Sympathy for the devil

What made Alan Rickman so compelling as Die Hard‘s villain Hans Gruber?


“I will count to three. There will not be a four.”

Die Hard is a profoundly stupid film made by some very smart people. It is vacuous popcorn cinema of the highest order but it is crafted with far greater skill than most best picture winners. It has to strike innumerable balances – between drama and humour, between building up tension and releasing it, between events inside the Nakatomi Plaza and those outside – and it nails each of them.

However, the most important symmetry the film maintains is that of hero and villain. On the side of the angels there is Bruce Willis’s John McClane – he’s warm, easy going and American. Set against him is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber who’s cold, mannered and European. It’s a classic cinematic confronation and one in which the audience is definitely tempted by the darkside. In response to the tragic news of Rickman’s death, Ian Crouch writes in the New Yorker:

I doubt it’s just sentimentality that has so many people on Twitter today declaring that they wish he’d got away with the money.

Crouch explains that:

Gruber has no typical action-baddie backstory—he’s not out to avenge his dead brother, or father, or wife, and the best joke of the movie occurs when Gruber gets on the phone with a hostage negotiator and demands the release of various incarcerated political separatists from around the world, members of groups that, he tells his comrade, he simply read about in Time. “Do you think they’ll even try to do it?” his henchman asks him. Gruber’s response is a kind of personal mission statement: “Who cares?” Indeed, he is simply a blank-canvas thief, one for whom even money seems a little beside the point. He likes nice suits, reads magazines, misquotes Plutarch. No one ever looked so brilliantly uninterested while firing a machine gun or executing a civilian. In Rickman’s deadpan performance, Gruber seems to possess a strange fatalism, as if he expects to lose, and to die, all along. Who cares?

But, despite this nihilistic anonymity, it is Gruber who remains the movie’s unforgettable character. “Die Hard” made Bruce Willis a movie star, but it earned Rickman a different kind of designation, as the prototypical, and at the same time impossible-to-replicate, action-movie villain. The secret may be that Rickman himself didn’t think of Gruber that way. “I’m not playing the villain,” he once said. “I’m just playing somebody who wants certain things in life, has made certain choices, and goes after them.” What Rickman was describing wasn’t a character’s backstory—Little Hans in Berlin, unloved and overlooked—but his motivation, distilled down to a human being’s most basic urges: see, want, get. Yet from that came a surfeit of specificity: his precise grooming, his distant manner, his slightly nervous yet menacing grin, his flat affect, with a voice that the actor once described as “coming out the back end of a drainpipe.” No other action villain had a better beard, a more fun name to say out loud, or a better death scene (involving a stunt that Rickman performed himself, and that, over the years, took on the air of myth, with the distance of his fall growing from twenty to thirty to, eventually, forty feet). Amazingly, Gruber was Rickman’s first movie role. He later joked that the producers cast a relative unknown like him because they’d already spent all their money on Willis. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Hans Gruber, and Rickman had the good sense never to play a version of the same role again.

This is an example of quitting whilst one is ahead of immense proportions. Gruber may not be the greatest movie villain of all time but if you’re deciding who is then he’s an option you have to consider.

The creation of a cinematic icon cannot be attributed to a single genius: it comes from the confluence of everyone from the director to the costume designer. But the actor is the cornerstone of it all: the one who must for a moment live as the character, so that the character may have life.

A talent great enough to bring Hans Gruber into the world is one cinemagoers will be dismayed to see leave it.