German character actor Christian Berkel excelled at portrayals of aggressive, ominous figures time and again, an ability accentuated by his bald head and gaunt, slightly menacing countenance. These qualities made him particularly effective in portrayals of military personnel, police, Gestapo officers, and other similar figures, though these did not limit him. A native of Berlin, Berkel studied at the German Film and Television Academy in his hometown, and debuted onscreen in the late '70s, landing one of his first major roles in the legendary Ingmar Bergman's poorly received drama The Serpent's Egg (as a student in 1920s Germany during the Nazi regime). Over the following 25 years, Berkel maintained a prolific output in countless German productions, such as the 1989 miniseries Der Bastard, the small-screen series Derrick (in the early '90s), and the feature Vater und Tochter (2000). Three major roles in subsequent years helped Berkel begin to break through to international acclaim: that of a prisoner subjected to a hellish psychological experiment in the thriller Das Experiment (2001), the heinous Nazi medical torturer Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck in the Hitler biopic Downfall/Die Untergang (2004) (both films with director Oliver Hirschbiegel), and a turn as Nazi officer Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim in the Tom Cruise-produced World War II thriller Valkyrie.