My Hitler part in 'Downfall'

How did playing the lead role in a German film as a 'human' Adolf Hitler in the final days of the Third Reich affect veteran …

How did playing the lead role in a German film as a 'human' Adolf Hitler in the final days of the Third Reich affect veteran actor Bruno Ganz? Donald Clarke finds out in Berlin

Bruno Ganz, one of cinema's great hangdogs, glowers solemnly out at the recently erected glass towers - tumescent celebrations of the virility of Sony, Chrysler and Deutsche Bank - which have turned Berlin's Potsdamer Platz into the sort of bland, impersonal limbo you find at the heart of all the world's busiest cities.

"They had a chance to build a whole new inner-city," he says in his sweet, quiet voice. "And they did this. I just don't like it. For so many years Potsdamer Platz was this great empty field and then they did this. It is such a pity." The Ritz Carlton hotel, whose panelled corridors still have that new-car smell, occupies a dizzyingly historic square of land. Ganz's stare takes in an area that was once the death-strip next to the wall.

More significantly for our conversation, were he to stick his head out the window (probably not allowed) and glance leftwards across Ebertstrasse, he might catch sight of the dusty building site beneath which lies the bunker where Adolf Hitler spent his last days. "Is that where it is?" he says, slightly embarrassed. "I believe they were using it as a children's playground recently. I confess I never went there."


This comes as surprising news. Before launching into his triumphant performance as an irascible, doomed Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel's powerful film, Downfall (Der Untergang), which coolly analyses life in the bunker as the Russians close in, Ganz spent weeks reading the testimonies of those who shared cramped quarters with the Fuhrer. "I put all these different views together - this person is exaggerating, this person is maybe missing things - and got a kind of shape from it," he says.

Though Downfall has been a significant commercial success in Germany, there have been dissenting voices. The same concerns that have kept museums and visitors centres from opening on the land above the bunker have hitherto dissuaded German directors from representing Adolf Hitler on film. Downfall is, it would seem, the first domestic feature film involving a dramatic portrayal of the Fuhrer since GW Pabst's Der Letze Akt in 1955. Ganz and Hirschbiegel are still dealing with dangerous material.

"I am proud of what we did," Ganz says. "People have tried to bring me down. They have tried to say that I am humanising Hitler, whatever that may mean. But I know what I did and I am proud." It is puzzling that the act of representing Hitler as a human being (rather than what, exactly?) should be seen as controversial. After all, the irrational fury and boiling instability which run through Ganz's performance are not likely to bring the dictator any new fans.

"The genocide was such a big thing that people need a big symbol - as big as the event itself was," he says. "I am talking mainly about the six million Jews. I am not talking about destroying Europe; that is something people might have been able to deal with. Hitler must be seen as the very worst, the most evil man, and that is the only way you are allowed to show him. You need this perfect symbol of evil and if you alter that and say this man was, in some ways, an average man - he eats, he drinks, he kisses people he loves - then that disturbs people. What people need is for Hitler to actually represent evil itself. But what is evil itself? That means nothing to me. I have to perform a living human being."

There have been some quite lucid arguments against the film. The great German director Wim Wenders, who directed Ganz in such classics as Wings of Desire and The American Friend, recently wrote a piece in Der Spiegel decrying Hirschbiegel's refusal to take a firm political stance. Downfall is, Wenders believes, too cool, too dispassionate.

"I can understand that someone like Wim Wenders may have a very advanced aesthetic position and may want the film to take a moral stance," Ganz says. "I do not agree. We know how to judge Hitler. We don't need another film that condemns him. We already know where we stand on this. I mean there is certainly no sympathy for Hitler in the film."

So has Ganz confronted Wenders about the article? "Yes. I met him in Barcelona at a meeting of the European Film Academy and I explained the same thing I explained to you. I think we are still friends. I admire him as a person and as a film-maker. I accept his feelings, but I do not accept his argument."

Ganz was raised in Switzerland and moved back to Zurich some years ago. An outsider's perspective was useful in his preparation for Downfall.

"I was sometimes glad that I could put my Swiss passport between Hitler and myself," he says. "I am thus protected in some way. A lot of friends my age - German friends - have big problems with their parents. They are always asking them: 'What did you do during the war?' And they would never get a satisfactory answer. I was happy not to have to deal with those issues when playing this part."

Born in 1941 to working class parents, Ganz made his stage debut at the age of 20 and continued to work steadily throughout the 1960s. Then, in 1970, he became a founding member of Peter Stein's radical theatre collective, Schaubühne. A fanatic for research, unfashionably committed to the sacredness of the text, Stein gradually turned Schaubühne into Berlin's most influential theatre company. But, reading the various pronouncements Stein and Ganz made at the time, one gets the impression their motivations were as much political as artistic.

"Maybe yes. We were very much part of the movement of 1968," he says.

"Clearly we were actors and theatre people, but we understood ourselves as being part of 1968. It was definitely left-wing theatre."

So, what does the old radical think when he looks at what has become of Potsdamer Platz? "Oh well," he sighs. "I think we did have some success. We didn't exactly transform German society, but the 1968 movement did change it in some ways."

That spirit certainly had an invigorating effect on West German film-making in the early 1970s. Spurred into activity by the bourgeois complacency that accompanied the post-war economic miracle, a new generation of directors - and four in particular - made a series of cynical, radical films that, in the manner of the French new wave a decade earlier, helped forge a fresh, new national cinema.

"Ah, yes. The four names," Ganz laughs. "Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder. That was indeed a very exciting time." Of that quartet, the absurdly prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the only one who never employed Bruno Ganz. "I met him in Bremen a few times," he says. "But he had his own family of actors."

Ganz played Jonathan Harker to Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu in Herzog's fantastically eerie 1979 remake of the FW Murnau vampire classic and seems to have acted as a moderating force between the mercurial director and his borderline-psychotic lead.

"I think so," he says. "Kinski was fascinating. To me he was always very nice and he never attacked me. He liked to show his power by sometimes quarrelling with people on production. I adored him as an actor, but not always as a person."

It was with Wenders that Ganz formed his most fruitful partnership. In 1977's The American Friend, a grim, existentialist adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, Ripley's Game, Wenders found endlessly interesting things to do with the actor's droopy features. It has been rumoured that Ganz did not get on with his co-star, Dennis Hopper. There was even talk of fisticuffs.

"Yeah, there was a little fight in the beginning," he laughs. "I was jealous because he was a Hollywood star and I was nothing really. He made a very nasty remark about blind people and my son is blind - which he did not know. So I began kicking him and we had a little fight. Back then when I was drunk I could get into fights quite easily, but not any more. I really do not like violence."

Some 10 years later Wenders offered Ganz, now less boozy and less punchy, the role with which he would come to be most closely identified. Strolling past the Siegessäule - that tall monument topped by a goddess of victory - and the Brandenburg Gate, on the way to our interview, I couldn't help but remember Ganz hovering above Berlin as the reluctant angel in Wings of Desire.

"When the film was released I remember women kneeling before me as if I was an angel not a man. People really seemed to think of me as a guardian angel. People would bring their children before me for a blessing or something. And, when flying on aeroplanes, they would sometimes say: 'Now you are with us nothing can happen.' It was very funny."

His performance in Downfall could not offer a sharper contrast. Hunched by illness and paranoia, his hands shaking furiously, Ganz's Hitler comes across as a feeble fantasist, whose dementia blinds him to the hopelessness of his country's position. As Ganz says: "His brain was not really so brilliant." Though Ganz is six years older than Hitler was at the time of his death - and, without wishing to be ungallant, Bruno does look his age - he really does appear to be channelling the dictator's spirit.

"When I first looked at myself in the mirror with the make-up on I thought: 'Oh god, no'. "But that is a good reaction for an actor. For the first few seconds I was really scared by my appearance. But that is useful for an actor. Also I thought to myself: 'Even if I give a bad performance, they can't say I don't look like Hitler'."

Based on, among other sources, a book by historian Joachim Fest and the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary, the film lasts a gruelling two and a half hours. Yet more than four million people have been to see it in Germany. Ganz must surely have feared that domestic audiences might be sick to death of hearing about the war. Did the film's success surprise him? "Yes. I never expected four million would go and see it here. Abroad they would perhaps be interested in seeing Hitler die and hear that story told by Germans. But, as for Germans being bored by the story, I suppose Hitler is still a secret. We don't really know who he was. Even these witnesses from the bunker couldn't really tell us who he was. So I think the audience was still curious to find out more."

Downfall confirms Ganz as one of the most respected European actors of his generation. A self-confessed wanderer - David Hare, his director on 1989's Strapless, described him as "displaced, alienated and rootless" - he seems happy to go wherever the work takes him. He no longer lives with his wife, though he claims they remain on good terms, and his son is grown-up. So, what is missing from his life? I assume he retains no great ambitions to succeed in Hollywood.

"Oh yes, of course," he says. "Every actor wants to win an Oscar. It may still happen."

I hope so. It would be nice to see him smile.

Downfall (Der Untergang) opens next Friday