Oft imitated, never replicated: Hans Gruber of Die Hard is the consummate action movie antagonist. Many might say he is one of the best villains of all time. He has it all: culturally competent, refined, and coolly unafraid of using ruthless force.
Frequently listed among the best ‘80s movies, one of the most important things the iconic action film gave us was the late and beloved actor, Alan Rickman. Hans Gruber was Rickman’s first role in the film industry, and he took it on with such style and finesse that audiences are still awed by it decades later.
Costars and film personnel unanimously agreed Rickman was a delight to work with, starting a long-running trend of delightful Alan Rickman stories.
Rickman took an active role in developing Hans Gruber’s character, which made for many interesting stories about his experience behind the scenes of Die Hard. A lot went into Hans Gruber’s rise and inevitable fall, and Rickman was a big part of how the character came to life.
In the film’s intense climax, Hans Gruber falls 30 stories in dramatic slow motion with a desperate, wide-eyed gaze. It is one of the most memorable moments of the series, but few know Rickman's unnerving leer was entirely authentic and unprompted.
In a time before CGI, there was no choice but to use practical effects, requiring Rickman to fall backwards from 20 feet up onto a pillow. This is a frightening task for even a trained stunt performer, as falling backwards is reflexively terrifying for all humans.
Visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund commented, "When Alan falls away from the lens, that's true terror you see in his face. He's really scared of falling backwards, as anybody would be, even though it was going to be a nice soft blue pillow filled with air below."
While Rickman's wild facial contortions give the scene grit and drama, Hans Gruber's grisly end is especially impactful because of the extremely high fidelity of the shot. It’s one of the most technically advanced elements of the film, and it required a high-speed rate - 270 frames per second.
While filming was going on, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund engineered a motorized electronic encoder system that was able to follow Rickman all the way down and capture the shift in focus. Edlund elaborated on this process:
The operator was looking through a [scope], which had a little red laser dot in the center of the eyepiece... He was following Rickman's face as the actor fell away from camera. At the same time, the encoder was sending data back to a computer, which then crunched the information instantaneously and sent it back to the motor on the focus ring on the lens.
A classically trained stage actor such as Rickman was not a clear candidate for such a pulpy and macho film. Though he was well-established onstage across the pond, Hans Gruber was Rickman’s breakout film role, and he was initially averse to taking it.
After reading the script, Rickman said, "What the hell is this? I'm not doing an action movie." His agents pushed back, convincing him it might be a good career move. He ultimately decided to go with the role, but only after he was allowed to add his own personal flair to the character.
Despite Rickman’s apprehensions, the movie certainly flourished due to how he played Hans Gruber.
Hans Gruber is an unusual action movie villain, too multilayered to be easily categorized. His motives seem simple at first - money above all else - but there is a curious sense of detachment, a nihilism that guides him through the chaos of his heist and his ultimate demise.
Much of the success behind the Hans Gruber character can be attributed to Rickman's acting choices. Rickman asserts he was not "playing the villain, [he was] just playing somebody who wants certain things in life, has made certain choices, and goes after them."
The sum of these desires and choices is displayed in Rickman's smarmy affectation, and a voice which he describes as "coming out the back end of a drainpipe".