Daniel Brühl: first Berlin, then the world

He was on the wrong side of the wall in 'Good Bye, Lenin!'; a sniper in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; a racing legend in 'Rush' and now, Daniel Brühl is leaking all over the planet in 'The Fifth Estate'


‘A couple of years ago I decided to branch out,” explains Daniel Brühl. “So I opened a tapas bar. It’s still there. We’re not bankrupt. And you’re cordially invited. I’ll chop something up for you. But film has been my main passion since I was a child.”

At 35, the Spanish-born German actor Daniel César Martín Brühl González Domingo has been around the movieverse his entire life. The son of the late Brazilian-German TV director Hanno Brühl made his screen debut as long ago as 1995. He has subsequently decorated his mantelpiece with scores of awards and has appeared in Inglourious Basterds for Quentin Tarantino, The Bourne Ultimatum for Paul Greengrass and 2 Days in New York for Julie Delpy.

A multi-lingual talent, he grew up speaking German, Spanish, English, French and Catalan. The languages have come in handy as he moves between his homeland, Spanish- speaking roles (Seven Days in Havana) and Anglophone cinema.

“I’m so lucky,” he tells me. “Recently, even though Germany is doing well economically, there has been a cultural stagnation. The only films doing well in German cinema are German comedies. A paradox, I know. No intelligent human being could find these terrible films funny but they are successful in Germany. If I had not been brought up in a multilingual environment, I would be now be limited to funny hats and unfunny jokes.”

Unsurprisingly, he often dubs his own films – “Because dubbing actors always sound as though they’re crying or having sex or both. They have that strange breathing going on.”

Witty, charming and equally adept across the continent, it seems odd, or at least, belated, that all of Daniel Brühl’s stars seem to have lined up in recent months. He recently wrapped the keenly anticipated John le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man, starring opposite Williem Dafoe and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Pop in to a multiplex near you and you can catch him in Ron Howard’s Formula One thriller Rush, in which he dons ratty teeth as Austrian driver Niki Lauda, the rival of Chris Hemsworth’s brash Brit James Hunt.

I tell him that the film has scored record points among women on exit polls.

“That might have something to do with Chris,” he says. “But I’d like to think it was my teeth. It was a frightening role, a huge responsibility. Niki is a hero in Germany and Austria. And my first thought was we don’t have much in common; this will be too difficult. Other actors don’t like to get in touch with people they are playing. They like freedom. But I like asking questions and – not mimicking exactly – but getting things like the body language right. So meeting Niki and spending time with him was invaluable.”

"Information War" - The Fifth Estate (2013)

Brühl went straight from Rush to depicting another living person, the former Wikileaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, in The Fifth Estate.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Wikileaks,” says the actor. “And because Daniel is German we were aware – especially in Berlin – of the organisation from very early on. I totally agree with what the organisation stands for. Its revelations were – and are – very important. The general mood in Germany was never as anti-Wikileaks as it has been in other countries. I was so disappointed when this initially brilliant idea led to so many conflicts. And that’s what the movie is about.”

As with Niki Lauder, Brühl was quick to search out the real Daniel Domscheit-Berg whom he describes as “truly committed”.

“I met him and his wife at their house outside Berlin. In the middle of our conversation, two Frenchmen came into the kitchen. Daniel asked me not to ask them anything. He later explained that they were anti-Fascist activists living in his house for free. Who he supports. During all the conversations we had, I had the impression he was a very reasonable and responsible guy.”

The actor hopes that his performance provides a defence of the former spokesman, whose book provided the inspiration for the screenplay.

“We’re still in touch,” says Brühl. “We like each other. He’s more or less happy with the version of events in the film. And he’s happy with my performance. Which is a relief. It was crucial for me to talk to him. I had so many questions at the beginning. It was so confusing reading all these different books on WikiLeaks, with all with different and sometimes contradictory points of view. It’s an important story. But a confusing, complex one.”

We’ve heard about contact between Julian Assange and Benedict Cumberbatch. A letter, purportedly written by Assange and currently circulating promiscuously around newsfeeds states: “I do not believe (The Fifth Estate) is going to be positive for me or the people I care about. I believe that it is going to be overwhelmingly negative for me and the people I care about. It is based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organisation.”

Did Brühl speak to the Wikileaks founder?

“Benedict and I went to see Julian Assange give a speech just before Christmas at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. We had started rehearsals. So it was a perfect opportunity. It was very crowded. He was very charismatic, very in control. It was a bit strange being there with Benedict.”

However, did they evade potential Cumberbitches? “Oh. He was disguised with a scarf and big hood. That was also my concern.”

It’s tempting to see a neat circularity to Brühl’s role in The Fifth Estate. Whatever its flaws, the film does bear some resemblance to the politically minded entertainments – Good Bye Lenin, The Edukators – that first put the actor on the map.

“I definitely have a political conscience,” he says. “I’m always keen to make films with content that means something, telling stories that are worth telling. I have nothing against pure entertainment. It’s great. But generally I’m more attracted to stories like these.”

Where, I wonder, does Inglourious Basterds fall on the spectrum that lies between weighty themes and fantasy?

“Ha. It’s Tarantino. It’s pure pleasure, crazy and nuts. Who else could have reinvented history like that? Nobody can classify it or place it because nobody else could have come up with that idea.”