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Bruno Ganz, The Best

Bruno Ganz. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Loui der Colli [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Bruno Ganz | Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Loui der Colli [CC BY-SA 3.0]

He excelled as an angel and Hitler, as Faust and Hamlet, he pursued a career in film and made theater history: on the death of the great actor and artist Bruno Ganz.


By Christine Dössel

Bruno Ganz, an actor who has enjoyed near semidivine status during his lifetime, is now finally on par with the gods on Mount Olympus. Among the top news stories on Saturday, reports of his death overshadowed the end of the Berlin International Film Festival, which Ganz frequented as a guest. The entire audience rose for a standing ovation when Anke Engelke, who hosted the awards ceremony at the Berlinale-Palast, paid tribute to the late actor by referring to “Bruno Ganz in heaven above Berlin”. Beyond Berlin, the image of Bruno Ganz in people’s minds on this sad day was of the character he portrayed in Wim Wenders’ movie Wings of Desire: Damiel, the angel who keeps watch over the gray-black divided city with such wise and benevolent eyes, eyes that seem to understand and forgive all our human foibles–an iconic role of a heavenly being who wishes to become a mortal. By contrast, Bruno Ganz achieved immortality in his role as Damiel back in 1987.

But of course, the heavens above Berlin are far too small for a great like him; he deserves a place of honor in theater heaven where he will be reunited with Otto Sander, the other gentle Wenders angel and a colleague of Ganz’s from his days at Berlin’s Schaubühne theater whom we lost in 2013. It is comforting to imagine the two of them, with their gift for understanding the human condition, looking down on us, listening attentively and nodding.

When someone likes Bruno Ganz dies, a shockwave sweeps through the country. After all, he was one of the most brilliant German-speaking actors of the twentieth century. Someone who gave something to so many people, who touched and stirred and inspired them, while at the same time making theater history. Or, as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier so accurately put it: who played a “crucial role in shaping” our culture. He went on to say that Bruno Ganz possessed this “magic key” that “opens up great art”.

The fact that Bruno Ganz wore the Iffland-Ring confirms his status as an outstanding actor: the ring denotes its wearer as one of the “most significant and most worthy” actors in German-speaking theater–for as long as they live. When the Austrian actor Josef Meinrad died in 1996, he named Ganz as the new wearer of the ring in his will. Ganz once said that the ring “stabilized him psychologically”. The best of the best always have doubts, after all–about themselves and about the world.

“SUCH a Proletarian prince”

Born in Zurich on March 22, 1941, Bruno Ganz felt drawn to the theater early on, despite there being nothing in his family background to suggest this. His father was a factory worker and his Italian mother had crossed the Alps on foot to work in Zurich as a maid. Their son left high school before obtaining his diploma and proceeded to drop out of drama academy. After some initial minor film roles in Switzerland, he moved to Germany where he worked for a time at the Young Theater in Göttingen and then applied for a position in Bremen. This was where Kurt Hübner, an austere general of the stage, was in the process of reinventing theater with a young group of actors–this was the time when the student movement was emerging–and created quite a stir; later this would go down in the annals as “Bremen style”.

Ganz first auditioned for Peter Zadek who found him interesting: “such a proletarian prince”. He then had to get past Theater Director Hübner; because the latter was sick, the aspiring young actor had to audition in front of Hübner’s bed in his bedroom. Typically Ganz, as one might say with hindsight, he read from the Prince of Homburg. As Hübner later reported: “His entire behavior was so unusual, as was his resistance and the fact that he mumbled rather than spoke, turned half toward us and half toward the wall, that I was fascinated.” This marked the start of his acting career. A short time later, Hübner already let the 24-year-old play Hamlet and then Macbeth in 1967. For the unconventional director Zadek, he took the role of Moritz Stiefel in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and played a strangely disfigured Franz Moor in Schiller’s The Robbers.

At that time, everything was about new beginnings and breaking with old ways, about attacking traditional ways of feeling and seeing things, and about inventing the modern director’s theater. And Bruno Ganz was right in the thick of it, together with Edith Clever, Jutta Lampe, Michael König, Werner Rehm–all those famous actors who went to Berlin with Peter Stein in 1970 and re-established the Schaubühne theater there.

the move to Berlin

Previously, Stein’s 1969 Bremen production of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso with Bruno Ganz playing the title role had been seminal–a work that politicized the ensemble and became a milestone. It presented a reflection on the play’s theme of the relationship between power and art, with Ganz portraying an “emotional clown” (Stein) internally torn between servility and anti-authoritarian insurrection. An artist kept by the Court of Ferrara in a plexiglass enclosure. With a gypsum bust of Goethe on the artificial lawn. Stein’s ensemble left Bremen afterwards and spent one season at the Schauspielhaus theater in Zurich before making the move to Berlin–and heralding the start of a new era.

Under Peter Stein’s directorship at the Schaubühne, theater was a collaborative undertaking and one that was pursued with great seriousness and precision. Being Swiss, Bruno Ganz could relate particularly well to this thoroughness and would later continue to work in the same style. Throughout his acting career he would approach his roles, even his film roles, by reading, observing, and maintaining a certain intellectual distance–rather than feeling his way into the role or embarking on any identificatory processes. He was no method actor. But he was an admirable craftsman with the gift of emotional intelligence that lent his characters something very human and often tender and melancholy while always leaving them with a certain mystery. His concise diction is incomparable: his melodious and velvety timbre with its warm Swiss inflections that he was, thankfully, never quite able to shake off. In fact, his oral skills in general were impressive–he could make texts sound like music and was a brilliant interpreter of Kleist and Hölderlin. On the other hand, he could also be shrill and grating, like his tremulous Hitler in Downfall. Otto Sander once said that Ganz would approach the language afresh each time because standard German was not his native tongue. At times, he would even be annoyed by his own “didactic delivery”, meaning his compulsion to make texts audible and understandable right down to the core of their meaning. Watching a recording of Peter Stein’s assiduously directed complete production of Faust from the year 2000, it is easy to see what Ganz meant–and to succumb immediately to his mastery.

His Prince of Homburg in Stein’s 1972 production at the Schaubühne was also legendary: Kleist’s protagonist from the Thirty Years’ War–equal parts Prussian and hotheaded dreamer–as played in Botho Strauß’s version, whose preferred actor was Ganz. He once lauded him as one of “the last survivors of the heroic Fach” and praised his “masculine grace”.

Even more important to Bruno Ganz than Peter Stein was Klaus Michael Grüber, the director who died in 2008 and had a reputation in the theater world as a poetically enigmatic master of slowness. In 1977, he sent the highly sensitive Ganz on a “winter journey” in Hölderlin’s footsteps through Berlin’s chilly Olympic stadium, cast him in productions of Empedocles and Hamlet and–at the Salzburg Festival in 1986–“Prometheus Bound”, Peter Handke’s powerful adaptation of Aeschylus’ play with Ganz playing a triumphal Man of Sorrows, bound only in a physical sense–linguistically he must have felt absolutely unleashed. He had already given his debut performance at the Salzburg Festival in 1972 playing a doctor–or one might even say a linguistic artist of post-mortem section–in the premiere of Thomas Bernhard’s The Ignoramus and the Madman produced by Claus Peymann. This earned him the accolade of “actor of the year”. In 1974, Bernhard dedicated his play The Hunting Party to him, writing the inscription: “For Bruno Ganz, who else?”

Who but Bruno Ganz should Eric Rohmer have cast alongside the highly sensitive Edith Clever as the count in his film The Marquise of O (1976)? And who else should have lent his amusingly crumpled face to the directors of early German cinema while at the same time giving such an ethereal impression? For a long time, Ganz performed in both film and theater; it was only in the last 15 years that he withdrew largely from the stage. His last performance came in 2012 for Luc Bondy in Paris (Le Retour). As he put it, contemporary theater by self-styled auteur directors had “slipped away” from him.


In the cinema, on the other hand, he was increasingly in demand–also internationally–as an actor following his sensationally realistic portrayal of Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie Downfall (2004). He appeared in films directed by Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stephen Daldry, and more recently also by Lars von Trier. His role as Hitler also brought him criticism for his perceived conceitedness as an actor. Is it even permissible to depict Hitler as “human”? Is such radical naturalism not tantamount to parody?

Ganz was long associated with this one role. However, it is by no means typical of his filmography, which encompasses so much more, ranging from the picture-framer in Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) and Federal Criminal Police Chief Horst Herold in The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) to the Grandfather in Heidi (2015) and a geriatric Sigmund Freud in the film adaptation of Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist (2018). In cinema, Bruno Ganz initially tended to be cast as brooding characters who were searching for the meaning of life, as meditative and somewhat somnambulant individuals, because he was so good at this: playing the man from other realms in a quirkily charming and slightly sad way like his portrayal of the waiter in Silvio Soldini’s beautiful movie Bread and Tulips (2000).

Time and again, this quiet man from Switzerland gave extremely emotive performances when playing those close to death, such as the terminally ill writer in Theo Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day, the white-bearded life guru Tiziano Terzani in The End Is My Beginning, or Senta Berger’s cancer-afflicted husband in Colors in the Dark. He lost his own battle with cancer in Zurich in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was 77 years old.