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In 2003, European Film Promotion execs picked fresh-faced German Daniel Bruhl as one of their “European Shooting Stars,” an actor destined to make it big. They weren’t wrong. Less than a week after Bruhl accepted his Shooting Star trophy (from Easy Rider legend Dennis Hopper), his new film, Good Bye Lenin! won the Berlinale’s Blue Angel award for best European film.
Bruhl played Alex, a well-meaning son who tries to shield his mother — a true communist believer with a weak heart — from the shock of the truth, namely that while she was in a coma, the Berlin Wall fell and the East German state collapsed. The bittersweet comedy was the cinematic reconciliation that Germany — which, though reunited, still suffered from a “Berlin Wall of the mind” between cultures East and West — didn’t know it needed.
A hit at home, Good Bye Lenin! went on to gross nearly $100 million worldwide (including $4 million for Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S.), making it one of the most successful German films of all time. It also launched Bruhl’s international career.
Instead of playing it safe and relying on his boy-next-door image, Bruhl pushed against type. In Manuel Huerga’s Salvador (2006), he portrayed a bank robber and anarchist (and did it in Spanish — his second native language alongside German).
For 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino subverted the actor’s oh-so-innocent image by casting him as a celebrity Nazi sniper who turns nasty in the final reel. In Ron Howard’s Rush, Bruhl went further, playing the unsympathetic, tragically disfigured and ultimately triumphant racing champ Niki Lauda, stealing the movie from under the nose of co-star Chris Hemsworth and notching a Golden Globe nomination for best actor. He was rewarded with his highest-profile role to date: Playing tortured Marvel baddie Zemo in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
Now the 39-year-old German returns to Berlin this year with 7 Days in Entebbe, a true-life hostage drama from Berlinale Golden Bear winner Jose Padilha (Elite Squad) that will premiere out of competition. In a role worlds away from nice boy Alex (and one made famous by infamous German bad boy Klaus Kinski in the 1977 drama Operation Thunderbolt), Bruhl plays German terrorist Wilfried Bose who, together with Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike), hijacks an Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, sparking one of the most daring rescue missions in history.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Feb. 16 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.
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