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The whole Ganz

The whole Ganz

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Who could forget him, in black and white, wings on his back and a face full of melancholy, perching on a cornice in Wim Wenders’s Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)? Or when, directed by Eric Rohmer, he shifts back to the neoclassical era to become the young and elegant count who “saves” a widowed marquise (Die Marquise von O…)?

Or – and now we’re entering more recent history – when he finds everyday refuge in the narrow Venetian streets of Pane e tulipani and there transforms into an affable and slightly old-fashioned foreign waiter, ready to show off his literary-flavoured Italian?

And this is just a brief flick through the many European arthouse offerings which place him, again and again, at the centre. Bruno Ganz, one of the three winners of career achievement awards at the 64th Locarno Film Festival, is a versatile scene stealer, one of those actors whose filmography contains an incredibly diverse variety of roles. Yet even when diametrically opposed, at the extremes of good and evil, he never resorts to taking shortcuts into stereotypes.

His versatility is clear from the ease with which he passes from the sympathetic short-circuit of a “victim” (the picture framer in Wim Wenders’s Der amerikanische Freund or the estate agent up against Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s remake Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) to the ultimate villain, Hitler, depicted with icy mastery in Olivier Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall), a chronicle of the dictator’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

These snippets from his career, however, are nowhere near enough to demonstrate the breadth of his acting spectrum. Born to a Swiss father and Italian mother, Bruno Ganz made his stage debut back in 1961, standing out immediately as one of the most talented German-language actors. Yet just as he was achieving significant recognition among the German-speaking theatrical milieu, he stepped down from the stage and on to the film set, where he found plenty of demand for his dramatic gifts.

After being directed by his best friend, Peter Stein, in Sommergäste, it was the French actress Jeanne Moreau, taking a turn behind the camera, who cast him with Lucia Bosé and Keith Carradine in Lumière (1975). Over the years he worked with a lengthy list of great artists, from the already-mentioned Wenders and Herzog to Theo Angelopoulos (Eternity and a Day, 1988; The Dust of Time, 2008), and the list only grew longer with his American films. In The Boys from Brazil (1978), he shares the screen with actors of the calibre of Gregory Peck, James Mason and Laurence Olivier, and leaping forward through the years we find him alongside Meryl Streep in Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and at the centre of Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007).

All this without ever forgetting the German-speaking world. His work often explores some of the rawest and thorniest aspects of recent history, whether in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) or The Reader (2009). Sometimes he takes the lead, sometimes he plays a supporting role, sometimes just a cameo, but every time he carries with him the stamp of an actor who is always in the foreground.

Lorenzo Buccella

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