Otto Sander: Actor who worked with Wim Wenders


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The Independent Online

Otto Sander carved out a career as one of the foremost actors in postwar German theatre, in particular with the director Peter Stein. He had a flair for comedy and was equally at home in classical repertoire and the avant-garde but was best known internationally for his work in films. In Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! he played the ironically detached and tragic angel Cassiel, and in the epic Second World War U-boat drama Das Boot he was a troubled lieutenant.

Born in Hanover, he grew up in Kassel, graduating from the Friedrichsgymnasium in 1961. After a period in the merchant navy he studied theatre, literature and philosophy, then acting at Munich's Otto-Falckenberg-Schule while playing in cabaret. He made a mark as a comic actor in his stage debut, at the Düsseldorf Kammerspiele in 1965. Two years later he moved to Heidelberg and then to Claus Peymann's Freie Volksbühne Berlin.

In 1970 he began to work on television, including Brecht's adaptation of Gorky's The Mother. In the same year he joined Peter Stein's Schaubuhne Theatre, where he worked with directors including Klaus-Michael Grüber, Wilfried Minks and Luc Bondy. Stein was also directing television and Sander took several roles in the TV version of Peer Gynt in 1971. In the mid-1970s Sander appeared in a series of adaptations of Heinrich von Kleist; these included, in 1973, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and a year later The Bacchae. There was also Eric Rohmer's film The Marquise of O (1976).

Outside the classics, there were the radical anti-bourgeois plays of Botho Strauss including Schlusschor, directed by Luc Bondy in 1992, and an award-winning role in Robert Wilson's typically inscrutable (if beautiful) five-and-a-half-hour Death, Destruction and Detroit (1979).

A fellow member of Stein's theatre company was Bruno Ganz. The pair appeared in dozens of plays together, and developed a close working relationship in productions such as Gorky's Sommergäste, which was filmed in 1976 and was brought to London's National Theatre (as Summerfolk) in 1977. Sander returned to the UK as Claudius in Hamlet at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000.

Stein's productions relied on intensive preparation and Sander was sent off on various research trips to prepare himself for works set in Greece and Elizabethan England. In 1984 the company visited Russia with Sander playing Vershinin in Chekhov's Three Sisters. Ten years later the director Sergei Solovyov invited Sander back to reprise the role in his film version. Sander directed one film himself, in collaboration with Ganz, a documentary about the veteran actor Curt Bois, whom they both revered.

In 1987 Wim Wenders hastily put together Wings of Desire (he came to prefer the English title over the original Himmel über Berlin), which was shot on the fly and without a script. Ganz and Sander play two angels visiting Berlin and Curt Bois kept Sander alert by frequently collapsing unexpectedly and relying on his guardian angel to catch him, though it became increasingly stressful for the younger actor.

Though films rarely allowed Sander to show his gift for physical comedy and slapstick, playing an invisible angel exploited his talent for comedy and mimicry. He was, Wenders noted, a great clown and enthusiastically took part in an incongruous pie fight that was excised from the film.

The angels reconvened in unified Berlin in 1993 for Faraway, So Close! with Cassiel finally experiencing the pain of life as a human. Two years later the angels returned for a few seconds of silent screen-time in the portmanteau celebration of cinema's centenary, Lumière and Company.

Another regular collaborator was director Wolfgang Petersen, beginning in 1974 with the blackmail-thriller One or the Other. But their best-known work was Das Boot, the claustrophobic story of life in a wartime U-boat , in which Sander played the shell-shocked Phillip Thomsen. In 1981 it appeared as a feature film and four years later Petersen re-cut it as a TV miniseries. Both versions were great successes both at home and abroad.

While continuing in the theatre Sander appeared in many films and even in smaller roles he was incisively effective. He played Musiker Meyn In Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum (1979) and Monseigneur Bienvenu in the TV miniseries Les Misérables (2002) with Gérard Depardieu and John Malkovich. Leading roles included Karl Liebknecht in Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and Wagner in Peter Patzak's Wahnfried, while in 1994 he played the old poet in Hölderlin-Comics.

Sander appeared in several films that grappled with German history. Armin Mueller-Stahl directed and starred in the TV film Conversation with the Beast (1996) with Sander playing one of several Hitler doubles. In The Harmonists (1997), the story of a wartime singing quintet and pianist, half of whom were Jewish, Sander played the group's agent.

Sander's rich voice put him in demand for talking books and as a narrator in several films including Andrzej Wajda's A Love in Germany (1983) about a man investigating his mother's wartime affair. In the 1990s Sander undertook a series of reading tours, on which he performed poems by Ringelnatz and ballads by Uhland, Mörike and Fontane.

Otto Sander, actor: born Hanover 30 June 1941; married Monika Hansen (two stepsons); died 12 September 2013.