When Bruno Ganz took his leave from the Berlin Schaubühne theater company to star in The Marquise of O (1976), director Eric Rohmer showed his gratitude by giving his lead actor a lavish royal entrance. Behold this brave Russian count, upholstered in creamy white military duds, caressed by backlighting and dry ice, sword flashing and cape flapping as he swoops in to rescue the titular damsel in distress.
Now 63, Ganz never abandoned the stage for his expansive film career: Norbert Wiedmer’s affectionate portrait, Behind Me (2002), follows Ganz around Europe on the touring production of Goethe’s Faust, and in 1996, Ganz inherited the enigmatic Iffland-Ring, awarded to the premier actor of German theater (could this bauble be the missing link in the Wagner-Tolkien cosmology?). Actually, Ganz was born in Zurich to a Swiss father and Italian mother, and on-screen he’s hopped many a language and landmass: He played a depressive Icelandic waiter in Venice for Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips (2000) and a snotty French settler in Australia (even donning beret and prison-striped top) for Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992).
Sad-eyed and froggy-voiced, Ganz is a singular trans-Europe express. His linguistic versatility combined with his often stoical bearing (a reviewer once noted his “conscientious anonymity”) can release a chill air of existential estrangement, whether Ganz is a feckless Swiss sailor playing hooky in Lisbon for Alain Tanner’s In the White City (1983) or, in Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit (1981), a war correspondent hiding out from his collapsed marriage in—of all places—Beirut at the outbreak of civil conflict in 1975. Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977) drifts dispassionately around Hamburg, Paris, and New York City as Dennis Hopper’s cowboy manqué Ripley convinces Ganz’s unassuming picture framer that he should commit a lucrative homicide for his family’s sake before he succumbs to a mysterious blood disease. The eventual crime—and the film’s pièce de résistance sequence—poses a Zen query for nihilists: If you kill a guy on the Métro and nobody’s watching the surveillance cameras, is it really murder?
A decade later, in Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), Ganz embodied an ethereal form of cosmic alienation as the angel Damiel, who chooses life over eternity for the ineffable charms of a trapeze artist. But Ganz gives the devil his due in Werner Herzog’s plague-ridden Nosferatu (1979): Overshadowed by Klaus Kinski’s legendary 17 minutes of nefarious screen time, Ganz’s Jonathan Harker is a pitifully pale and clammy index of corrupted flesh and spirit, but happily, the finale affords the straight man a brief but indelible chance to sink his fangs into the scenery.