There has never been an actor like Bruno Ganz. No one would come remotely to mind, if you’d be looking for a comparison. Who else could have enacted both a guardian angel and Adolf Hitler? That’s easily said, you think? Well, just try to imagine the courage, the inquiring spirit, the dedication and lack of vanity that were needed for these two extreme parts alone! Try to seize such an openness for the human soul to fathom on the one hand unconditional love, and on the other total hate! When I then think of the aggregate of his roles in film and on stage, I get dizzy just by the very idea that Bruno Ganz put himself in the skin of all those phantoms, gods, heroes, simple people or monsters; that he gazed into all these abysses or soared up to all those heights, from Faust via Hamlet and Prometheus down to his last role as messenger of death in Lars van Trier’s horror film The House That Jack Built. Bruno has gone to the most inaccessible places of the soul, to heaven and hell, and always came back down to Earth.
In doing so, this cordial and sincere human face with its wise eyes and occasionally flashing smile (never the same, it could be mischievous, knowing, melancholy, malicious, unfathomable, vicious and much more…) always had the same unmistakable rounded features; nonetheless, each time you’d see someone else in there, never a repetition, always ‘just that one’ whom he portrayed, body and soul, always somebody unique, centered entirely in himself.
Five years after our film Wings of Desire, Bruno once again took on the role of the angel who had become man, Damiel, (a ‘continuation’ of our film that had become necessary simply because Berlin was an entirely different city after the wall had come down.) His fallen angel had become a pizza baker with a wife and a child, and enjoyed his mortality with all his heart, beaming with joy and grinning from ear to ear. I’ve never seen such contagious ‘joie de vivre’ in front of a camera like Bruno embodied it in Faraway, so Close! When his old friend Cassiel (Otto Sander) finally dares to take the leap into mortality as well, and Damiel sees him as a human being for the first time, how tenderly he ushers his compadre into his new life! No experience, memory skills, nor the remotest of associations could have lead Bruno to become such a ‘guide’. He actually had to find it deep within himself, or somehow invent it.
Whatever an actor can possibly be and achieve, Bruno Ganz has demonstrated to us not just by letting us see it, but also by having us listen to it. Rarely has an actor spoken so distinctly like him – whether it was in German, French, English or Italian, or even in his very own Swiss-German. In all of his film or theatre roles, we heard a voice that meant each and every word it said, bringing out its finest subtleties, all the while having a different soul, from the first syllable on, carried by another kind of conviction, another way of thinking, even if each time it was the unmistakable instrument of the same great actor. But it rang differently each time, had colors that were yet unknown and bore witness of another yet unknown biography.
I don’t know if the term is suitable, but Bruno had an “actorly intelligence” that all his directors and cinematographers only had to recognize and respect and better not try and tamper with. He was, it seems to me, self-sufficient in his characters.
Once, in the very beginning of his career as a movie actor, Bruno encountered somebody with a similar autonomy, who took many liberties with his craft – Dennis Hopper. The first meeting between the two, on the set of The American Friend, was a disaster. It was such a collision of two fundamentally different approaches that it came to blows between the two of them on the second day of shooting. On one side the trained method actor, with a substantial dose of American insolence (‘recklessness’ might be the better word), who’d play every take differently, always on the razor’s edge, and who didn’t give a rat’s ass if that provoked or irritated his counterpart. (Admittedly, he would have been under the influence of several drugs…) On the other side, the meticulously prepared stage actor, the utterly disciplined, precise and sensitive German artist who was out of his depth, at least language-wise, with the bizarre leaps of dialogue his partner delivered and whose behavior he found uncooperative and downright reprehensible. In that hard-boiled confrontation between two worlds, Bruno’s sudden slap in the face and Dennis’ lightning fast return hook to the chin were an inevitable consequence. (Although I never saw it coming so violently …)
That incident would have remained little more than an anecdote if the two hadn’t disappeared together after their fierce (and quite bloody) fight, only to show up the next day, as the best of friends, after a night of carousing on the Reeperbahn. Even then, it might have been no more than an amusing story if not for the fact that, for all his life, Dennis referred to the film and his experience with Bruno Ganz as ‘lifesaving’, and if Bruno had not processed the situation as a steep learning curve. He understood immediately that the American – with his utterly contrarian method to his own approach – was not only damned good, he also had an outrageous presence in front of the camera. Bruno was determined to explore that. So he soon passed over rehearsal time and preparatory talks with me, so as to go into the next day’s shoot unprepared, while Dennis, in turn, let go of the drugs and knocked on my door in the evenings, ready to work on the next scenes. It was from that mutual respect, and the way they learned from each other, that the title of the film came about, which otherwise would have been called something altogether different.
Bruno Ganz was an actor and a human being of great freedom and fearlessness. He let us partake of both in every role he played, whether it was an angel or the incarnation of evil. But to do that without ‘commenting’ on his characters or even remotely judging them in any way, by simply placing them before us with great modesty and stepping back behind the part every single time, that was unique.
You turned some of us into better directors, Bruno, but you made all of us better viewers, dreamers and fellow humans.
First published in DIE ZEIT (in German language): ZEIT ONLINE, 21/02/2019
Photo: WINGS OF DESIRE, 1987 (c) Wim Wenders Stiftung