He played Faust, a fallen angel and even Adolf Hitler. While Bruno Ganz has a penchant for problematic roles, he's performed them all with skill and elegance. The Swiss actor turns 75 on March 22.
Bruno Ganz has starred in countless box office hits. Was he the reason for their success? His most outstanding roles seem to have been those embodying the challenge of crises - and even failure. He portrayed an unscrupulous journalist reporting on the civil war in Lebanon, a fallen angel in the divided city of Berlin, and even a strangely distraught Adolf Hitler.
Bruno Ganz concentrated on each of these roles as if they were the only ones he would ever play. "I tend to identify with my roles to such an extent that I appear to be totally convinced about certain statements that, in real life, I would never believe in," is how he once put it in an interview with DW, adding that playing Adolf Hitler in "Downfall" had been a particularly overwhelming task.
What entices audiences, however, are not strong monologues, but rather slow gestures and that particular Bruno Ganz look: reduced, forlorn and very precise. And yet, he has retained a high degree of flexibility. Hardly any other actor can look back on such a long and diverse list of performances. And hardly any other actor can look into the future so optimistically - at age 75.
From school dropout to star
Modern German film is unimaginable without Bruno Ganz. He was born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland. His family, largely consisting of blue-collar workers, had a hard time understanding his professional choices. As a teenager, he dropped out of school to attend an acting school in Zurich, earned his living as a bookseller, and finished training as a paramedic.
In his early 20s he took some odd film roles, and in the early 1960s he left Switzerland to work as a stage actor in the German cities of Göttingen and Bremen.
While most actors have to choose between theater and film, Bruno Ganz was successful in both areas. From the 1970s onwards, he worked at the Berlin-based theater Schaubühne with stage directors such as Peter Zadek, Peter Stein and Luc Bondy.
During the Salzburg Festival in 1972, he was hailed for his performance in "Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige" (The ignorant and the lunatic) by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Claus Peymanns. Consequently, Ganz became Actor of the Year and remained deeply grateful to Bernhard until his death. Bernhard even dedicated the play "Die Jagdgesellschaft"(The hunters' society) to him with the words "for Bruno Ganz - whom else."
An angel in 'Wings of Desire'
At the same time, the stage actor built up a remarkable career on screen, where he equally worked with the most outstanding German directors, among them Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Peter Handke, and Volker Schlöndorff.
In 1987, he achieved world fame with "Wings of Desire" by Wim Wenders, playing an angel called Damiel, who guards the divided city of Berlin and falls in love with a woman. Later, Nicolas Cage starred in a Hollywood remake of the film, entitled "City of Angels."
Ganz has a particular talent for portraying characters who suffer through deep crises. In the Italian movie "Bread and Tulips," he plays a melancholic waiter trying to win back the heart of his unhappy wife. In the German film "Satte Farben vor Schwarz" (Deep colors in black), he portrays a terminally ill husband who ends up committing suicide together with his wife, played by German actress Senta Berger.
Downfall with 'Downfall'?
His most difficult role was offered to Ganz in 2004: Adolf Hitler during his last days spent in a bunker. A tricky offer - isn't the failure of an actor in this impossible role almost guaranteed?
Bruno Ganz presents Hitler as a human being, an old, doddery man with trembling hands who can't help spitting whenever he tries to scream. Following the premiere of this film - predictably - Ganz's performance was showered by both praise and harsh criticism.
Nevertheless, "Downfall" became a box office hit, and Ganz a world star. The problem then was how to get rid of his Hitler stigma? In an interview with the German daily "Berliner Morgenpost," Bruno Ganz admitted that he continued to be haunted by that strange figure for a very long time. The audience, obviously, shared his fate. It took a long time until Bruno Ganz was once again perceived as what he was: a multi-faceted actor.
Ganz's deep passion for theater continued. In 2000, he successfully played Faust in Peter Stein's stage production lasting more than 21 hours. Then in 2003, he played Oedipus in Vienna's Burgtheater, where he made his debut at age 62. Officially speaking, Bruno Ganz is considered "the most significant and honorable stage artist of German speaking theater." That was the laudation he received in 1996, when the prestigious Iffland Ring - passed on from one actor to the next for more than 100 years - was handed to him.
This honor hasn't remained his only one: The list of his awards is long indeed, including the European Film Prize, the Golden Camera for his lifework, the Carl-Zuckmayer-Medal, and the Federal Cross of Merit.
Ganz's private life has always remained private. The only thing the public knows is that he owns apartments in Berlin, Zurich and Venice - he is said to have become deeply enchanted with Venice during the shooting of "Bread and Tulips." He is separated from his wife, with whom he has a son, and his new partner is said to be photographer Ruth Walz.
Knowing when to stop
Bruno Ganz is still a bigger star within the German-speaking world than abroad, although he worked with international directors Stephen Daldry in "The Reader," Ridley Scott in "The Counselor," and Jaume Collet-Serra in "Unknown Identity."
Ganz once told the German newspaper "Die Zeit" that he died many deaths in his roles. "Roles in which one dies unfortunately don't help you to prepare for your own," he commented. "At times, when you're laying there - dead- while the others continue to live, you are grateful for the fact that you are still alive in real life."
At age 75, when most people have already stopped working some years earlier, he says, even an actor needed to think about his future: "I find it questionable to continue working 10 hours a day as a cripple - just to remain in touch with the film world. So I hope that I will be able to stop working early enough," said Ganz in an interview with DW. Let's hope that this day will be far away in the future.