The common access points to Bruno Ganz for many Anglo-American commentators seem to be his iconic performances in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2014). While those are entirely legitimate references, Ganz deserves a far more considered appraisal as one of European cinema’s most prolific film actors and versatile performers of the last 40 years. There was more to his repertoire than the endlessly replayed Hitler bunker rant of Downfall or the authoritarian cameos he invariably started to pick up in English-speaking cinema following that performance.
Perhaps the film that best details the specific intensity and ambiguous presence Ganz brought to the big screen is Alain Tanner’s In the White City (1983) – a work that, incidentally, sorely deserves a retrospective. The film’s premise is simple enough: Ganz’s itinerant naval worker, Paul, pitches up in Lisbon, wanders off into the city to idle about and booze for a few days, and then impulsively decides not to return to his ship, but to luxuriate in this role of stranger in an intoxicating city for a little while longer. While it’s not a complex narrative schema, the way that Tanner depicts the inner life of Paul’s time in Lisbon makes it one of the finest psychogeographical films in modern cinema. It is also an expert discourse on the rewards and limitations of acting solely on free will as well as the sensory duality of stimulation and alienation that a contemporary metropolis can provide.
This interiority of Tanner’s method is reflected in the fact that In the White City almost has the quality of a silent movie – at the very least, it’s a terse film with very few words. The opening sequence has particular rhetorical significance as it is the only time we see Paul actually doing his job. He is in the metallic, claustrophobic climes of the ship’s engine room – surrounded by steel, steam, and an intensely industrial sound design. This has a profound contrast with the cleansing palette of Lisbon that Paul is about to arrive into – a city with real panoptic potential, something Tanner’s camera plunders at every possible opportunity as it moves through its vertiginous streets. Incidentally, this mechanical, near silent depiction of the hero pre-liberation is similar to the opening of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) where Richard Gere’s steelworker flees from the satanic mills of Chicago for the halcyonic open plains of the Texas Panhandle.
In the White City is surely one of the most successful examples of existentialism on film. Its narrative has real echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, and, therefore, much of it stands or falls on Ganz’s ability to fill the sparse narrative with his presence, charisma, and emotion. This he does magnetically, completely embodying the idea of his existentialist antihero and revelling in his character’s urge to act on pure instinct. Paul simply strolls into Lisbon, determines to live there for a while, and exists entirely on the spur of the moment – chasing fleeting, sensory pleasures. Ganz excels at exploring both the fruits and listless decadence of this lifestyle. The scenes where he pawns off belongings to fund this nomadic quest are especially well acted, and there’s a lovely touch when he sells his Swiss watch to a bar owner for 5000 Escudos before wryly adding “and a whisky!”; the suggestion being that he is not too fussed about haggling (being easily bartered down) as long as he gets some instant gratification. By the end of the film though, Ganz’s Paul experiences the limitations of this boundless freedom. He almost becomes a quasi-Travis Bickle figure: running into trouble in the nocturnal hot-spots of the city, getting the treatment he least expected when trying to be a vigilante by reclaiming his stolen wallet, and alienating the woman he falls in love with.
In the White City is also notable for ingeniously employing Super 8 footage. What may at first seem disingenuous – and the technique has certainly become a cliché in a particular strand of sentimental Hollywoood storytelling – is utterly justified here. Paul carries this Super 8 camera round with him, and Tanner hypnotically cuts from the conventional diegetic frame of the narrative to moments where Paul’s Super 8 video assumes that perspective. There is one particularly phenomenal cut when Paul first arrives in Lisbon and spontaneously jumps on one of the trams making its way up one of the famous miradouros of the city, before an automatic switch to Paul’s rapturous, Super 8 perspective of the journey. Paul sending those little Kodachrome cassettes of the Super 8 film to an unknown woman (possibly his wife or partner) in some cold, northern European city only adds to the feeling of dislocation, while also helping to accentuate the sensory blaze that Lisbon is affecting over Paul. This complexity of tone that shrouds the entirety of In the White City is only possible with the right presence at the centre of it, and in Ganz, Tanner picked exactly the icon to populate this most intelligent of city movies.