Shining Star of the German Cinema: Franz Rogowski

During the 54th Chicago International Film Festival, we had the opportunity to chat with Franz Rogowski, the star of Transit by Christian Petzold, as well as the upcoming film In den Gängen / In the Aisles.

Interview by Emre Eminoğlu – Illustration by Nazlı Karaturna

Probably, you first noticed him in the breathtaking Victoria (2015). Then maybe, you thought you saw a familiar face when you came across a hidden gem of German cinema on Netflix, called Love Steaks (2013) or when you met the weirdest character of the weirdest Michael Haneke film, Happy End (2017). With his distinctive -and somehow intimidating- face and his speech with a slight lisp, Franz Rogowski not only appeared in two films in the main competition in Berlinale, but also became one of the recipients of the Shooting Stars Award and proved that he deserved to be called a star.

Franz Rogowski portrays a refugee arriving in France while escaping the Nazi regime in Christian Petzold’s brilliant adaptation Transit; and a blue-collar worker starting to work in the warehouse of a gross-market in Thomas Stuber’s In den Gängen / In the Aisles that sincerely depicts the world of the working class. He visited Chicago to present both these films last month and when we met to talk about his career and films, I found the chance to know the timid person behind that intimidating face. We jumped from his dance career to Victoria’s production, from the refugee crisis to Malick’s working routine and at one point in our conversation he admits, unnecessarily embarrassed, that he is not familiar with Turkish cinema and described himself with these words: “I am a typical actor, very ignorant but self-aware, always working on his body but laying on his couch like Bojack Horseman.”

Newbie, new guy, outcast, problem-maker of the family, illegal refugee… We have seen you as a very diverse range of characters but they all had this ‘outsider’ or ‘ ‘outlier’ vibe. Do you think these characters keep coming your way intentionally or is it a coincidence?
At the end of the day, this might be a philosophical question. I don’t know what the future will bring so I just look for good movies and good scripts. Personally, I don’t think it is a coincidence but there might be something in my appearance that makes me be that guy or makes me get these offers. [Laughs] I’m not looking for a certain type of characters; I’m looking for scripts that I find inspiring and directors that do great movies.

Have you ever felt like those characters in your personal or professional life?
Yes, very often. I’m already defected; I don’t really like groups and I don’t like loud spaces – that already makes me an outsider. Most of the places are just too much for me. I cannot really stand parties or loud bars, so I’m kind of an ‘outsider’.

You have the background of being a dancer. What advantages do you think this gives you as an actor? And I’m not specifically talking about how you ruled that Chandelier choreography in Happy End.
[Laughs] It might help to know your body because you need to be in the moment when you act. Training of a contemporary dancer is based on a lot of being in time and space exercises where you would just breathe, just stand or just work on your posture instead of working on a triple pirouette in a classical style. So, I think the dance background I come from helps a lot presence-vice, to just be there, be there in the moment and interact with the reality that is surrounding you. And I think that is something I learned while I was a dancer and I use it today for acting.

Let me continue with Victoria because it was like a long choreography. It was a thrilling experience watching a single-take film. Was it horribly hard to handle that?
Yes, we were totally scared and nervous. We had three takes to do this entire movie. We were of course shooting before to try out things. We had 10 nights where we would always do one scene of the movie. So we went through everything but then to really do this movie in one shot, one take, we had 3 nights. The first night was OK and Sebastian (Schipper) told us that was good, that we did everything the way we were supposed to. But now we had to go one step further like we were not supposed to do those things but like we needed to do them. The next day we tried even harder but somehow it was really bad. So the last take was our one and only chance to do this movie in a one take. We did not sleep for a couple of nights, not because we worked but we were just so nervous. Nothing helped, we could cry as much as we wanted but the shoot, that one take would come and we did it. And it worked out. But I mean, I cannot recommend this kind of experiment. [Laughs]

You have two films in Chicago International Film Festival. First one, Transit… I think it is a perfect modernization and a clever adaptation. It has both the connections to the period that the original story is set and to the contemporary times. How did this atmosphere, this timelessness affected you as an actor on set?
You cannot play two times at the same moment. I mean, it was meant to be that way because Christian (Petzold) is a lot into ghosts, he loves ghosts. Ghost figures lost in time that he would put into his stories and navigate them and I think as a refugee you are some sort of ghost. You leave your identity behind, you try to get a new one on the way to arrive somewhere else, build up a new home. I think as an actor you can break it down to the very moment that you are in. But like I told Christian at the beginning, you cannot, I cannot embody a refugee. I cannot be a refugee. I don’t know how it feels like… How could I dare to pretend to be a refugee? I can be a person and we can create a world that he is a refugee. And we were on the same page with that, so I knew what we would do and I knew what I would have to embody and what I don’t have to embody. Yes, there were two times that are coexisting in the moment, but I did not have to play that. I had a costume, my character, my fictional persona was based on a person from the 1930s and the city and the surroundings that character lived in were from 2017. That already created a duality of time and I just had to play my thing.

Considering the political tendencies and everyday news, does this scenario seems relatable for you? Is it more of a fictional dystopia or a terrible-possibility that may come true?
I think that I don’t know enough to really say something about the future like a precise forecast, it’s probably too much. But I’m sure that we have to fight for our democratic values and that we are ready to share some of the money we made on the shoulders of others. I think somehow these movements towards Europe today might also be a consequence of capitalism and destabilization of other nations through our own imperialism in the past couple of centuries. So I think it is good that we are raising the awareness for the immigration and the refugees. Also there is this fact that we have been refugees ourselves 80 years ago, not so long ago. People say in the future, like in 100 years Asia will take over and Europeans will try to get freed from their poor continent. I don’t know if this is going to happen but I’m hundred percent positive on the fact that we have to be aware. We have to be aware of our values and about the fact that we need to reach out for each other instead of isolating each other and creating borders.

Do you think a European or an US citizen and a refugee would read and interpret Transit differently?
I think the biggest difference is from person to person, based on their imagination and their personal state of mind, their taste; some people will be touched, some people will think “Oh my God, this is so bad! Nothing happens.” or some people will like the calmness of this Berliner Schule movie while others will need more action or humor. Of course the Germans, they have a special awareness for the matter because… You know, our grandparents, they were actually Nazis or they were not doing anything about it, – some were, but most of them were not. And then the generation of our parents had to carry on all that guilt. Now, we may be the first generation that does not feel so guilty anymore but still we are very careful about nationalism and everything that it can do to a society. It might be possible that Germans feel maybe a little bit more responsible of this story because it is based on an escape from Germany, out of Germany, because of the German Nazis.

Your other film in the festival is In den Gängen / In the Aisles; it is about this newcomer, a blue-collar worker in this gross-market. In the film we see how he adapts to the routine of a workplace and shapes their life around that monotony. Even their rebellious acts are predictable or scheduled. Do you personally enjoy routine or try to always avoid it?
I think I am looking for the mixture. I think I might be more structured than I thought I am, I am realizing this now. I actually need structures and I like repetition but we all know that there is this moment when you just have to disappear, go in the nature… I wouldn’t say I could live without structures and I couldn’t live without freedom. But I think my personal freedom needs a limitation – a total freedom would be too much for me.

What was interesting about preparing for that role?
I really got a forklift driving licence, bumped in a lot of palettes of beer and I almost crashed a huge shelf with tons of liquor on my first day! It was great working with Peter (Kurth) and Sandra (Hüller), amazing actors. And I had a very good connection with Thomas Stuber, the director. He is a man of a few words, a bit like the character – and me too. So we would often stand next to each other on cigarette breaks, no chatting no talking… And after five minutes of complete silence he would turn his head and say “Shall we? Yeah.” It is a great way to communicate, six weeks of these “Shall we? Yeah.”, “Good morning. Yeah.”s. And Peter, the other main actor, the father figure in the film… He is an expert on East German humor. He would say in the mornings “Oh no, you again!” and “Go away!” or he would tell me “Hit the road jerk!” – it meant actually “Good morning my dear, how are you doing today?”. It is very rough, this East German humor and he is a very kind man.

Your upcoming film, Radegund is by Terrence Malick. What was unique about working with him?
He is a shaman! Instead of creating a scene, he creates a space. And instead of serving the narrative, he makes music, I think. That 30 minutes improv-takes where everything can happen and nothing has to happen… They create a huge responsibility for you as an actor but at the same time it is a joyful freedom and research. I mean, how long can you sit in a room while the camera is running and you are not doing anything? In fact, it is not true that you are not doing anything. You are listening, you are breathing, you are maybe exchanging looks with your partner and after that, I don’t know, maybe 10 minutes later a bird passes by, you see the bird and start singing a song about birds. He was open for that kind of improvisation, it’s amazing.

He is famous with taking his time editing and even cutting an actor completely out of his films. Do you have any concerns about the final cut?
In the film, August Diehl plays the main character, and he meets these characters on his way, including me. I was there only for two days and I’m really aware of the fact that [Malick] had 20 rolls of that kind. And if he takes me… [Thinking with some signs of worry] I don’t mind… I was there, I was working with them and it was nice. I had great time and it will always stay with me. And it’s not necessary that I’m in the movie. But I think I am.

What are you working on now?
I have four different projects for next year and I’m figuring out how to combine all these countries, work and schedules. And I’m working on door frames in Vienna. I’m renovating some door frames; it is quite an exhausting work but it is very satisfying. Getting rid of the old lack and repaint them… Restoration is really a healing work to do. And I think for this year, I won’t shoot anymore. I will spend time with my family, and then it is Christmas! There is always stuff to do, like now, we are promoting our movies. Which is great, being on the festival is great.  

I was just going to ask about that; Transit premiered in Berlin in February, it went around the world, including my hometown Istanbul, and now we are having this conversation in Chicago in October. Do you ever feel overwhelmed or tired of talking about the same film or the same character again and again for a year?
Yes, sometimes you feel like a robot but then you find your spirit and your source again. [Laughs] You know, I shot a movie for three months for the period in-between in Italy so I don’t feel that I am only doing this promotion tours for whole six months. There was a lot in February which was amazing. Being in two films in the Berlinale competition and winning Shooting Star Award and also the Deutsche Film Prize*. So, many incredible things happened then I just went to another world. I was playing an evil character int he south of Italy** and now I’m in the world of Transit again, but just for 7 days. And I’m actually reading Christian’s (Petzold) new script right now, he sent it last night.

Well, we will be delighted to see you in his new film! Thank you very much.

*Best Actor, In den Gängen / In the Aisles
** Freaks Out, by Gabriele Mainetti, is in post-production and will tell the story of three brothers working in Rome during  World War II.