Your guide to the underrated Spanish-German actor currently starring in ‘The Alienist.’
Even if you don’t know his name, you’re probably familiar with the work of Daniel Brühl. The Barcelona-born, Cologne-raised actor has appeared in a variety of German, Spanish and English-language projects; he can currently be seen in the lavish new historical crime drama The Alienist on TNT and in The Cloverfield Paradox on Netflix. The roles he takes on tend to be complex characters drawn in a wide spectrum of grays. Often men who are struggling with a deep-seated darkness that threatens to overwhelm their inherent humanity.
Brühl is able to straddle the wavering line between nice guy and bad guy unlike any other actor currently working today, utterly disappearing into his characters. Perhaps this underrated ability is why he isn’t more of a household name, despite being featured in one of the most critically acclaimed films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: Civil War. However, I am here to announce that it isn’t too late to join the Daniel Brühl Fan Club.
Let’s start at the beginning — or at least close to it. Brühl’s breakout role in Germany was the lead role in the 2003 comedy Good Bye, Lenin! The film earned rave reviews around the world and won numerous Lolas (the German equivalent of the Oscars), including Outstanding Film and Outstanding Actor for Brühl. In the film, Brühl portrays Alex, a young man coming of age in East Berlin just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Alex’s mother, Christiane, adores the ruling party, but Alex longs for a different life. After spotting her son on television during an anti-government protest, Christiane has a heart attack from the shock and falls into a coma. While she is unconscious, the Berlin Wall comes down and East Berlin is changed forever. When Christiane finally wakes up, her heart remains so fragile that the doctors tell Alex any additional trauma could be the end of her. Unwilling to tell his mother that the country she loved has chucked out their Lenin statues and embraced western brands like Coca-Cola and Burger King, Alex constructs an elaborate fantasy world for her instead.
It is impossible not to be charmed by Alex’s earnest attempt to keep his mother happily ensconced in Ostalgie (the German word for the romanticization of the GDR), from hiring a newscaster lookalike to record fake broadcasts for her to put western products into jars with eastern labels on them and beyond. His increasingly extreme efforts to be a good son and protect his mother from the outside world are indeed a bit misguided but in the most amusing, lovable way.
Brühl plays a similarly earnest young man in the 2004 drama The Edukators, though his actions in that film take misguided to a whole other level. Brühl plays Jan, a young man who spends his days protesting economic inequality and his nights breaking into rich peoples’ homes with his best friend, Peter. Jan and Peter don’t steal anything; rather, they rearrange furniture and play other goofy pranks, signing off with notes warning the privileged residents that their days of plenty will soon be over.
Harmless, right? Sure, until Jan falls for Peter’s girlfriend, Julia, and allows her to convince him to get revenge on Hardenberg, the wealthy man whom she has been indebted to since she crashed into his luxury car. Jan and Julia break into Hardenberg’s house while Peter is out of town, but a forgotten cell phone and other consequences of their impulsiveness lead to them kidnapping Hardenberg and taking off into the countryside.
The Edukators is a film with a lot to say about how people start out idealistic about societal change in their youth and are slowly corrupted by money and success as they age. It does veer into pretentiousness, especially when Jan, Peter, and Julia attempt to persuade Hardenberg of their ideology; their statements sound cribbed from a thrown-away Bernie Sanders speech. At over two hours, it’s also far too long. But it is a film that will make you think, which is more than you can say about most movies nowadays. And Brühl’s natural charm makes the trio at the center of the film far more appealing and less insufferable than they could have been otherwise.
Brühl’s first English-language role was opposite the legendary Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in in 2004’s Ladies in Lavender, but it wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-killing opus Inglourious Basterds smashed its way onto movie screens in 2009 that most Americans were introduced to his talent. Brühl plays Private Fredrik Zoller, a German war hero-turned-movie star whose attempts to woo the French cinema proprietor Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) end up being the death of both of them — not to mention the entire Nazi high command.
Zoller is a Nazi soldier favored by Hitler and Goebbels after killing close to 300 enemy soldiers as a sniper, yet he is still largely a likable character up until his rather unpleasant final moments. He repeatedly shies away from glorying in his wartime exploits, because, as he tells Shosanna, said exploits resulted in the deaths of many, many men, and who can possibly feel good about that? He ducks out of the premiere of the movie fictionalizing his heroism — which he also happens to star in — because it hurts him too much to relive those moments again.
Of course, Zoller’s dark side comes out in his final moments with Shosanna, in which he attempts to intimidate her into finally accepting his romantic advances. Zoller’s petulant tantrum is that of a young man who has been told repeatedly that he is a hero, worthy of whatever honors he desires — including Shosanna. Exploited by those in power for the sake of Nazi propaganda, what happens to Zoller is tragic, even if, in the end, he somewhat deserves it.
Since Inglourious Basterds, Brühl has basically become Hollywood’s go-to actor for all sorts of Germanic types, with supporting roles in films such as the Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate and the John le Carré thriller A Most Wanted Man. But arguably his greatest performance is as Niki Lauda, the Austrian Formula 1 legend, in Ron Howard’s 2013 biographical drama Rush.
Rush tells the story of the heated racing rivalry between the flashy, flamboyant James Hunt (a never-better Chris Hemsworth) and the intensely focused Lauda during the 1970s. The two drivers have absolutely nothing in common except their exceptional talent on the track, so it’s no surprise that they butt heads every time they cross each other’s paths.
A fiery accident on the rain-soaked Nürburgring during the German Grand Prix results in Lauda being covered in severe burns that take weeks to recover from. During that time, he sits in the hospital and watches as Hunt begins to dominate the track in his absence. Yet his accident, coupled with his marriage to a German socialite named Marlene, begins to change Lauda’s priorities. Before, he was focused on winning on the track at the expense of everything else; now, he begins to realize that a happy life off the track also has its appeal.
As Lauda, Brühl is a fierce, fiery marvel; he was nominated for numerous Best Supporting Actor honors for the role, including the Golden Globe and SAG Award, but was snubbed by the Oscars. Lauda isn’t as outright likable as the handsome, freewheeling Hunt, but he is far easier to respect as a person. His arc over the course of the film is far more pronounced than that of Hunt, who continues to booze it up and live life like there’s no tomorrow. Lauda has gotten a glimpse of what it’s like to believe you may not see tomorrow, and to watch him come to terms with that is remarkable.
Lately, Brühl’s career trajectory has grown increasingly villainous, with roles such as the vengeful Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War and Lutz Heck, the Nazi soldier in love with Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. In an interview with The Mary Sue around the release of The Zookeeper’s Wife early last year, Brühl was asked if he was worried about being typecast as a villain after taking on an increasing number of antagonistic roles. His response is amusing and sheds light on how he chooses roles:
“It is so funny that you’re saying this because, for a long time, I was always cast as the nicest guy in Germany. I was so mad (laughs) and so bored, really. Because it was a huge privilege and a gift to have made the film Good Bye, Lenin! But it was also a curse because really in Germany everybody thought I’m the nicest son-in-law so I was always offered the part of the sympathetic nice guy. And then, funnily, the offers that I get outside of Germany were completely different then. So all of a sudden, I’m now offered the part of the villain which, for me, was very refreshing and a big relief.”
One can argue that the reason his roles outside of Germany tend to be of the more villainous variety is that the United States continues to see Germany as villainous — at least when it comes to the cinema. Major roles for German actors in Hollywood movies tend to only pop up in movies set during World War II — movies like Inglourious Basterds and The Zookeeper’s Wife. Yet even when embodying the role of a Nazi or another nefarious villain, Brühl manages to bring out the character’s humanity — no matter how little of it there actually is.
Based on the novel by Caleb Carr, The Alienist, Brühl’s latest project, is not perfect. Nor is his attempt at a New York accent circa 1896. But the show’s vibrant recreation of New York at the turn of the twentieth century will capture your imagination, as will the disturbingly morbid crimes at its center. Brühl stars as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a doctor of the then-experimental science of psychology — otherwise known as an alienist. When the mutilated bodies of young male prostitutes who made a living wearing girls’ clothing start turning up around the city, Dr. Kreizler embarks on his own investigation, focusing on trying to get inside the killer’s head.
Brühl’s New York accent might be dodgy, but his portrayal of the stubborn scientist who refuses to accept any hypothesis but his own is, as usual, excellent. Dr. Kreizler uses his oft-derided science to help young people realize that they are not as crazy or as unusual as others may want them to think; in one particularly great scene, he tells one girl’s enraged parents that their daughter’s frequent masturbation is the normal behavior of a grown woman, not anything nefarious or perverse.
Dr. Kreizler’s willingness to embrace and accept people for possessing qualities that, at that time, were often discriminated against means that, even when he is being a bit of a jerk, you can’ help but want to see him succeed in his quest to find the killer. He is aided by two wonderfully capable partners in Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning, whose spirited performance as the first woman to work for the New York Police Department is the show’s strongest asset. Overall, The Alienist is yet another intriguing addition to Brühl’s incredibly diverse oeuvre and, for the uninitiated, a worthy introduction to his talents.