Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor whose most acclaimed roles included an angel in “Wings of Desire” and Adolf Hitler in the Oscar-nominated (and much-memed) “Downfall,” has died at 77. The actor was diagnosed with colon cancer last year and died at his home in Zurich on Friday night, his management confirmed.
A titan of the European film and theater scene, Ganz was distinguished by his low, raspy voice and on-screen ability to shift between solemn dignity and volcanic rage in the blink of an eye. This uncommon range was integral not only to his towering work as a Führer facing the specter of his own defeat in 2004’s “Downfall” but to many of his more than 80 film and TV roles, mostly in European films.
Born to a Swiss father and an Italian mother, Ganz made his mark first in the German theater, then seguing to German television in the 1960s. So notable was Ganz’s influence on the German film industry that he came to possess the mystical Iffland Ring, which for 200 years has been awarded to the most important German-speaking actor of each generation.
A breakthrough part came in Max Gorky’s “Sommer Folk” (1976). Ganz’s thoughtful, reserved performance captivated audiences across Europe and launched a career in film. The actor’s impressive range and solemn screen presence gradually made him a favorite of German New Wave directors like Wim Wenders, who cast him in both “The American Friend” (1977) and his masterpiece “Wings of Desire” (1987), and Werner Herzog, who in Ganz found an actor capable of going toe-to-toe with Klaus Kinski in his 1979 classic “Nosferatu the Vampyre.”
From there, Ganz drew the attention of filmmakers on a global scale, like Eric Rohmer (“The Marquise of O”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Youth Without Youth”), Silvio Soldini (“Bread and Tulips”), Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”), and Ridley Scott (“The Counselor”). No matter the film or the size of the role, Ganz’s characters harbored depths and often profound pain; the actor’s most frequently utilized talent was his restraint, making the struggles of his characters felt more than seen.
And yet Ganz may be most well-known for “Downfall,” in which his Hitler memorably vacillated between introspection and outsized fury as the walls closed in during his last days in a bunker. In a key scene, upon realizing the war was truly lost, Ganz’s Hitler angrily laid into his generals, inadvertently giving life to one of the first Internet memes in the process.
The actor was most recently seen on-screen last year as the mysterious confidante to Matt Dillon’s mannered serial killer in Lars von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built.” His last role, however, is to be the upcoming “Radegund,” directed by Terence Malick.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @isaacfeldberg.