ganz, and is a contender for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Bruno Ganz sat down with us recently during a press tour in Los Angeles to discuss his latest work.

This was a remarkable film and I commend you on your work in it. I imagine Hitler must have been the most difficult role you’ve ever played.
Bruno Ganz: Yes, because the role itself is the first I’ve played of someone who really existed. Not only that, but nearly everyone in the world has an image of him, like an icon, and can remember the sound of his speeches. You have to get close to this image without making it an imitation. I tried to study his background, his physicality—he was suffering from Parkinson’s at the end of his life, and what was the most difficult of course, was trying to get a feeling of him as a person. How he was thinking. What happened in his brain.

And what did you come up with?
He was very good at hiding things, so people who were close to him described Hitler as an enigma. Even after years of being around him, they couldn’t tell you who this guy was. He had also a great ability to change his attitudes, like a chameleon. He considered himself until the end, as an artist, almost a bohemian. You weren’t allowed to wake him up before 11 o’clock in the morning, no matter what was happening with his army. I could never find a point where you could say “This is the heart of what this man was about.” The closest I could get was this idea of Social Darwinism that he lived by, that only the strongest survive and the rest don’t deserve to live.

Do you think he truly believed that, even at the end?
Yes. Always. Tat was what made him strong, this kind of simplified image of the world. That’s the key to gaining power: whatever you think the people need to hear, you give it to them. He was a master of that.

He even remained enigmatic to the very end, right before he killed himself. What do you think was going through his head in those moments, and what were you thinking about?
He said that the German people did not understand him, that they were too weak, and not worthy to have such a leader as him. What he says to (Albert) Speer during their final visit I think probably summed up what he felt at the end: “I always fought with an open helmet against the Jews, and that is the goal I achieved.” Because he killed six million Jews, I think he felt he’d accomplished his mission. He truly believed that and was determined to achieve it. I think he also felt satisfaction that he did something that no one else ever dared to do.

I know that you were a small boy during the war, but do you have any memories at all growing up in Switzerland during that time?
I remember there was a small garden next to our house. There was a loud noise one day, and we walked outside and walked into the garden, and there were all these pieces of twisted metal lying there. Later we were told it was part of a wing of an American bomber! (laughs) They were probably going to bomb Stuttgart, Germany, so this poor fellow must’ve gotten hit coming back. I also remember hearing some of Hitler’s speeches on the radio. I was very surprised when they presented to me before we shot the film, this seven minute tape of Hitler speaking completely relaxed somewhere in Finland with a diplomat, explaining things about the German army. It was a very different person that the screaming you heard in his speeches, but what was interesting was that it was a virtual monologue. Hitler was obviously not someone who’d let anyone else get a word in when he was speaking. I also saw a documentary that showed a Hitler speech in 1936, in which he was responding to a telegram from Roosevelt. You see Hitler preparing the speech backstage, and he’s really nervous…then you see Goebbels arrive and they talk. Then Hitler approaches the microphone and starts speaking in this very low voice—keep in mind you never see the audience the entire time—then you hear the first reaction from the audience. And you see Hitler grow before your eyes, and then it just builds more and more, until finally he’s gesticulating, screaming, you know…I think he really felt he got into the hearts and minds of the people. He fed off them. Dangerous, dangerous stuff. Because today, you’re no longer impressed with the way Hitler says things, if you read transcripts of what he’s actually saying, you’d probably laugh because it’s completely stupid!

If you look at footage of Hitler and Mussolini speaking during that period, today they look like buffoons.
Yes, exactly. Although at that time, it was obviously different. It was more theatrical then, bigger than life.

Let’s talk about your background.
I was born and raised in Zurich. My father was a machinist. My mother was from Italy. I had a brother, who’s deceased now.

When did you discover acting?
Very young. I was 13 or 14. Sometimes I felt I was in a state of mind or heart that I should share it with other people. (laughs) So I think that was where it all started. After an abortive attempt at university, I got out of Switzerland and went to Germany, and got involved in a student theater group in Saxonia, which is in the north. So I learned how to speak real German there, not the Swiss variation. And we did a lot of contemporary German plays, and did it all on our own. We had no money, so we really had to live by our wits. It was kind of a hippie existence. This was from around 1960-63. Then I got serious and went to Bremen, and worked with the man who became my mentor, Peter Zadek, who is a wonderful Jewish theater director from Berlin. He is still very well-known in Germany. That was where I did my first Hamlet, MacBeth, a lot of Shakespeare.

What was it about Peter Zadek that changed things for you?
He led a kind of aesthetic revolution, the way he treated classic work like Shakespeare. He made it very contemporary, drew it into our own time. He used elements of pop art. I remember we did a very classic German play, and we used a gigantic photograph of (60s actress) Rita Tushingham’s face as our backdrop. Later we used pieces from Roy Lichtenstein and things like that. He just made me look at the theater and acting in a very unique way.

The first big film you did was Eric Rohmer’s The Marquis of O. What was Rohmer like?
It was strange because it was a German story, directed by a Frenchman, in a French production. We did the film in German, too and shot it in Germany, but I think finally Rohmer finally did not understand what we were saying! (laughs) He knew the meaning of what we were saying, but he couldn’t really cope with the German language. But we still all felt that he was one of the greatest directors we’d ever worked with.

After that you did Wim Wenders’ masterpiece The American Friend. You also got to work with directors Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray, who acted in the film.
I didn’t actually work with Nicholas Ray in the film, but got to know him a bit at the New York Film Festival. I actually spent three or four hours with him at his apartment, shortly before he died. He was very fragile, very wise, and in a deep, deep sense interested in the relationship between people and how the world worked. Fuller was a real character, very tough, vital always smoking a cigar. Very sympathetic. (laughs) He was talking a lot about The Big Red One. He also watched and saw everything that was going on around him. A great observer of life. Dennis Hopper and I clashed a bit at first on that film, but then we became friends.

You did a small part in Boys From Brazil and got to work with Laurence Olivier.
Yeah, I got to spend a few days with a great actor, kind of like what I just did in The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington. Sir Laurence was so kind. He was quite frail at the time, but he talked a lot about his family, about kids, just a very warm, nice man.

Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu must’ve been quite an adventure, working with Klaus Kinski.
I was actually quite nervous about meeting Kinski, with the reputation he had in Germany for being completely crazy! (laughs) He was an interesting guy, though, but we started out thinking that he would literally kill us! It turned out that his behavior was very strange, and sometimes volatile, but only towards people on the crew, and he usually went after the people on the crew who were in the lower ranks, which I really found revolting, because they couldn’t fight back. But to me, he was okay. I remember we had a problem with all the rats we used, because they were starving and the guy we paid to buy them food didn’t and, oh God, it was just a complete mess. Werner Herzog, when Kinski was on the set, they were like one person, a very symbiotic relationship, so we really couldn’t get in there, you know, but it was interesting to watch.

Wings of Desire is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.
I saw it a year ago, once again, and I was especially moved by the documentary aspect that it has today, because the Berlin they show in the film is gone now. The wall, everything, it was just amazing to see that. The scene when my character meets Peter Falk and they have a coffee together in that little diner, that kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore.

Downfall is the first German film to deal with Hitler since G.W. Pabst’s The Last Ten Days of Hitler, which was made in 1955. Do you think the film was made with the intention of providing a kind of closure between the German people and the rest of world for Hitler and his crimes?
Well you know, we are not one person, and I don’t exactly know what (producer/writer) Bernd Eichinger really wanted. When I got the script, it seemed to be a very honest script. It wasn’t revisionist, didn’t deal with German guilt, and wasn’t apologetic in any way. It was more of a documentary. I asked him, ‘Why now?’ He said “For 20 years I tried to make this film, and now I feel it’s finally possible.” I said ‘Was it a matter of financing before?’ “No, no,” he said. “It’s just a feeling, that I will be able to do this. I think it’s time.” So I just decided at that point to stop this kind of conversation with him and with myself, and say yes or no to playing the part of Hitler. Now I realize that it was the right thing to do, after seeing what German audiences reactions were. The fact that the right wing, neo-Nazis couldn’t exploit this film for their propaganda was a very rewarding thing for me, and made me feel very safe in my decision.

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