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Bruno Ganz, Star of ‘Downfall’ and ‘Wings of Desire,’ Dies at 77

Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor best known for dramatizing Adolf Hitler’s final days in 2004’s “Downfall,” has died. He was 77.

Ganz died at his home in Zurich on Friday, his representatives told media outlets. The cause of death was reportedly colon cancer.

In addition to delivering one of the definitive cinematic portrayals of Hitler, Ganz played an angel who gives up immortality to experience earthly pleasures in Wim Wenders’ classic film “Wings of Desire” (1987). He reprised that role in Wenders’ 1993 follow-up, “Faraway, So Close!”

His celestial performance was so memorable that Ganz once recounted how people ascribed special powers to him when they recognized him in public.

“People in planes said: ‘Ah, no need to be afraid, because with you here, nothing can happen. Now we are safe,'” Ganz told the Danish film journal P.O.V. “Or a mother said to her child: ‘Look, there’s your guardian angel.’ They weren’t joking.”

Other notable roles included turns in Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-nominated “The Reader” (2008), Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu” (1979),  Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004),  and Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Boys from Brazil” (1978), in which he played a professor who discovers a plan by the Nazis to create clones.

For “Downfall,” Ganz researched Hitler for four months, delivering a portrait of an alternately defiant and despondent Führer whose dark dreams of ruling Europe end in a nondescript bunker, with only a few sycophants and loyalists at his side, as the Allies close in. Though most reviews were favorable, “Downfall” was criticized in some corners for humanizing Hitler.

In a 2005 interview with the Irish Times, Ganz responded to that criticism, saying: “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,” he added. “We don’t need another film that condemns him. We already know where we stand on this. I mean, there is certainly no sympathy for Hitler in the film.”

Years later, scenes of Ganz as Hitler raving and pounding the table became the basis for “Hitler Rant” parody videos on YouTube that purported to show the Nazi dictator losing it over everything from Coldplay breaking up to the new “Star Trek” movie. Most of these videos were later taken down as a copyright violation.

Ganz also had a successful stage career, performing in such plays as Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and Goethe’s “Faust.”

More recent works included Sally Potter’s 2017 British social comedy “The Party,” which screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, and another Berlinale title from that year, Matti Geschonneck’s ensemble drama “In Times of Fading Light,” based on a bestselling novel about a family in communist East Germany.

Ganz’s most recent big-screen appearance was in Lars von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built,” which premiered last year in Cannes.

An active member of the German film community, Ganz served as president of the German Film Academy alongside actress Iris Berben from 2010 to 2013. In 2010, he received a European Film Award for lifetime achievement.

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