It’s a big ask of any actor to give a terrorist heart and soul, especially in a film depicting headline-grabbing, real-life events that took place within living memory. In the tense thriller Entebbe, Daniel Brühl plays one of four hijackers (two German, two Palestinian) who took control of a passenger jet en route from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976, resulting in a week-long hostage face-off at Uganda’s principal international airport.
Previous film versions have tended to paint in reductive blacks and whites, but a significant part of the new movie (in cinemas from Friday 11 May) is the conflict between the hijackers themselves. Brühl plays Wilfried Böse, a founder of the leftist terror group Revolutionary Cells, whose idealistic intentions clash with the hardline activism of his Palestinian partners-in-crime.
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Born in Barcelona in 1978 to a Spanish mother and German-Brazilian father but raised in Cologne, Brühl learned about the hostage crisis at school as part of wider studies of political upheaval in Europe during the 1960s and 70s. But preparation for the film enabled him to dig deeper into the contradictions and complexities.
“What interested me was the multi-perspective structure, because usually a film will have one story to tell, a single narrative for the viewer to follow,” he says. “I think the tension between the hijackers is the pulse of the film. The differences in their motivations is key, as illustrated when my character says to the Palestinian hijackers, ‘I’m here because I love my country, you’re here because you hate yours.’
“There was a naivety to the Germans’ radicalism, which is exposed when they see the impact their actions have on real people, and I think it was important to show the human being behind the façade of a terrorist. The research I did was crucial, it gave me the confidence we weren’t just making a quick-fix film about terrorists in cool leather jackets brandishing Kalashnikovs.”
Does he see a common thread between level-headed Böse and other real-life characters he’s portrayed on film? In the 2013 motor racing drama Rush, Brühl’s Niki Lauda is the pragmatic flipside to playboy Brit James Hunt, while in the same year’s The Fifth Estate he strikes a note of caution as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, right-hand man to impulsive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“That’s an interesting suggestion,” he says, “and while I admit it hadn’t occurred to me before, it makes sense. All three are, one way or another, in the shadow of people who project greater, or at least more flamboyant, personalities. Now you have me worried about being typecast!”
With the advantage of being a multi-lingual citizen of the world, Brühl got his international break as a Nazi hero in Inglourious Basterds (“only Quentin Tarantino could get away with rewriting history so daringly… My father howled with laughter when I showed him the script”), but Bafta and Golden Globe nominations for Rush elevated him to top billing. It’s his favourite role to date, the film of which he’s most proud.
“I’m very self-critical; bad reviews never affect me because I’m already really terrible to myself! But with Rush I was almost 100 per cent happy.
“What was frustrating, though, was that the effort I made as a German to master an Austrian accent went practically unnoticed in America and the UK. Traditionally, Austrians hate us bloody Germans, so I was determined to work hard and not hand them a stick with which to beat me! I was portraying one of their national icons, there was a lot of pressure to get it right.”
As well as winning over an entire country, Brühl had the task of impressing Lauda himself, a man renowned for his abruptness.
“I spent a lot of time with Niki, listening to him, and he wasn’t shy about correcting me. You know how blunt he is in the film? Multiply that by 20. He actually said I made him more sympathetic than he really was, although his usual idea of a compliment was to say ‘that’s not s***.”
Entebbe arrives in cinemas just weeks after Brühl’s return to the small screen in The Alienist (now showing on Netflix), playing a criminal psychologist investigating a serial killer in late-19th century New York. CSI meets Edgar Allan Poe?
“That’s as good a shorthand as any,” he says with a laugh. “It’s set in a time when people with mental health problems were routinely referred to as aliens, and my character is a pioneer in trying to understand the criminal mind, hence alienist.”
Though a second series has yet to be confirmed, Brühl and his co-stars Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans are keen to commit: “Working in one location for seven months made a wonderful change.” It’s a far cry from his first TV role as a teenager in German soap opera Verbotene Liebe (“Forbidden Love”).
“It wasn’t great,” he recalls with a grimace, “although it taught me a lot. After a while I begged the producers to let me go, so they sent my character backpacking across Australia. I think he’s still out there.”