'Downfall' Actor Bruno Ganz Dies at 77

Bruno Ganz

The Swiss actor, whose career included playing an angel in 'Wings of Desire' and the voice of death in Lars von Trier's 'The House That Jack Built,' died in Zurich after a long illness.

Bruno Ganz, one of Europe's most acclaimed film and theater actors who was best known for his towering performance as Adolf Hitler in the Oscar-nominated Downfall — a performance that earned him accolades and launched a million memes — has died. He was 77.

Ganz's management confirmed that the Swiss actor died Friday evening at his home in Zurich following a long illness.

Ganz was an iconic figure in the German-speaking world and beyond, his gravely, Swiss-accented voice as instantly recognizable as his mercurial style, which could shift from reserved and withdrawn to volcanic in an instant.

Born in Zurich on March 22, 1941, to a Swiss mechanic father and a northern Italian mother, Ganz caught the acting bug early, while at university. Like most actors of his generation, he began on the stage, first under director Kurt Hubner at the Breman state theater.

In 1970, together with Peter Stein, Ganz founded the alternative Schaubuehne theater in Berlin, which became a launching pad for the careers of German theater greats including directors Peter Zadek, Klaus Michael Gruber, Luc Bondy, Claus Peymann and Dieter Dorn. In performances of plays by Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke or Botho Strauss, Ganz the actor showed his masterly command of the German language, with all its subtlety, warmth, precision and menace. 

Stein would adapt several of their theater performances for the screen, and Ganz starred in TV adaptations of Bertolt Brecht's Die Mutter and Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, both in 1971, and Max Gorky's Sommer Folk in 1976. It was Ganz's introspective performance as Jakov Shalimov in Sommer Folk that caught the attention of a wider audience and launched his career in film and TV.

In the 1970s, the wild young directors of Germany's New Wave latched onto Ganz. Wim Wenders cast him alongside Dennis Hopper's Tom Ripley in The American Friend (1977) and later as the angel who falls to Earth in a divided Berlin in his 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire. Werner Herzog put him alongside Klaus Kinski's vampire in Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979. 

Those performances got him noticed outside Germany, and Ganz would go on to work with the likes of Eric Rohmer (The Marquise of O), Theo Angelopoulos (Eternity and a Day), Silvio Soldini (Bread and Tulips),  Francis Ford Coppola (Youth Without Youth), Stephen Daldry (The Reader) and Ridley Scott (The Counsellor).

One of his final performances was in Terrence Malick's Radegund, now in postproduction.

Ganz's greatest commercial success came with Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall in 2004. The story of Hitler's final days in the bunker was built around Ganz's performance and was widely praised.

Through much of the film, Ganz gives a master class in restraint and introspection, but the scene he is best known for is a raging moment when Hitler realizes he cannot win World War II.

The scene became a huge internet meme, with posters changing the subtitles to have Hitler rage about everything from recent celebrity antics to losing sports teams to the latest iPhone release. Downfall producer Constantin Film began to crack down on the memes after complaints from Holocaust survivors and Jewish groups, who said they were making light of Hitler's horrors.

Playing Hitler made Ganz a bit of a go-to baddie for Hollywood, and he turned up in small roles in several action films, including Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate reboot, Counsellor and the Liam Neeson actioner Unknown. More recently, Lars von Trier picked Ganz to play the mysterious confessor to Matt Dillon's titular serial killer in The House That Jack Built.

But Ganz also had a softer side, playing beloved Uncle Alpohi in Alain Gsponer's 2015 version of the Swiss classic Heidi. Or as seen in Matti Geschonneck's In Times of Fading Light (2017), as the downtrodden communist patriarch who finds himself, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on the wrong side of history.

But Ganz, who found success on stage, television and film, in Europe and in Hollywood, most certainly never was.