Even as a child, Daniel Brühl was looking for an audience – and to the horror of his parents, he liked to play dead to get it. In the meantime, the actor has become a world star who is as successful in Hollywood as in German, French and Spanish auteur films. The portrait “Daniel Brühl: The Allure of Evil”, which ARTE is showing at the Berlinale, sheds light on how he managed to do this. For the interview with ARTE magazine, the 44-year-old German-Spanish relaxed from the terrace of his Spanish home.
arte magazin: Mr. Brühl, 20 years ago “Good Bye, Lenin!” was released in cinemas, one of the first films with a German-German theme. The success was gigantic. Why was that?
Daniel Brühl: I believe that the time gap to the turning point was just right. The reactions worldwide were unbelievable: no matter what festival we were at, the laughs always came in the right place. People went along enthusiastically and were touched. The sympathy was for the character I play, the son who wants to protect his seriously ill mother. It had another side effect: every mother from Rome to Miami loved me.
arte magazin: You became famous all of a sudden, but from then on the image of the nice boy next door stuck to you. Was that a curse or a blessing?
Daniel Brühl: The film is a classic that I will always be proud of. It was a matter of luck that we managed to do that – you can't predict something like that. Anything else would be presumptuous.
arte magazin: The film takes an East German perspective, but both the director and the main actors are West Germans. Did you find that problematic at the time?
Daniel Brühl: Before the casting, it was said that as a Rhinelander I would have a hard time because the role was supposed to be cast by an East Berliner. After several auditions, when I got the role, I absorbed everything I could about themes. Katrin Sass, who plays my mother in the film, told me about her time in East Germany. Real life stories are the most insightful for me, better than books and documentaries. But I still had pressure to see if it would work.
arte magazin: One of the strengths of "Good Bye, Lenin!" is the sensitivity with which the film addresses the upheavals of the period of reunification. Today it is often missing in East-West relations...
Daniel Brühl: Regardless of the comedy, Wolfgang Becker approached the subject with respect and conscientiousness. He was subsequently accused of nostalgia, but that was not his intention. On the contrary, I admire his sensitivity, for example with Yann Tiersen's film music. This tender and melancholy fits the film wonderfully - and brought something pleasantly un-German to this German-German story.
arte magazin: You were awarded the “Shooting Star” at the Berlinale – but security didn’t let you in to your own film party at the time. What was happening?
Daniel Brühl: That was absurd! I was 24, Dennis Hopper presented me with the award on the big stage. My family was there, there was tremendous hustle and bustle. In my euphoria I was too late, the whole entourage was already at the party afterwards. As I was about to go in, the trophy still in hand, a guy was standing there and said, "No, you can't get in." And I was like, "This is my premiere." And he was like, "Sorry, it's today Important visitor from Hollywood, everyone is trying to get in now.” Later, when I was finally inside, I was met by Nicolas Cage. And I was like, "Is that guy why I can't go to my own party?" It was a good party anyway.
arte magazin: Critics used to write that your greatest conspicuousness was your inconspicuousness. Is it still like that?
Daniel Brühl: No, and even if I did, that's not at all wrong with me. That's what my father passed on to me, he said: "Always drive for fifty miles." It tends to be better to be inconspicuous, then you have more staying power. If you burn yourself too quickly and play the loud zampano, you'll get on people's nerves at some point.
arte magazin: The price of your popularity was that fans often met you without distance...
Daniel Brühl: That's true, although it wasn't always the case that I just played the well-behaved son. But "Good Bye, Lenin!" was the very film that a great many people had seen; he put a stamp on me. Maybe that was the little curse we were talking about. It's different today: I'm often cast in villain roles, especially abroad.
arte magazin: Only a few German actors manage to go abroad, especially in the USA. How did Hollywood find you?
Daniel Brühl: For me, the opportunity to work with Quentin Tarantino was a huge opportunity. He was very fond of "The Fat Years Are Over"; he was on the jury in Cannes when we were in competition. For "Inglourious Basterds" in 2009 he had me on the screen for the specific role.
arte magazin: In it you play the German sniper Fredrick Zoller, who is interested in cinema...
Daniel Brühl: … the only – supposed – sympathizer in a group of Nazis. When I think about it, that was the perfect transition, because it included all the issues that were important to me: finally, I wasn't always allowed to be just the nice guy, but really perfidious. In Germany nobody would have given me this role.
arte magazin: Hollywood, of all places, which is notorious for typecasting, made it possible for you to play ambivalent characters. Why?
Daniel Brühl: Because they look closely! It's not so much about whether the character I'm supposed to play is good or bad. That would be too simplistic. But as an actor, it's great fun to explore darker sides. They are slumbering in each of us, but they are usually kept under lock and key. Evil just fascinates.
arte magazin: In the meantime you have directed it yourself. "Next door" (2021), like "Good Bye, Lenin!", shows the gap between East and West Germans. So are you still concerned with the topic today?
Daniel Brühl: I don't know if that would have happened without "Good Bye, Lenin!". I fell in love with this city while shooting the film in Berlin. I packed my things and moved. Since then I've been very interested in the east of the city and in my neighborhood.
arte magazin: In "Next Door" you also play the leading role, the actor Daniel, who speaks several languages and lives in a chic attic apartment in Berlin. Everything close to your private life. What was the appeal of this game of truth and fiction?
Daniel Brühl: I was attracted to a duel between two men who come from different realities and backgrounds but live in the same house in a big city. And I thought, why don't I let my pants down myself? I'm the prime example of a newcomer. Then it started to be really fun. When my wife saw the film, she found my character unbearable. I took that as a compliment – otherwise she wouldn't be with me anymore.
arte magazin: Was that a risk? After all, the German audience loves you as a nice, down-to-earth hero.
Daniel Brühl: Yes, of course. It's a beautifully evil comedy, fortunately most people saw it correctly - including my East German neighbours.
arte magazin: The writer Daniel Kehlmann literally wrote the role for you. How did the collaboration go?
Daniel Brühl: At first I had the presumptuous desire to write the screenplay myself - until I realized that I couldn't write. Kehlman is brilliant. We met for coffee. With something so personal that you hope will go down well, you make yourself very vulnerable. If he had slapped me in the face, it would have hurt me. He quickly said it was completely his thing. As he was writing, he kept asking: Isn't that getting too embarrassing? But I thought it must hurt.
arte magazin: Do you have more autonomy as a director?
Daniel Brühl: Proactively taking charge of projects fills me, also as a producer. As beautiful as my life as an actor is, just waiting for the phone to ring is terrible.
arte magazin: You speak German, Spanish, English and French. Can you play equally well in any language?
Daniel Brühl: I don't find French quite as easy as Spanish or German. I now feel very comfortable in English. However, I was recently at a script reading in London – I got really pumped because all the colleagues there are just hilariously funny.
arte magazin: You have been in front of the camera several times for the American superhero saga from the Marvel universe. How does it feel to play this archetypal big thing?
Daniel Brühl: Filling that with dignity is not that easy. It's not enough to put someone in a costume. You have to find the right tone for yourself - if you don't take it seriously, it won't work. That's why you need incredibly good actors like Robert Downey Jr. or Scarlett Johansson.
arte magazin: Do you feel when you have captured a character?
Daniel Brühl It's always different. My career was a bit different - for me it mainly started with the radio play. So it was always about the voice, and that's still the case today. What gives me stability and where the rest emerges is when I have found the language of the character.
arte magazin: As a successful actor, you certainly get a lot of confirmation. Can there be too much of it?
Daniel Brühl: You have to be careful. You shouldn't take praise or criticism too seriously, otherwise you won't be able to keep up with the constant assessment. It doesn't surprise me that many colleagues end up on drugs or in depression. Social media doesn't make it any better. A healthy family helps to balance yourself out.
arte magazin: So you don't catch yourself performing the character "successful actor Daniel Brühl" in everyday life?
Daniel Brühl It certainly happened to me from time to time when I was younger – today it tends to scare me. But vanity is an exciting topic: It would be wrong to say that I am not vain. All actors are, to varying degrees.
arte magazin: Then self-mockery probably helps?
Daniel Brühl: That is the most important thing. That's why I'm always on the lookout for comedy - it's maybe the genre that excites me the most.
Broadcast notice: Good Bye, Lenin! Monday, 20.2. — 8.15 p.m. on ARTE | In the media library until March 21st. accessible