Bruno Ganz has a Bad Time in late-1970s Germany



Fans of the New German Cinema should be interested in experiencing A Knife in the Head. This 1978 film stars Bruno Ganz, one of the most celebrated actors to emerge from that era, and it serves as evidence that the film movement had a lot more to offer than simply the revered and familiar trio of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog,  and Wim Wenders. 

Directed by Reinhard Hauff (whose work I am otherwise unfamiliar with), A Knife in the Head tells the story of a medical researcher named Hoffman whose life is suddenly and surprisingly struck with multiple misfortunes in a single moment. En route to a confrontation with his wife, with whom he has well-founded suspicions of marital infidelity, he gets caught up in a riotous clash between youthful political protesters and the police who’ve been summoned to restore order. In the fracas, shots are fired and a bullet strikes Hoffman in his head, ultimately lodging just above his ear. Though the wound is not fatal, it does significant damage, leaving him in a coma and severely impairing his ability to communicate when he finally comes to. Much of the middle section of the film provides a very realistic and engrossing portrayal of his slow, laborious recovery.

Complicating factors weigh against Hoffman as he strives to regain functionality. His plight draws media attention that lands him in an unwanted role in the middle of a p.r. battle between the police, who portray him as a despised rabble rouser who deserved his misfortune due to his supposed support of violent radicals, and the counterpoint raised by the leftist organizers who want to portray him as a martyr simply for the sake of stirring up anger and winning sympathy for their cause. Hoffman’s memory of the incident is minimal due to the brain damage he sustained, but he knows enough to understand that he wants nothing to do with the claims being made on his behalf by either side. Though he does his best to focus on putting his shattered life back together, the political currents swirling around him and the strains that his predicament creates in his already-troubled marriage, exert a strong force that keeps him, and viewers caught up in his saga, in a perpetual state of imbalance, suspicion and paranoia that never quite gets resolved by the end of the film.

Ganz’s acting is the single most outstanding aspect of this film, and it’s an excellent showcase for his ability to convincingly portray a broad range of emotions and mental states, including occasional moments of humor to provide brief diversions and relief from the otherwise heavy atmosphere. Now famous for his roles in Wings of Desire, The American Friend, Nosferatu the Vampyre and, most broadly, his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in Downfall (launcher of a hundred memes back in 2009-10), this relatively early performance by Ganz amply demonstrates his talent.

Angela Winkler, another significant actor in the New German Cinema (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Tin Drum), also deserves mention for her supporting role as Hoffman’s wife. I was also attracted to request a review copy when I saw that the soundtrack was composed by Irmin Schmidt, founding member and keyboard player for the German band Can. Though his contributions are not quite as varied or lengthy as I would have liked (the main theme he composed is used multiple times throughout the film), it’s still a good score. Supplemental features are minimal but adequate, consisting of a pair of interviews (presumably created for earlier European releases of the film) with the film’s director and executive producer. They provide helpful context of the late 70’s German film scene and the usual variety of anecdotes about a given film’s “making of” story.  As far as I was able to tell, this release by Kino Lorber marks the film’s first availability in the US home video market – a movie that I consider to be impressive, memorable, and deserving of a larger audience.