Though perhaps best known to fans of global cinema through his recent collaborations with director Christian Petzold, Transit and Undine, German actor Franz Rogowski’s growing filmography already boasts an impressive breadth of projects. It’s no wonder that he’s caught the eye of filmmakers like Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke, Angela Shanelec, and Ira Sachs. From the demanding technicality of Sebastian Schipper’s one-take heist film Victoria to the quiet introversion of Thomas Stuber’s workplace drama In the Aisles, he’s demonstrated a fluency across a full spectrum of physicality and emotionality.
Rogowski reaches new heights in Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom as Hans Hoffman, a gay man intermittently imprisoned in Germany from the end of World War II until 1969, when Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality, was repealed. He’s faced with dual challenges in the role. First, given that Meise crosscuts between three decades of Hans’s time in prison, Rogowski must maintain a consistency of body and mind to ground us in Hans’s perspective. More importantly, he must explore and embody the tragic paradoxes of a character who internalizes the brute forces telling him that the way he lives and loves is impossible. Hans finds the liberation indicated in the film’s title not outside the prison walls but from within them, learning how to find and express affection within restrictive confines.
I spoke with Rogowski over Zoom shortly before the U.S. release of Great Freedom. Our conversation covered his technique for conveying interiority on screen, his process of understanding how a character reacts in each moment, and why he doesn’t feel the need to go overboard in preparing to act out unfamiliar circumstances.
From watching your performances, I’ve noticed that you seem to have two dominant modes: still solitude and spasmodic physicality. Do you see these two sides of your work as connected or two entirely separate ways of acting?
I think they’re very connected since stillness only works if there’s motion around it and vice versa. Context is what creates emotion. It feels great when you don’t have to grab it all and be this individual performing all those things that a character does. To be in a relationship with your surroundings in cinema means to be in a relationship with the sound, text, and physical action that your character is going through. I’m very happy when you see the character being somewhere between those two poles of stillness and motion.
In Great Freedom, the way you carry yourself physically and emotionally often anchors us in time and place. Knowing that you must stay somewhat within those boundaries, how did you find ways to be spontaneous or make discoveries within a take?
It’s really helpful to feel trust on set—that there’s a truthful respect for each other. In the best-case scenario, you can fail in front of one another. You can make mistakes, learn from it, and laugh about it rather than always delivering and being perfect. The other thing that helped me a lot was the limitation that we were almost always in very small prison cells. The limitation of space actually created a lot of freedom in little things you could do with the improv. Since it’s so small, everything is kind of pre-shaped. Like, you would have two steps, then you are at the bed, then you move your ass down, then you sit, then you have one motion with your head to look at the other character, then you close your face, and then you look at your hand. Somehow, you always find these little codes or choreographies of life within those scenes. They were really fun to play with. I think it’s somehow much easier and fulfilling to improvise on such a scale than to have a huge monologue in front of 200 Vikings before the war starts and then do an improv. It was kind of nice to always be trapped in these little cells.
You develop a separate physicality for each period of time that Hans spends in prison, and the film is shot in reverse chronological order. Did you begin building the character’s mannerisms up from the oldest version?
We started in the ’60s and ended in the ’40s. It was due to the fact that I had to lose weight, around 24 pounds. The idea was that I didn’t have a lot of time to lose weight over the period of shooting. The end, when we would do the ’40s with me being very thin, turned out to be the last month before Covid hit. I lost all the weight, and then I was told we have to take a five-month break. So, I gained it all again, and then some, and then had to do it one more time.
How did you delineate each of the three versions of the character?
In the ’60s we see a man who’s learned to live within the system, who surrenders to sexual violence. He’s not someone who’s dreaming anymore. But he’s also not broken anymore. He’s just someone who’s come to the understanding that he has to pay a price for the way he lives and loves. By doing so and not fighting the system, he finds freedom. It sounds a bit absurd, but that’s, I think, how it is. And in the ’50s, he’s still a rebel, full of ideals and dreams, who’s not in the moment but looking beyond those walls. He’s someone aiming for more than just the reality he’s surrounded by. And in the ’40s, we see a broken, traumatized person who’s been freed from life in the camps. Back then, being gay was a crime. Homosexuals in concentration camps were sent straight to prison. I don’t know how terrible this must have felt, but I’m pretty sure that he was a broken man in the ’40s. Therefore, we chose to create a physicality that would be a little bit closer to this exhaustion and the tiredness.
While you’ve mentioned not wanting to rediscover dance in your acting, are you able to take what you learned from controlling and moving your body in the expressionistic medium of dance into the realistic medium of cinema?
Totally. Each step along the way turns into a little dance.
Dating back to your earliest movies with Jakob Lass, you bring a softness of touch to very hardened characters. I know you’ve mentioned part of this just being the German style of introversion, which is not necessarily like America where people wear their emotions on their sleeves, but what’s the technique behind conveying this solitude?
I’m not sure that I’ve mastered this technique yet, but I think sometimes we can see people that seem to be able to protect their inner space in front of a camera, a crowd, or a stage. Sometimes we see people that really turn into products. They sell good because they’re a shaped product from the teeth to the muscles to the hair. They’re like a perfect Nike sports shoe. Others are a bit harder to understand, and they keep their secret a little bit better. I think I’m gravitating more toward those characters. I guess my technique is to just protect my private life and my own relationships and not turn it all into tradable goods. To stay a human being, that’s a big task every day. Not to waste your life on social media, not to follow mainstream thinking, not to numb your own feelings by consuming too much. Watching three movies every day isn’t good; I think it’s not healthy. It sounds very banal, but I think the best ingredients to create such a presence are to be able to deal with silence and loneliness, to be able to connect with someone truthfully, to care about things, and not just to perform interest.
When you’re playing a character like Hans who’s blocking off a part of himself, maybe because even he doesn’t understand certain parts of his feelings or his emotions, do you have to understand what the character cannot?
I don’t think I have to, but I have a tendency to decode everything and try to analyze and understand things. So, in the beginning of the preparation process, I think I’m rather brainy and conceptual. But when it comes to shooting scenes, I try to have digested all of this beforehand and come back to the simplicity of the moment, which very often is just standing somewhere, sitting somewhere, listening to someone saying something. In the best-case scenario, you can find the complexity or emotion also within the physical action. The way someone relates to space, or the way someone is opening toward someone or not. The way hearing, looking, and breathing are connected. For example, sometimes we’re fully engaged in the conversation with someone, but sometimes it’s only one sense that’s actually connecting with the other person while the others stay disconnected. I think I try to find those formulas rather than knowing everything about a character in every moment.
A recurring theme I’ve found in conversations with actors is that you do so much cerebral preparation so that it just becomes second nature, and you can just let it fall away to be natural when the cameras roll.
Yes, it depends. Sometimes people prepare for years, shoot for two months, and edit sometimes for years. So much work, and what do I do? I’m such a lousy bastard! I come on set having learned five lines, I say them, go home, and then have a drink. It can be an absurdly simple job, but that can also be its most complex challenge. Within this simplicity, you need to nail it or find the beauty. I think it really depends on the production and the character. Some characters are very close to the person you are. Some seem rather distant. And often, a part of the characters I play is also the personification of the director. It’s like the director living through my body in their own fiction. Depending on the persona and character of the director, that can also [lead to] a very diverse experience.
It’s my understanding that you shot A Hidden Life with Terrence Malick and Happy End with Michael Haneke simultaneously, and there was some whiplash between the looseness of Malick’s and the rigidity of Haneke’s. Have those contrasting experiences weighed on your own preferences or styles for performance?
As an actor, there’s always a certain lack of authorship, and we try to compensate for that by being very open. We can give a service to whoever comes along the way. And it can be rigid, or it can be open. I think part of the acting experience is to be actually very curious, to be able to adapt quickly, and to want to change your shape to a certain extent. And I think it’s not better to be free or to be very rigid. It’s always great to work with someone who has a vision, someone who’s found a language of speaking but also a toolkit of listening. The more you can trust someone because the person has those tools, the safer it feels and the more inspiring it can also be. I can tell you that within the rigid structure of Haneke, one can feel very free and happy. Also, with Terry, on a totally free afternoon in the blue hour looking just for a mood, you can feel totally trapped. It’s absurd, but every day feels very different on set.
Something I’ve noticed in your interviews is that you’re quick to note that you cannot truly know in Great Freedom what it’s like to be a prisoner, or with Transit to be a refugee. Is that part of your process: reminding yourself that you can rely on certain artistic tools to approximate or substitute for an experience but never fully replicate it?
I’m not sure if it’s the method or recipe that I will always follow, but it’s true that I have a tendency to understand a character’s inner life like an apartment. I can live in this apartment, I can use the tools, I can cook some nice food and sleep in this bed, but it’s not really my furniture! [laughs] I would never try to put my stuff into this apartment; I would never try to change my way of living because of this person’s life. Often, I find it a bit disturbing when I see actors pretending that they know how it feels like to be, I don’t know, a traumatized Jew in a concentration camp. I think the reality of our characters, in my case, are often more defined by the fact that it’s cold or that you’re looking for your son. You have very concrete physical needs and an emotional drama that you’re trapped in. But I have a tendency not to play professions or to try to embody history because I think it leads to misunderstanding. It’s better to listen to people that really know. And when it comes to creating fiction, I think I prefer that.
Four years ago, when you were riding high off the successes of Transit and In the Aisles, you said you hadn’t found your acting style yet. Do you feel any closer now?
I think I’m on the way. I’m discovering a lot of things. But, to tell you the truth, with each answer I find, I have two more questions. I’ve come to an understanding of myself to a degree where I know that not knowing is okay. And, also, I can accept the people observing me from outside. They can see things that I maybe have a hard time seeing in myself. I have a tendency to always see the problem when I see myself doing a character. I feel like, “Oh my God, this is the last movie. This is the end. No more offers.” I’m very thankful, and it’s also probably healthy for me also to be judged by other people than myself when it comes to my acting.
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