Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Character Depth – Hans Gruber

Thanks to the great Mickey Lee.

He can talk about industrialization and mens’ fashion all day, having purchased two John Phillips suits from the same place Arafat shops. He was expelled from a German terrorist organization, but still manages to read up on his brothers-in-arms in Time magazine. And he has an American accent so convincing, he "ought to be on f**king TV." He is Hans Gruber, chief villain of the movie
Die Hard and the mold from which dozens of Hollywood villains have been stamped. Cold, calculating, classically educated and elegant, Gruber can quote Alexander one minute and shoot a Japanese CEO between the eyes the next; all while denigrating a bankrupt American culture that produces Rambo, Roy Rogers and John McClane. But the expensive suits, education and guns are a mask for one glaring contradiction: for all his refinement, Hans Gruber is just a simple thief.


Mystery Man said...

"...for all his refinement, Hans Gruber is just a simple thief."

Hehehe... Just great.


Anonymous said...

Hitler was just a little corporal.

When we get right down to it, we're all "just something."

Please, don't get me wrong, this contribution is a great addition to this study.

It just got me extrapolating...

Carl S said...

Shoot the glass!

Hans Gruber is a classic villain. He was as important to making Die Hard what it is as John McClane.

What a great character dicotomy and what a great example of a villain character with depth.

Anonymous said...

Well of course we're all "just something" -- people are a bundle of contradictions that boil down to one simple thing that stands in contrast with everything else they present to the world.

But we're talking about fictional characters, not real people. So the contradictions need to have a story purpose. And in Die Hard the purpose was to mask a simple robbery as something much more -- just as making Hans Gruber so refined and sophisticated gave his character much more depth.

gamears --

Haha, out of everything Alan Rickman says in that movie, I think I hear "Shoot the glass" quoted more than anything else! I wonder why that is?

Carl S said...


It's the delivery and the ironic fact that he has to repeat himself in German henchman in English to make the point. (The reality being, that it was probably done as a movie contrivance so that the audience would know what he said).

It all boils down to a memorable line, I suppose.

But I have to think that "Yippe-ki-yay MotherF..." is the most quoted line. Maybe? Yes?

P.S. I had to search IMDb for the spelling on Yipee-ki-yay. What a strange expression.

Anonymous said...

My favorite quote from Hans is, "Unfortunately your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way, so he won't be joining us...for the rest of his life."

Anonymous said...

There's also an evil Hans Gruber in the 1954 film The Naked Jungle. He's killed by his Indian serfs about halfway through the film though.

Anonymous said...


Oh I meant lines quoted from Hans himself -- there's a million Bruce Willis one-liners in that flick!


That's another great line, too. I remember that one bringing the house down when I saw it opening night (I'm I that old???)

Anonymous said...

There's another one, but I don't think I'm going to get it word-for-word. "I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and you should be more polite, since I am moving up to kidnapping."

Mystery Man said...

Mickey, with respect to your comment, "But we're talking about fictional characters, not real people. So the contradictions need to have a story purpose," I couldn't agree more. That's a really great point.

Sometimes, many times, the contradiction in the lead character IS the story. But I think that many pros create characters of depth but they fail to A) put them into situations that forces a character to really face those inner contradiction and make a life-altering choice or B) explain the contradictions so that we might have a better understanding of how that's possible. I think a lot of dissatisfaction in movies comes from the idea of a great character, but the writer doesn't know how to explain or handle that character adequately in a story.

I can't help but be amused by this horrible scandal with Tom Foley while we are studying characters with contradictions. In drama, as in real life, this kind of behavior is diabolical. But yet, dramatically speaking, a Foley-like character would, by definition, be a character with depth, would he not? This is a guy who on one hand is supposedly a great defender of children and yet he is, in fact, a pedophile. That's something a writer could really sink his/her teeth into, am I wrong? Audiences would feel involved in his story because they'd be, not only shocked, but also asking questions of "why" and "how."

I just don't think that pro screenwriters today work hard enough to incorporate interesting contradictions that would engross an audience. I just think that the next generation has to be great-thinking screenwriters capable of real depth, you know? They just walk onto the world stage, kick out the old guard, and superior stories of great beauty. And they continue to apply their master craftsmanship 'til the end of their lives and the world marvels at what they accomplished. We have not yet reached the full potential of screenwriting, not by a long shot.

Okay, I'm shutting up now.


Mystery Man said...

Speaking of Die Hard, I had a great piece on this blog about the Rules of Action

A writer from the House Next Door (whose picture was atop my Revolution post) had 3 simple tips for action films. It's just yet another example why we should be studying not only fellow screenwriters but the film scholars, too.


greg said...

Depth? Contradictions?

I thought there were good guys, bad guys and shit gets blown up. Is someone asking for more?

If we gotta go back to the 80's to find Character Depth - we must be really hard up. Or its just not that important.

Repeat after me.
Jokey - joke.
Fight more.
Blow shit up.
Blow up some more shit.
Smiles and beer all around.

who needs depth?

BTW - thanks for stopping by and bird-dropping my site...

Love yours. Just so much thinking makes my tiny brain hurt...hard to get monkey to write when thinking too hard....

Carl S said...

I agree that many action films exchange depth of character for frequency of explosions. I do think, however, that what makes one actioner rise above the rest is the author taking time to fill it with characters who are more interesting than the action itself.

This, I beleive, is where Die Hard comes in. People were rooting and cheering for McClane because they were invested in the character's success. He's a cop, but we are shown that before that, he is a family man, conflicted between following the family to California or sticking with his career in New York City. As we are shown, when he arrives at the airport in LA with a big teddy bear, he has chosen his family. The audience loves him and would probably take on the terrorists themselves to protect their protagonist.

And the supporting characters: Holly McClane is full of contradiction - she clearly loves her ex-husband but changed her name. She's in a personal struggle, too, and when she shows her true loyalty to John by putting her own well-being on the line to protect his identity, we all get behind her 100%.

The beat cop who shares a twinkie moment with McClane is a cop afraid to use his real gun, but sticks by his metaphorical guns throughout the film.

I think this kind of character crafting makes some action films really fly.

Mim said...

It's all about the underlying dramatic story. Blowing ship up is easy. Creating dramatic tension is hard.

I was going to break down Die Hard for the action genre on TS, but our dear MM got me into this study of directors. Hmmmmm. I might have to throw this one into the mix.

Thomas Rufer said...

What makes Die Hard so great and especially Alan Rickman's performance of Hans Gruber so fantastic, is just there in front of our nose:

First of all, Hans Gruber is sophisticated. He talks about suits and Time magazine articles and Alexander the Great. The audience might not know much about it but we know Hans is not some dumbass. He's staying cool while John McLane is lose.

Then he's European. An ex terrorist who has his own team and wants what he wants in a situation where you think: "how the hell is he going to manage this?". Hell yeah, you are even interested in Hans Grubers plans. He doesn't reveal everything yet.

Another cool device in this movie is the walky talky. Everybody can listen and talk to eachother and so it isn't too complicated to switch scenes. It's kinda like Terry Rossios theory of POV. We are all connected to everybody involved and it makes it more interesting. Even Richard the Reporter (William Atherton) has a backstory, he dumps his gf for a story at Nakatomi Plaza.

Hans Gruber is a great villain because he seems to take control of every situation. He making up an american accent to convince John McLance. He's not without fear, but faces it.

Die Hard and its characters are so great because everything is in place. Nothing is wasted. Every info we get... from how Sgt. Powell tells McLane what's in those cookies nowadays. It tells so much and how Gruber interrupts the conversation and how McLane says "Only my friends call me John."

Landmark action film! Because when you take away the action, you still have a movie!

Mystery Man said...

Great post, Thomas, really. I couldn't agree more.

I've added your blog to my sidebar. How about you give me a character with depth, huh?


Thanks again.


Thomas Rufer said...

Thanks. I will add your blog too. I thought about writing a character with depth. I will read the other posts and chose a character for an analysis.

Unknown said...

Another thing that makes Gruber such a fascinating antagonist is that represents McClane's deepest fears about his own inadequacies. Gruber is elegant, polished, cosmopolitan - all the qualities that seem to be valued in Holly's new world. Whereas McClane is a grubby street cop.

What an interesting thread. Enjoying reading this.

Mystery Man said...

bryan - Great comment. I love that.


Anonymous said...

Some one posted there was a Hans Gruber in a 1954 file.

There also was a Hans Gruber in Our Man Flint. Derek killed him in the bathroom fight scene.

Rex said...

Some one posted there was a Hans Gruber in a 1954 file.

There also was a Hans Gruber in Our Man Flint. Derek killed him in the bathroom fight scene.

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