The role called for an actor of internal antitheses, one with immense bearlike presence who could somehow contrive to seem out of his own body. There was only one man for the job, and Bruno Ganz, so powerfully gentle as a ponytailed angel hovering over Berlin in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, accepted immediately. He was at the Salzburg Festival when the call came, rehearsing the title role in Coriolanus under the direction of Deborah Warner. The production was impaired by Ganz's discomfort with the immense theatrical space and Warner's lack of German. Also, while Ganz hates rehearsal, Warner is an indefatigable rehearser. Like Saint-Exupery himself, who exulted in the escapism of flight, the chance to portray the author must have seemed to Ganz like the next best thing to escape itself. It's telling that, in order to play the laureate of aviation, he passed up the much more lucrative offer to be in Mark Peploe's adaptation of Victory by the maritime laureate Joseph Conrad.
I track the actor down in Lausanne, where he's playing Captain Scott in a rarely performed piece by Nabokov called The Pole. (So he's at it again, playing another reckless, romanticised, doomed pioneer.) "I was fascinated as a kid with The Little Prince," he says, "and later on my favourite actor was Gerard Philippe. There is a wonderful tape of him reading The Little Prince and I was so in love with that, I thought I should do it."
The casting goes some way to explaining the disembodied allure of Saint- Exupery, but it only serves to deepen the fog surrounding Ganz. Where does this extraordinary childlike innocence, radiating from his hunched, thickset, Gambonesque frame, actually come from? His childhood in Zurich, he says, was "average" (unlike Saint-Exupery's, who was haunted by the loss of a younger brother). Only in adulthood did fellow drama students start to refer to him as "more a poet than a normal human being". His father was a mechanic; his mother, the probable source of his well-like eyes, was a north Italian who struggled with the Swiss-German dialect. In less than saintly fashion, Ganz used to upbraid her for speaking to him in Italian on the street. "Unfortunately, as a child you are very cruel and you do things you regret very much - you want to be like the other children. I felt sort of ashamed of her."
Even after training as an actor in Zurich, Ganz could scarcely speak any German, and only conquered the language during his three years at a student theatre in Gottingen. Thus equipped, he went on to work with Peter Zadek in Bremen and, famously, with Peter Stein at the Schaubuhne in Berlin. Ganz has since acted in four languages: it's typical of his virtuosity that The Pole was performed in German in Berlin and Zurich, and in French in Paris and Lausanne.
Ganz has worked only a few times in English: in Wenders' The American Friend; in Gillian Armstrong's The Last Days of Chez Nous; and in David Hare's Strapless. "Obviously, he's the great player for Wenders," says Hare, "because he's displaced, alienated and rootless. He comes out of the Second World War, he doesn't know where he belongs, he has often lived out of a suitcase."
While shooting Strapless, Hare had to assign a fourth assistant purely to keep tabs on Ganz. "Otherwise, he simply wanders away from the set and can't be found for hours. He goes walking in the woods."
There was no chance of that in Saint-Ex. The Sahara desert, where Saint- Exupery crashes a plane on the way to Saigon, was recreated in a studio in Southall, west London. Ganz was warned how low the budget would be, but arrived on set unprepared for discomfort. "We were always in studios that make ads not films, so there were no facilities for actors. And 14 hours a day! I knew that it would be low-budget but I never imagined the consequences."
This is another of Ganz's less than angelic off-screen tics - his brutal honesty. "He's almost too straight," says Hare. "He's one of those people that sits there and says, `I'm bored' or `This isn't very interesting' - to a point where you sometimes quite fancy thumping him." If violence lurks anywhere, it is under Ganz's serene exterior. His scar comes from a bare-knuckle fight that he picked with a puritanical night-porter who, because Ganz and the late Romy Schneider were unmarried, tried to stop the couple going back to Ganz's hotel room. On the set of The American Friend, he traded fisticuffs with Dennis Hopper. "We were drunk and he made a remark about blindness. My son is blind and I got very angry and I kicked him in his ass. He's not somebody who takes that, so we had a short fight. Five minutes later we were in the same frame, very calm and friendly."
When he doesn't like a film, he says so. He disliked Faraway, So Close!, Wenders' sequel to Wings of Desire - "too many stories in it". And he recently saw Volker Schlondorff's Circle of Deceit, filmed on the streets of 1980s Beirut with the protection of the Syrian army: "You think it has to be great because it was so dangerous, but it's not a very good film."
No wonder his relationships with directors go up and down. Ganz never puts himself forward for jobs, and works with Wenders on a casual system of telephonic summons. With Stein, "we have this project to do Faust but it seems to be very difficult and they have been hesitating now for a very, very long time. I haven't seen him for quite a while. But it's the same procedure. He will call me."
After The Pole, Ganz is off to Greece to make a film in which he plays "a dying man who undertakes a very painful journey with a young boy from Albania. It's a kind of road movie." Another rip-roaring comedy, then. Saint-Ex was made in 1994 and shown in the London Film Festival last month. Its Yuletide billing has as much to do, you suspect, with Ganz's presence as with that of his co-stars: Miranda Richardson (as Saint-Exupery's wife, Consuelo), Janet McTeer, Ken Stott and, in tiny pre-stellar roles, Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig (late of Moll Flanders fame). But you should watch because Ganz is, in David Hare's words, "one of the greatest actors in Europe". And while the film plainly has problems with pace and budget, Ganz is the nearest thing to a winged angel on television this Christmas
`Saint-Ex', Christmas Day 9.40pm, BBC2Reuse content