Bruno Ganz: The Angel Hits The Ground

Bruno Ganz was of Swiss descent, but he became a titan of German cinema. His film debut came all the way back in 1961 with the satirical comedy Chikita. It wasn’t until the next decade that he would make his name. The 70s were a golden time for cinema. Not only in the states with the auteur era, but abroad as well.

1976 was Ganz’s breakthrough year. He starred in Eric Rohmer’s costume drama the Marquise of O, and even more significantly in Wim Wenders’ classic noir The American Friend. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel Ripley’s Game, Wenders somewhat loose and languorous telling keeps much of Highsmith’s basic plot while adding that peak level Wenders vibe that defined German cinema for more than a decade. As the ill-fated art restorer with an incurable blood disease who is conned into becoming a hitman by Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley, Ganz is haunting and unforgettable.

Another memorable noir Messer im Kopf followed in 1978, and Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu with Ganz and Klaus Kinski made an international impact in 1979. Volker Schlondorff’s masterful political thriller Circle of Deceit starring Ganz as a reawakened journalist in war-torn Beirut was another triumph.

Of course, it was 1987’s Wings of Desire (Wenders again) that took Ganz from the category of great actor to full-fledged international star. As Damiel, one of two angels watching over Berlin, Ganz’s seraph comes across a trapeze artist (played beautifully by Solveig Dommartin), and becomes so smitten that he turns his back on his immortality just to have a chance with her. Ganz is miraculous in the role. As Damiel experiences physical pain for the first time – seeing his own blood – he is not horrified. He is bemused, almost childlike at the discovery of this new sensation. He is a sight to see. Full of wonder and emotion, while never once overplaying a moment. It’s less acting than it is being.

Wings of Desire is one of those movies where not a lot seems to be going on, but by the end, you feel like it’s about…well, everything. Bruno Ganz is the center of this film. He anchors a movie with no great interest in plot development that could have easily become too precious. I can’t imagine it without Ganz. Whose craggy face, receding hairline, and warm but weary eyes humanizes the character of the angel who falls to earth for nothing less than love.

If there is one other role that could compete with Ganz’s angel from Wings of Desire, it has to be his searing portrayal of Hitler in his final days in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Dowfall from 2004. Playing Hitler is a near impossible task. An actor constantly runs the risk of overly humanizing him or making him simply a raving lunatic. Somehow, Ganz manages both extremes as well as the grey space in-between. Yes, Hitler is mad, but he is also a person. A horrible person, but a person nonetheless. Ganz delivers a performance beyond the ages in Downfall. His Hitler is both pitiable and pitiless. Not only from moment to moment, but sometimes in the same moment. That’s a gift. I’m sure others will play Hitler in the future onscreen. However, as the years roll by and we think of a definitive portrayal, I suspect we will always come back to Ganz – no matter what may follow.

Still, it’s the warm-hearted angel of Wings of Desire that I will think of as the Bruno Ganz role. Wenders made a decent sequel to Wings in 1993 with Faraway, So Close! In it, we find Ganz’s Damiel living as the proprietor of a pizza joint with Marion, his beloved circus performer. The film falls far short of its predecessor, but lovely moments abound. Including every second Ganz is onscreen.

Included in Faraway, So Close! is a majestic ballad by U2 called Stay. The song is all about the plight of the angel watching over, wanting to do more. Wanting to be mortal. It closes with the following lines:

Three o’clock in the morning
It’s quiet and there’s no one around
Just the bang and the clatter
As an angel runs to ground

Just the bang
And the clatter
As an angel
Hits the ground

Bruno Ganz died today. He was 77.

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