German actor Daniel Brühl came out of nowhere to win the best actor prize in the 2003 European Film Awards for Good Bye Lenin!, playing a young East Berliner who rearranges everything so that his mother is unaware that the Berlin Wall has fallen. In 2004, he followed up with another tour de force, starring as the politically motivated Jan in Austrian director Hans Weingartner's The Edukators, a rare German entry in the Cannes competition.
He’s still into Formula One and working like crazy
Both films in quick succession established Brühl as Germany's brightest young star. That same year he was again nominated for an EFA for best actor for another German film, Love in Thoughts, and he also made his English-language debut in Ladies in Lavender, playing a Polish violinist who captures the heart of Judi Dench.
“She is an idol for me,” he told me at the time. “At her age I still feel a freshness and a power that's just amazing.”
In 2005, he appeared as a kindly Nazi officer, speaking German, French and English in Christian Carion's French film Joyeux Noël. “I was very pleased to read a script that showed the German soldier as a good guy—unlike the cliché of so many World War Two movies,” he says. “It was also interesting that Horstmayer should be Jewish, because a lot of Jewish German soldiers fought for Germany in the First World War.”
As the son of a Catalan mother and German father, Brühl, who was born in Barcelona and raised in Cologne, also speaks fluent Catalan and Spanish and has a huge fan base in Spanish-speaking countries. In 2006, he won the Barcelona film award for best actor for his portrayal as Salvador Puig Antich in Salvador and was nominated in the Goyas, as he was for the Spanish science fiction film, Eva, in 2011.
Even so, here in Australia one might be wondering what happened to the actor. While his supporting role as a German military war hero in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds brought him some attention, he also had a spate of English-language misfires, most notably Julie Delpy's The Countess and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intruders. Now suddenly he appears in two high profile English-language movies, as Formula One legend Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's Rush, and as Daniel Domscheit-Berg in Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, which both premiered in Toronto.
Although Brühl had the potential to come off as second fiddle to Chris Hemsworth (who plays the flamboyant James Hunt) in Rush and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Julian Assange) in The Fifth Estate, the 35-year-old German emerged as the stand-out in both movies and surely is the one to watch at awards time. Although he says he was nervous about playing the real life men, he was pleased that the characters were fully fleshed out on screen.
“I like these movies because it isn't a typical thing where you have the goodie and the villain and you only have empathy with one character,” he says. “You have empathy with both characters in both movies.”
He is also grateful that a German was cast in The Fifth Estate, even if American actors were initially being considered for the part of Domscheit-Berg, Assange's early WikiLeaks cohort. Brühl's biggest transformation, though, has been as Lauda, because the gruff, dry-witted Austrian is as different from the mild-mannered actor as you can imagine.
“When Niki first called me, he said, 'I guess we have to meet now',” Brühl recalls donning Lauda's dry Austrian tones. “'But only bring hand luggage to Vienna because if we don't like each other then you can piss off right away'.”
A multi-millionaire through his F1 triumphs and his foray into budget air travel, 64-year-old Lauda isn't one to rest on his laurels. “He's still into Formula One and working like crazy,” notes Brühl. “I called him one time at six in the morning from the set asking some stupid details about whether to put the gloves or helmet on first and he said, 'Oh, you idiot!' But he was helpful to me and Ron.”
One of the keys to the man for Brühl was to perfect the way he spoke, so he flew to Vienna to get in some practice. “Germans are very different to Austrians especially when it comes to our senses of humour,” he explains. “That's why in Rush I wanted to nail the accent because it adds that extra portion of irony and arrogance which we Germans don't have—and it's not that difficult to be funnier than the Germans as we know! The Austrians, on the other hand, do share our desire to be correct and efficient.”
So what is the reason for the actor's sudden foray into English? He says it goes back to Inglourious Basterds and Tarantino's insistence on casting actors of real ethnicity. Of course, Tarantino's decision also kick-started the international careers of Austrian Christoph Waltz and France's Mélanie Laurent.
“I heard that American stars wanted play certain parts in the movie and Quentin said no,” Brühl notes. “I found that very clever. It's also nice to see American films companies coming to Germany to shoot their movies.”
Brühl recently completed Anton Corbijn's Hamburg-shot John le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man, alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe and Nina Hoss. He will soon star in another English-language film, Michael Winterbottom's The Face of an Angel, which will shoot in Italy and London. Brühl certainly has the face for it.
Rush is released in cinemas October 3.