Getting into the mindset of a left-wing German terrorist hijacking a plane full of Jews was never going to be an easy task – and all the more so for actor Daniel Brühl, who had to delve into a dark moment in history from his own heritage. 

The film, directed by José Padilha, tells of the daring mission by Israeli commandos in 1976 to rescue nearly 100 mainly Jewish and Israeli hostages, and focuses on the conflicted experiences of the two Germans – played by Brühl and Rosamund Pike  – who allied with Palestinian terrorists to divert their Paris-bound plane to Uganda.

Even as they hold Jews at gunpoint, the two insist they are “humanitarian” activists fighting against fascism. But the parallels to their German forebears are clear.

“Germans killing Jews,” an associate of his says. “Ever thought about that?” At another point, Brühl’s character, Wilfried Bose, insists: “I’m no Nazi.”

Brühl, 39, who was born in Spain and grew up in Germany, had his breakout role in the 2003 film Goodbye, Lenin! about East Germany at the end of the Cold War, and met American audiences six years later playing a Nazi war hero in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Although he has played the Gilded Age criminal psychologist Laszlo Kreizler in the TNT series The Alienist and an investigative journalist who recovers Second World War-era art in Woman In Gold, in five different films he has been called on to play Nazis, a civil servant under the Nazis, or a supervillain from a Nazi family.

The multiplicity of such roles, Brühl said, is a natural consequence of being a German actor in an industry that keeps churning out films about this era.

But it also has to do with his interest in historical events. In addition to films about the Second World War, the Entebbe raid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brühl – whose mother is Spanish – was in The Carpenter’s Pencil, about the Spanish Civil War, as well as dramas set in Franco’s Spain and 1970s Chile.

Eddie Marsan plays Shimon Peres and Lior Ashkenazi is Yitzhak Rabin

In Entebbe, Brühl plays a German bad guy grappling with his country’s recent history, but he makes it clear that he doesn’t want such roles to define him.

“I’ve done so many different things,” he said. “Looking back, there’s a body of work, which is very diverse. Fortunately, I can say I’ve done many different things.
I wouldn’t have liked to be typecast and limited to that. When I decided to take these parts, it was always out of an interest in period projects, in history.

“It’s important to read about history, to analyse history, to also understand where we are right now.

“Being a German-Spanish actor, of course I’m participating in projects that deal with the history of my countries. I want to understand where I come from. This is what drives me.”

Listen to the Jewish Views Podcast:

Brühl does historical research to prepare for those roles. For Inglourious Basterds, a revenge fantasy that cared little for historical accuracy (the movie has a Jew machine-gunning Hitler in the face in 1944), Brühl took courses with a sniper.

For The Zookeeper’s Wife, a Holocaust drama based on a true story, he and co-star Jessica Chastain met with the titular zookeeper’s daughter.

And for Entebbe, Brühl read up on the German far-left activists of the 1960s and 1970s, including Revolutionary Cells, the urban terrorist group that conducted the Entebbe hijacking. He also met with survivors of the raid.

Brühl was born two years after the Entebbe hijacking and recalls hearing his parents talking about the leftist groups in later years.

Nonso Anozie as Ugandan dictator

“I just wanted to go back in time, dig a little bit further and get into the mindset of a person who was taking the decision to not only be politically active, but to go that extra step and be a radical and join a mission in which a left-wing German terrorist is hijacking a plane with Jewish passengers,” he said. “It’s still so unbelievable. That made me curious to do some more research.”

Entebbe departs from previous films about the incident, which include Operation Thunderbolt (1977), a heroic saga retelling the story of Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Israeli prime minister, who was killed in the raid.

Entebbe, however, alternates between the hijackers and the political drama revolving around Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who at the time were prime minister and defense minister, respectively.

Much of the dialogue between Peres (played by Eddie Marsan) and Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) is a heavy-handed discourse – performed in heavily-accented English – on the need to negotiate for peace.

The end credits trace the two men’s lives after 1976 and note that the peace process is now inactive – as if to draw a comparison between a hostage negotiation with a terror group and final-status talks between two recognised governments.

Meanwhile, the film deals with the story of the Israeli rescuers by focusing on an ambivalent soldier and his girlfriend, a dancer whose performances are, for some reason, interspersed with scenes of the raid. (The choreography is by famed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.)

Yoni Netanyahu is portrayed with a bit role in this version and is unceremoniously killed as the operation is beginning.

The movie is most engaging as it explores the dilemmas of the Brühl and Pike characters, as a conflicted man and zealous woman on a violent ideological mission. The film humanises them, telling their backstories, showing how they were trained and, ultimately, how they break down during the escalating hostage crisis.

But it’s unambiguous in judging them: they are villains in this story.

For Brühl, that’s not a problem. As with much of his work, it’s another way to delve into history, however messy it may be. “That ongoing conflict is important, especially for younger generations, to take a step back, and look at the situation back then,” he says.

“It can help you understand the current situation a little bit better, to remind yourself of the positions of what historically and politically was behind such a mission, and not just show an easy black-and-white picture of the conflict.” (JTA)

  •  Entebbe (12A) is out in cinemas tomorrow (Friday)