[On Hitler: Downfall (2004)] What people need is for Hitler to actually represent evil itself. But what is evil itself? That means nothing to me. I have to perform a living human being (…) We know how to judge Hitler. We don’t need another film that condemns him. We already know where we stand on this. I mean, there is certainly not sympathy for Hitler in the film. [Irish Times, 2005]
The Swiss actor Bruno Ganz portrayed an angel longing to become a human in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire. By depicting a celestial being who has a strong desire to drink coffee as a human being and make love as a human being he played a character which embodies the ancient dualism between flesh and spirit and ultimately decides to become a being of flesh and blood.A similar thing happened when he portrayed Adolf Hitler, just in an opposite way. He played someone who could, in the Christian discourse, be called an antichrist (with a small “a”) and needed to make him seem like a human being. Many films have shown Hitler as someone who embodies radical evil, speaking in Arendtian terms, but Bruno Ganz had a task to present Hitler as an ailing human being, maddened with defeat, who believes that the German “race” is of no value since it failed to be victorious.
There is certainly no sympathy for Hitler in the film. In spite of his tigerlike appearance, holding hands behind his back, sometimes he may even seem to be gentle. This does in no way make him a person with authentic feelings. Ganz himself said: “Ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there is none”: Ganz’s task was, for an actor, perhaps one of the most difficult in contemporary cinema. How can you play a human being who has lost every inch of his humanity? It is immensely difficult, and turning the angel into a person with carnal desire seems to be a lighter task. While in Wings of Desire, Ganz had a task to transform spirit into flesh, in Downfall, his task was to turn the complete lack of spirit, or soul if you like, into… Well, something worth seeing. Bruno Ganz certainly is an angel of cinema who took a role which is demonic to the very core.
The realm of Ganz’s performances transcends the ordinary to such an extent that metaphysical explanations seem to impose themselves. As if in Downfall and Wings of Desire he played both Milton’s archangel Michael, who is a healing angel and dreads of the disaster which will befall humanity, and on the other hand the unholy one himself, defeated by the armies of Heaven. Milton succeeded in making the devil almost humanlike, and progressively we see his ultimate fall, and a similar thing happens while Ganz plays Hitler. The downfall of one of the most demonic and inhuman persons in the history of humanity is presented with a touch of humanity, which in the end, does not really exist, but seems to exist… This why we are indebted to Bruno Ganz and his portrayals of angelic and demonic, good and evil, and ultimately, a humanistic vision of mankind itself.