Bruno Ganz, whose Hitler scene from Downfall took over YouTube, dies at 77

Bunker meltdown scene from 2004's Downfall has been reworked to focus on everything from pizza to Game of Thrones.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
2 min read

Actor Bruno Ganz died Friday at age 77, the BBC reports. The Swiss actor's film career spanned 50 years, but many know him best because of a YouTube video meme that sprang from Ganz's 2004 role as Adolf Hitler in the movie Downfall.

In the scene, set in the German dictator's World War II bunker, Hitler's generals must bring him bad news about the progress of the war. Ganz as Hitler shakily removes his eyeglasses and sends all but four men out of the room, proceeding to scream at them while staffers wait in the hall and one woman begins to cry. 

The scene has since been spoofed dozens, maybe hundreds of times. The parodies generally keep the German dialogue, but replace the subtitles to make Hitler's meltdown about something else entirely, whether it's his pizza arriving late, runner Usain Bolt setting a world record, the Red Wedding scene on Game of Thrones, or finding out he wasn't accepted into Harry Potter's Hogwarts.

"It seems that late-life Hitler can be made to speak for almost anyone in the midst of a crisis," The New York Times wrote of the meme back in 2008. "Fire up YouTube. There you can see the Hitler figure erupt in frustration over his Xbox. He flips out because his friends aren't going to Burning Man. And, recently, he loses it because Sarah Palin isn't working out as a running mate. Something in the spectacle of an autocrat falling to pieces evidently has widespread appeal."

While anything involving the murderous dictator would seem an odd choice for comedy, Downfall's director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, told New York magazine in 2010 that the parodies often made him laugh, and he felt they fit in with the meaning of the scene.

"The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality," he says. "I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like." 

Ganz himself took his Hitler role seriously, telling the UK's Guardian newspaper in 2005 that he had spent four months preparing for the part.

"Having played him, I cannot claim to understand Hitler," he said. "Even the witnesses who had been in the bunker with him were not really able to describe the essence of the man. He had no pity, no compassion, no understanding of what the victims of war suffered. Ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none."

Ganz's other films included Nosferatu the Vampyre, Wings of Desire, The Boys from Brazil and the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

The Times reported that Ganz was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018, and is survived by his partner, photographer Ruth Walz, and an adult son, Daniel.

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