The nice guy years are over

From conscientious objector to man of the world: Daniel Brühl is an internationally famous film star.

picture-alliance/dpa - Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda

Cinema loves the underdog. But which of the two racing drivers engaged in years of duelling is the underdog in the film Rush? Is it James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth, the tall man-about-town with long blond hair, a charming youthful smile and a rebellious attitude? Or is it Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl, a rather small, pedantic man with a grim expression, who prefers going to bed early so as to be well rested when spurring his team to top performance? The film’s answer – and herein lies one of the secrets of its success – is that both of them are underdogs in their own way, struggling as much with their inner demons as with external constraints.

For Daniel Brühl, Rush is a triumph of acting skill. Initially, his Niki Lauda seems unpleasant and petty-minded, the perfect foil against which Hemsworth, as Hunt, is made to look so much nicer. In the course of the film, however, Brühl’s Lauda gains the viewer’s respect. It is he – with all his contradictions – who finally captivates the audience. And it is thanks to Brühl that the supporting role becomes a leading role, on a par with the poster-hero Hunt. If we are to believe the relevant media forecasts, then Brühl has a good chance of receiving an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category.

Many German cinema-goers will probably not be able to believe their eyes. Is that 
really Daniel Brühl? Not just because he is the splitting image of Niki Lauda – both before and after his tragic accident at the Nürburg­ring in 1976 – thanks to the skill of the make-up artists. But also because he can be seen here for the first time as an adult. Brühl’s image has long been shaped by the role that made him famous overnight in the early 2000s: that of the con­scientious objector doing community 
service, as portrayed in Benjamin Quabeck’s No Regrets, which was produced in 2001. This was followed by The Edukators in 2004, in which he plays a young idealist who dons the pose of the revolutionary, but whose niceness sometimes gets in the way. A really pleasant young man, all in all, dutiful but also a bit boring.

Authenticity and naturalness were in demand in the emerging young German cinema at that time, and Brühl had them both. But he had no classical theatre training – he gained his acting experience as a young boy, for example, in Verbotene Liebe, an early evening soap broadcast by German public service TV station ARD. He knew very well how to blend natural charm with just the right amount of shyness and clumsiness to ensure it was 
always easy to identify with him. That also applied to the role of the caring son in Good Bye, Lenin! The film was an incredible success, drawing more than nine million viewers in the European Union and making Brühl the defining face of German cinema at the time. Yet the label of the “typical German” was always wrongly applied to Brühl. He was born in Barcelona in 1978, the son of German television director Hanno Brühl and a Catalan teacher, and grew up in Cologne. He speaks German, Spanish, Catalan and also French and English fluently.

When the roles on offer from German film-makers began to bore him, Brühl signed up with Spanish cinema. In the country of his birth he received considerable praise for the leading role in Salvador. He says that many people in Spain totally blot out his German side, although that is a matter of opinion, as he admits: “My Spanish part is divided into Catalan and Andalusian. And in Spain people say the Catalans are like the Germans.” But Brühl did not restrict himself to Spain. His most prominent appearances before Rush were in The Bourne Ultimatum and in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. In the latter film he gave a slightly naive and goofy touch to the role of the German marksman Fredrick Zoller.

Rush is now a considerable leap forward in the career of the meanwhile 35-year-old actor because for the first time he plays a character who stands out from the other roles he has had to date. At first sight, in fact, playing the grim Niki Lauda seems like a thankless job. So what Brühl makes of it testifies to a complexity through which he exhibits ambition and a readiness to take risks.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for Rush, recently stated in the LA Times: “Were Daniel an American or British 
actor, he would already be a household name, not just for his acting abilities but also for what he is: persistent, highly intelligent, balanced, reasonable … a man who himself is complex enough to do justice to the most complicated roles.”

Given the enormous success of Rush, Brühl would certainly seem to have made it in international cinema. Another indicator of this is that his acting ability was what received such positive reviews in the otherwise much criticised Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate. Brühl plays the German computer scientist and former Wikileaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The film was actually intended to be a piece de resistance for Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, but it then turned out to be another promotion platform for Daniel Brühl.

Very little remains of the former conscientious-objector figure. It will be possible to see man-of-the-world Brühl again soon in Wolfgang Becker’s film of the Daniel Kehlmann novel Me and Kaminski and in the film by Dutch director Anton Corbijn of the John Le Carré novel A Most Wanted Man. Brühl also has other talents: in 2012 he published A Day in Barcelona, a per­sonal travel guide about his second home town. He regularly commutes between the 
Spanish metropolis and Berlin. ▪