By the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the title characters have hit a dead end in their quest to find the source of a new variation on the Captain America super serum. In desperation, Bucky Barnes suggests to Sam Wilson that they pay a visit to Helmut Zemo, the Sokovian villain from Captain America: Civil War responsible for nearly destroying the Avengers from within. (For Zemo’s crimes, which included bombing a U.N. meeting and killing the king of Wakanda, he’s rotting away in a high-security German prison.) Unbeknownst to Sam, Bucky’s plan includes springing the villain free—and so begins the first episode of The Helmut Zemo Show.
From revealing that he’s basically Europe’s version of Bruce Wayne to showing off his impeccable coat game to breaking out some iconically awkward dance moves, Zemo’s first real appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is so quirky and charming that it’s easy to forget he’s someone who’ll no doubt betray Sam and Bucky at the earliest opportunity. By the end of the episode, he’s killed a scientist in cold blood and put Sam and Bucky in the crosshairs of the Dora Milaje, but it doesn’t even matter: He’s just that magnetic.
That Zemo can believably go from a yearslong prison stint to swaggering through Madripoor is perhaps owed to Daniel Brühl, the person who plays him. In a cinematic universe composed of countless A-listers, it’s easy for someone like Brühl to fly under the radar—especially considering he’s playing the rare Marvel villain with no powers who must get by on his keen intellect alone. It’s a fitting scenario for Brühl to find himself in, as he’s spent much of his acting career delivering performances that go overlooked because of the bigger (super)stars around him. But perhaps a scene-stealing turn in a buzzy Marvel television series is just what a mainstream audience needs to finally recognize the actor’s many talents.
Born in Barcelona to a Brazilian German father and a Spanish mother and raised in Germany, Brühl is a legit polyglot, capable of fluently speaking English, Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese. That ability has allowed Brühl to embody characters of several nationalities on-screen, from German (Inglourious Basterds, Good Bye, Lenin!, The Fifth Estate) to Polish (Ladies in Lavender) to Catalan (Salvador) to Austrian (Rush, Woman in Gold) to French (2 Days in Paris) to, well, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Sokovian (Civil War, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). But the actor’s versatility extends far beyond linguistics—he can convey intellect, charm, and deviousness in such an authentic way that you want to root for him, even when he’s not playing likable figures.
While it was a supporting turn in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds that gave Brühl his biggest exposure to American audiences, the actor first broke through in Germany six years prior. In the 2003 tragicomedy Good Bye, Lenin!, Brühl plays a young East German man named Alex, whose proudly socialist mother falls into a coma in 1989 when she spots him getting arrested at an anti-government rally. When she wakes up eight months later, the Berlin Wall has fallen, a fact Alex tries to shield from her in the event that the shock could literally prove fatal. (Alex’s ploys include fake news telecasts and repackaging food from the outside world into old East German jars.) As Alex, Brühl walks a fine line between the absurdity of the situation and the pathos of being in a futile scenario he feels guilty of causing. The nuanced performance earned Brühl a European Film Award for Best Actor, the sort of distinction that can elevate an actor’s platform beyond their homeland.
Though Brühl made an appearance in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum as the brother of Jason Bourne’s assassinated girlfriend Marie Helena Kreutz, Inglourious Basterds truly announced his arrival stateside. Playing Fredrick Zoller, a German sniper whose exploits on the battlefield are turned into a Nazi propaganda film in which he also stars, Brühl brings a similar energy to that of Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning turn as Hans Landa, in that his character’s social niceties—good etiquette, apparent humility, acting gentlemanly to the secretly Jewish theater owner he’s interested in—belie a menacing nature. (Not that it’s intended to be much of a surprise: Zoller is a Nazi, after all.) In his character’s attempts to seduce the theater owner, Shosanna, Brühl’s innate charm quickly turns into something much more sinister as each of his advances are rejected. Brühl plays Zoller as someone who views himself as a prototypical “nice guy” who never hears the word “no”; that entitlement is only emboldened by his status as a war hero. As in any Tarantino film, Zoller’s comeuppance is swift and gruesome.
After receiving accolades playing such a good-hearted protagonist in Good Bye, Lenin!, Inglourious Basterds was a window into the darker roles that Brühl could inhabit. In 2013, he continued that thread as James Hunt’s Formula One rival Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s gripping biopic Rush. Whereas Chris Hemsworth gets to indulge in portraying a reckless and charismatic playboy, Brühl has the less flashy but arguably more meaningful role. It’s Lauda’s arc—from his infamous horrific crash during the 1976 F1 season to his dramatic return to the circuit some six weeks later—that gives Rush its emotional stakes, and Brühl plays the remarkably challenging journey with gravitas. It’s an impressive, against-type feat for an actor who’d made a habit of playing winsome characters, and the performance didn’t go unnoticed: Brühl garnered Best Supporting Actor nominations from the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes.
By 2018, Brühl was able to parlay those high-profile roles in Inglourious Basterds, Rush, and Civil War into a starring vehicle on television. Looking to capitalize on the buzzy wave of prestige crime dramas, TNT’s The Alienist combines the macabre sensibilities of Mindhunter and Hannibal—if both shows were transported to New York’s Gilded Age. Brühl plays Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the series’ titular alienist—an outdated term for a psychologist—hoping to build a psychological profile for what we now understand to be a serial killer. His lead performance on the series falls neatly into the Brooding Prestige Drama wheelhouse, with Kreizler treading through late-1800s New York resentful of the prejudices associated with his profession at the time. In scenes when his methods are questioned, Brühl conveys an understated arrogance, evoking a sense that Kreizler was a man born decades ahead of his time. But to his credit, Brühl never allows his character’s stubbornness and machismo to feel overexaggerated, an easy trap in prestige-inclined crime dramas. Most importantly, Brühl proves himself to be just as capable of helming a crime series as prominent A-listers on more traditional prestige networks. As undeniably entertaining as Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle ended up being, he resonates largely as a vehicle for memes when held up to a more authentic figure like Brühl’s Kreizler.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier probably won’t lead to any long-overdue accolades, but in Brühl’s second stint in the MCU, the actor is already leaving a memorable footprint. After being overshadowed by all the superpowered infighting in Civil War, Zemo and Brühl are thriving on the comparatively smaller stage of the Disney+ series. If there’s one thing Marvel fans can agree on about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at its midway point, it’s that Helmut Zemo is stealing the show from Sam and Bucky. Time will tell whether Brühl gets as much of an opportunity to flex his muscles (and those sick dance moves) in the back half of the season, but it’s fitting that the actor is doing his Marvel character proud. After all, other than his fancy coat, what could Zemo love more than popping up in an Avengers team-up series and swiftly stealing the spotlight from under them?