Few actors in cinema right now are as distinctive and exhilarating as Franz Rogowski. Among a sea of bland leading men he has a presence wholly his own, making every new film an event just to see what he’s going to do next. He’s impossible to pin down, possessing an unpredictability from one scene to the next, and the ability to convey that there’s so much going on underneath the surface of his characters––some of which we can interpret, much of which we may never fully know. 

Being a mystery we’re not used to seeing in modern film, it’s no surprise Rogowski quickly made a name for himself working with some of our best directors, with key supporting roles in Sebastian Schipper’s one-shot wonder Victoria, and the most recent films of Michael Haneke (Happy End) and Terrence Malick (A Hidden Life). He is most known for his two starring appearances in the films of Christian Petzold, Transit and Undine, where the two’s penchant for a juxtaposition of intense lyricism made them a perfect match. 

With a past as a trained dancer, Rogowski’s physicality shines through in his work, making him perfectly suited for the quiet pacing and slow-burning emotionality of Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom. In the film, Rogowski plays Hans, a gay man living in Germany who is imprisoned multiple times over several decades due to Paragraph 175 making homosexuality illegal in the country. First going into prison straight out of a concentration camp in 1945, Hans slowly befriends fellow prisoner Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a bond we’ll see develop as the film brings Hans back into prison in 1957 and 1968. 

In our review of the film, Zhuo-Ning Su called Rogowski’s performance “note-perfect,” saying, “As Hans at different stages of his life, he acts, emotes, despairs with a subtlety that’s more about concealing than showing. And yet you can’t take your eyes off him. In a mesmerizing unselfconsciousness to everything he does, you just want to watch him be.”

I spoke to Rogowski about that very art of being, peeling back the responsibility of portraying such a historically fraught character to find his most basic, universal truths, and what he’s discovered in working with so many of the finest directors cinema has to offer. 

The Film Stage: I don’t want to start by fawning over you too much, but I’ll just say as we start here that I think you’re one of the most exciting actors working right now. Seeing your name attached to Great Freedom ensured I was going to be first in line whenever I could see it, before I even knew anything else about the film. 

Franz Rogowski: Wow, what an introduction. 

For you, what was that “no turning back” moment where you knew that you needed to be a part of telling this story? 

My first thought was that it’s a well-written script. It was not so much the relevance for the political dimension. Rather it was the fact that these characters didn’t seem to need too much of an explanation. They are not justifying their actions through a lot of words, but instead they were creating a specific physicality within those walls. There was a very slow pace to these relationships; they’re all kind of longing for the same thing but they have very different ways of doing so. I felt inspired by the pace and the atmosphere that the script created already in reading it. That’s why I tried to get in contact with Sebastian to see if we might get along well. 

You’ve been in romances before in films, but this one has a really unique arc between Hans and Viktor. It sort of goes from revulsion to respect to, eventually, love. Could you talk about developing that arc together with Georg? 

Georg is a very inspiring guy. He’s a man of great integrity. He is the kind of guy where his life practices and his ideals match. It was inspiring to see him approach the character, but also seeing him let loose and just be in that time and space. He loves snooker [Laughs] so he would always have his snooker stick with him. He hated rehearsing; he would rather rehearse the technique for his snooker shot. But he knew his lines. He’s kind of a one-shot wonder. Or one-take wonder? How do you call that? He just knows how to do it without rehearsing anything. From the start I felt like I could trust him. All the rest is a collaboration between us, the director, the screenplay, and the camera. It’s not just us who create this relationship. 

You’ve talked before about having a sense of freedom working with Sebastian, how the actors were able to have this space to move and find the characters within a scene. What was the experience like of working with Sebastian and having those tools he gave you? 

An actor always needs this freedom to move, to be able to enter the scene and do something. Beyond that, Sebastian was truly interested in our proposals––in our offers, or our interpretations. So what happened is that we really had a truthful collaboration where I could sometimes come up with an idea for the lens we might use, and he sometimes would have an idea for the acting that we did. Therefore it was very honest and easygoing, and no one had to pretend anything.

It doesn’t happen often that you really feel that way. Often you feel like everybody’s trying to be nice to each other and you’re trying to be a family, but the truth is you’re not family and you don’t know each other. In those situations it’s a lot about producing something, a lot about the results, and a lot about not having the time to try things. Sebastian’s pace is a bit like the pace of the movie—very slow and steady, like a marathon runner. At the same time he’s alert and curious and has open ears and eyes and heart. It was a pleasure to be surrounded with his energy. 

You had to shut down production due to COVID, then came back to finish later. It’s sort of an interesting parallel created between you and the character, because you established this family on set within the prison and then you’re forced to leave and be on your own for a while, only to come back later and get right back into it. How was that for you having to separate from the production and then return to it? 

I mean, diet-wise, it was very frustrating since I lost, like, 24 pounds, and then I gained 30, and then I had to lose all of it again. So that was a pretty hardcore diet over a period of six months. Besides that it was great to get out of this prison for five months and come back with a new energy. Everybody was looking forward to finishing the movie. It felt like even though everybody had other experiences over the spring and early summer months, we instantly reconnected and that felt good. It felt like we were already on a journey together and we knew each other, and it took us like half a day to be back in the mood. 

You take this character through a period of three distinct decades, and Sebastian described him thus: “In the ‘40s, he’s a broken animal who still has his dignity, then in the ‘50s he’s more of a rebel, and then in the ‘60s he’s calmed down and almost resigned in a way to what his life is.” While there are obviously physical markers that chart the development of the character over the years, how did you go beyond that to develop the internal transitioning of him over those three periods? 

Um, I must admit that the ‘40s were really based on cabbage and walnuts. [Laughs]

[Laughs] For sure.

I really do believe that I don’t know, and will never know, how it feels to have been in a concentration camp. Therefore it feels more truthful to me to leave this reality to the people that have gone through this trauma and this horror, and to rather create a physical reality in which I can experience weakness or loneliness. It was interesting how many things actually happened due to the fact that I just lost weight. I got very weak. I couldn’t climb the staircase anymore. I slept only three hours per night. I had no more libido. I really turned into a monk, and it was interesting to use this energy, to cut my hair, and to feel my body change. 

I didn’t try to play the camp survivor because I think that’s not possible. I also didn’t try to play “the gay guy.” It’s a love story, you know? I know something about love, about what it feels like to be longing for someone or for something. And I know the struggle with freedom. In a way we all know it, because freedom is such a conceptual thing. You can feel free in some weird moments, and sometimes when it seems like you’ve got it all you are not satisfied. So to look for the freedom inside these walls—or to think about what it means to find liberation within structural violence and limitation—I think these were the true explorations that I found. It was not so much based on, let’s say, the historical context of me being a camp survivor, or me being 25 and believing in the future. I was more interested in the way this person interacted with the space and other human beings.

We spend almost the entire film with you inside the walls of the prison, but of course through each of the different decades Hans is experiencing life outside those walls, living experiences good and bad, and then bringing that with him each time he comes back into the prison. Did you do any work in mapping out the things we don’t see, or was that not something you found useful for the character? 

Yeah, I didn’t do much of that. The biography remained rather vague, but we created very different energies for the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. To give you one very banal example: in the ‘40s he’s very weak. He weighs 10 kilos less. He’s only walking close to walls. He’s essentially turning into architecture often. He’s sitting on the bed or he’s standing in the frame or he’s holding a plate. He’s turning into an object and becoming a part of the prison structure, the architecture. 

In the ‘50s he’s someone that is not accepting these structures. He is more driven by concepts and ideals of spaces and societies that he’s not surrounded with. He is more some kind of rebel or a dreamer, and he’s always going beyond those walls—with the relationships and also with his body, looking through the fence. He’s behaving very differently. 

In the ‘60s I was not so much thinking about “Okay, what happened between the ‘50s and ‘60s?” It was a very conceptual approach where Hans has surrendered to the structural violence he is surrounded by, and he’s not fighting it anymore. Therefore he finds his freedom. He finds freedom in acceptance and in paying the price that needs to be paid for being in prison. He’s not trying to overcome it anymore. He’s not trying to be someone else. He is who he is, and he pays the price for being this person in Germany in the ‘60s. This gave him a very slow and steady pace that I had to follow. I just had to listen to the character. My answer is too long, I’m very sorry. [Laughs]

No, not at all! You’ve talked a bit about that idea of being true to yourself and for Hans finding freedom within prison, and something that kept coming to my mind while watching the film was the notion of love as an act of revolution, an act of protest. It’s something that he valued so much that he wouldn’t let these structures take it away from him. What is the value of love for you in your own life? 

Love, for me, is the driving force for life. Love means curiosity, somehow, like a plant growing out of a seed and looking for the light on a good day. I wake up and I’m looking for the light, and the light is relationships with people and the traces and the tracks that humans create. To be inspired by our language. Our own language, but also cinema is a language—it’s kind of a code to shape the world, to reduce it and find a condensed world that we might be able to understand a little bit easier, or that might be a little bit more accessible than the whole universe, which can be so complex and overwhelming. 

For me the concept of love is the concept of participating and witnessing things. Sometimes in good moments of acting I’m listening to the character and witnessing its reality rather than forcing myself into a concept and an idea that I have, since that’s often related to the society we live in and to capitalism. When that happens I’m trying to be an object and not an individual. I try to be like this super-great actor and to perform my lines in a perfect way. I think that’s not love. That’s the logic of the market. But when I have a good day as an actor, it’s more like channeling energy and letting it flow through you. That sounds very esoteric. [Laughs] 

It’s great; I think that’s so beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. Without getting into too many specifics, I’d like to talk about the ending of the film a bit. We see the abolishment of Paragraph 175, meaning homosexuality is now legal in Germany, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While there is, seemingly, a victory, the toll that this structural violence has taken is still very much there within the character and the country. Those reverberations are still felt today—especially as homosexuality is still illegal in many countries across the world. How do you view that complicated nature of the ending? 

I think there are many ways to read the end, and that’s what I personally like the most about it. I guess one very obvious way to see it is that, since he has surrendered to this system he lives in—and he’s surrounded by—he knows that this concept of freedom that society has created for him is smaller than the freedom he can find within himself. He has found love, and therefore he has found the universe within a relationship, and that means more to him than this sex club he visits or the fact that he can leave prison. Somehow this greater freedom allows him to go back to prison. This is a very nice or positive way of reading the end. 

One could also say that he’s traumatized and he’s gone in and out of prison so many times that this has come too late for him. He can be a part of history, but it’s for the next generation to actually live this new life. His body is full of memory and trauma from all this history before and he’s still carrying it on his shoulders. 

On a more conceptual level, I think the editing is a little bit like the walls or the frame to spaces and the moving images within the movie. One could say that the world of cinema—meaning the editing of the scenes which is quite slow and steady throughout the whole movie—opens up and therefore the character can break free, since the editing behaves differently. These walls between the different shots, they are also opening up and you end the movie with very long shots that have no more framing. I think that is also a way one could interpret the ending. 

I love the ambiguity of the ending. Looking over your career it’s clear that you’re a very director-focused actor, so I’d love to wrap up by asking you about a few of the directors you’ve worked with. Christian Petzold has really made his mark as one of the most accomplished directors of the modern era, and you’ve now had the privilege of working with him twice, on Transit and Undine. What is the specific appeal of that relationship for you? And do you hope to continue making films with him for decades to come? 

It’s true that I’m inspired by auteur cinema. I really appreciate it so much when someone is trying to find a form to talk about life, since life is too much—it’s too much of everything. You can’t really transform it into anything if you don’t find a code. I think Christian is one of those people that is interested in this code. He’s interested in cinematography and he’s interested in this magic of combining two things and somehow making it more than the sum of them. I think that’s why it’s been great for the two of us to work together. As far as I know he’s doing a new movie now, or he’s about to shoot a new movie. I’m not part of it, but I’m very curious to see it. 

For my last one: you had the opportunity to work with Terrence Malick on A Hidden Life. He’s a director everyone has such a unique experience with, and he’s obviously such a master. What was it like for you getting to be part of a Malick set? 

The great thing about Terry is that he needs five minutes, or maybe even just five seconds, to know who you are. Nobody really knows how he does it, but it’s pretty astonishing the way he talks to you on the first day and he seems like he wants you and who you are—but precisely who you are. You don’t have to become something to be good; just the way you are is great. Then he uses this color that you bring and he paints the painting with the color you are. That’s very rare. Normally it works more like: “Okay, you are red, and that’s great, but what we need is purple for now, so let’s work hard so you can be as purple-ish as possible,” and you’ll always feel a little bit like you’re pretending. 

Terry was inspiring in being so close to the people he works with. That includes all of the departments. It seems like he’s very connected with everyone and very intimate. Sometimes while the camera’s rolling he would approach you and whisper something in your ear, then leave the frame, and you would repeat what he just told you. Then you see a ray of light in a window and you just go there. You just follow the light. In A Hidden Life there’s this scene where I’m sitting in a window in prison and talking about a potential future. That whole scene was based on improv, or based on just listening to the moment. I think that’s what made it so special for me to work with him—besides the fact that I feel like we really like each other. I don’t know how real that impression is, though, since everybody I know who worked with him feels like they’re the chosen one. [Laughs] 

Great Freedom opens at Film Forum on March 4, followed by a national expansion courtesy of MUBI.

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