Here’s a tough one: how do you make a cinema audience sympathise with a WW2 Nazi? It’s probably best that he doesn’t buy into the regime – no-one would like that. It would help to make him reject the adulation of his superiors – they see him as a hero of theirs, and it’s to his credit that he wants nothing to do with them. You should also show him as a fallible person who has survived the horrors of war with no wish to return, and as someone who is bumbling and shy around those he is attracted to. Like the rest of us, right? One thing you should certainly do is to hire Daniel Brühl to play him. Because, in Inglourious Basterds, before Fredrick Zoller turns into every worst “nice guy” cliche in his attempts to seduce Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna, Brühl’s innate likeability and charm makes us come perilously close to liking his character, a Nazi war hero. He’s like if Four Weddings Hugh Grant got dropped into Nazi-occupied France.
After an acting career that began in earnest in 2001 (and with a neat sideline in tapas bars), Daniel Brühl’s role in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds proved the one that would break him out from his low-profile Euro roots (albeit multiple German and Bavarian Film Award winning roots), into the English-language mainstream. Prior to this, his largest roles were as a resourceful son in the sweetly funny Good Bye Lenin!, and as a death-row prisoner in Salvador – both won him a raft of minor awards. But it would be Basterds that would bring him to the attention of the English-speaking world and the opportunities it can bring – in that film he looks very much at home alongside his more illustrious cast members.
Brühl as Zoller is (at least initially) charming and something of a clumsy gentleman. His kind face and big dark eyes go a long way to securing our sympathies, in spite of his obvious detriments (i.e. the Nazism, and pretty sex-pesty behaviour). Brühl’s crowning achievement in this role is the vicious undercurrent of thwarted masculinity and entitlement that he somehow manages to portray in tandem with Zoller’s affable, gentlemanly persona – the explosion we sense building throughout his failed courting of Shosanna comes the the fore in the ugliest possible way when he attempts to force himself on her (spoiler: it doesn’t end well for him). However, much like fellow cast member Christoph Waltz in his much-vaunted role as Hans Landa, Brühl manages to weave layers of complexity into an ostensibly “evil” character – to the point where he is, at times, fairly likeable.
Brühl’s finest, and most critically-lauded performance, however, comes in Ron Howard’s F1 rivalry drama Rush, opposite an also career-best Chris Hemsworth. Playing real-life F1 legend Niki Lauda, Brühl is at once introverted yet romantic; quiet yet wildly ambitious; he’s far from perfect, and therefore striving for perfection. His geeky, obsessive Lauda is the perfect foil for Hemsworth’s playboy James Hunt – the pair are opposites in every way but identical in their passionate rivalry. The scenes between the two crackle with energy and have the flow of a verbal joust – certain lines are often on-the-nose in their thematic relevance, but it’s hard to criticise when the performers delivering them are doing so with character at the absolute forefront of their minds. When disaster strikes on the track, and Lauda barely survives a crash with major facial burns, Brühl plays his comeback with incredible sensitivity and emotion. The subtly heart-rending performance saw him earn a first nomination at both the BAFTAs and Globes.
Currently, Daniel Brühl is in what feels like something of a “sweet spot” with regards to fame, success, and international recognition – all of which which affects, in a very positive way, the profile and type of role he is able to go for. He’s not a Hollywood leading man, and never will be – lord knows he has the requisite charisma, charm and “twinkle-in-the-eye” quality of a Pitt, Cruise or Di Caprio, but the simple nature of the international market dictates that there’s only room for so many of these actors at the top (and they’re full, thank you very much). Plus, as a non-American, he was always at a disadvantage. We digress – he’s at that wonderful stage of a particularly blessed actor’s career – not “big” enough to topline, but very much sought-after – whereby he has his pick of three sorts of roles:
1. Supporting role/villain in a high-budget blockbuster. As seen in Captain America: Civil War, Daniel Brühl can offer a certain level of nuance, and some sympathetic depth to a secondary (or even tertiary, considering just how many characters the Marvel films are accumulating) character, while picking up a substantial paycheck in return for not too much work. It also helps that he’s Germanic, and as much as times have moved on there remains a tendency in Hollywood cinema that German = evil. Place your bets now for him popping up in Star Wars at some point as some sort of vaguely malevolent intergalactic bureaucrat.
2. Cast #2/3 in a mid-budget, awards-leaning drama (regardless of quality of the final film). For example Rush, Entebbe, Woman in Gold, A Most Wanted Man, The Zookeeper’s Wife, or Alone in Berlin. As mentioned, despite having many of the qualities of a leading man, Brühl will not (at least not yet) be cast as lead in an awards-targeting film – he is seen as a great character actor, but not necessarily an audience draw. We love him, but he’s no household name so these kind of roles, clearly pitched towards Best Supporting Actor gongs have become his bread and butter.
3. Lead role in a low-budget, festival/arthouse film. Since his major breakout in Inglorious Basterds, Brühl has tended very much towards these first two brackets of role, which is no bad thing as he’s given us plenty to enjoy across a wide range of films. But as evidenced by his early career, he has the artistic sensibility – and now the profile – to take the lead in a low-mid budget European indie, with the part written specifically for him and geared towards his talents. Think the sort of film that wins Best Actor at Cannes. With the list of his most recent projects looking a bit shrug-worthy, an actor-vehicle role of this nature is exactly the thing Daniel Brühl needs at this stage in his career to remind us all what he can do given the right opportunity.
So with 7 Days in Entebbe out in UK cinemas this week, what’s next for Daniel Brühl? At the time of writing he only has one film in the pipeline, which is currently in prep in the UK – My Zoe, a Julie Delpy-directed family drama about a divorced mother (Delpy) looking to protect her daughter (Gemma Arterton) after an unexpected tragedy. Looking at the listed cast, which also includes Richard Armitage, it looks like Brühl will be playing Arterton’s partner/husband. So no arthouse leading role yet at this stage of his career, but in Julie Delpy, at least he’s hanging out with the right people…