John Dickson: First off, Franz, welcome to Chicago.
Franz Rogowski: Thank you. I like it here. I’m impressed by the architecture. It’s quite intimidating. And of course, the Mafia. It’s an honor to be a part of the festival. It’s great to be here with both movies.
JD: I haven’t had a chance to see IN THE AISLES yet, but I saw TRANSIT and found it to be remarkable, along with your performance.
FR: That’s nice to hear. I never know, though, because everyone here has been so polite with their compliments, and so kind, so I am never quite sure.
JD: I’m quite rude, so no fakery here.
FR: That’s nice. I like rude people. I’m from Europe, as you know.
JD: (laughs) Well as I said, I saw TRANSIT and loved it. Having also seen your performance in Michael Haneke’s HAPPY END, your work remains memorable long after you’ve gone offscreen, yet your style seems closer to a simmer than a full on explosion, the opposite of a lot of acting styles nowadays. Everyone seems to be loud and showy. Performances seem to be devoid of mystery. Is this something you’re aware of, and does it influence your own approach to acting?
FR: I think you’ve asked two very interesting questions here. The one is, has my acting always been like this? And the other is if this is my acting technique. I think, one, that I have always been a person that tries to listen carefully and tries to be real or honest. It’s hard sometimes, we are totally fake and I try to act accordingly to what I feel and what happens. As an actor, you try to be in the moment, which is quite difficult when there are lights around you and all the technicians. At the end of the day, you’ve tried to be in that very moment, like we are now. That’s what I try to think about. Just imagine us, and some very weird tripods, some very weird light, and a lot of people, and we’d be as natural as we are right now. You just try to be real. That seems to create an energy that I would say is maybe less expressive. This character, Georg, in TRANSIT, is a refugee, but he’s also a drifter. Someone who doesn’t set down roots, he doesn’t leave a family or job, he’s just on his way. But he doesn’t exactly know where to go. It changes during the movie and I think that all this creates a rather introverted character.
JD: Which is what is so remarkable about him. There is so much hidden. In a city like Chicago, which embraces a very theatrical style of acting, it stands out that your character isn’t trying to be the most noticeable person in the frame, yet it’s hard to not be drawn to your performance.
FR: Yeah but you can’t always do that. In this movie, the director gives me a lot of space, so I don’t have to fight for it. He creates movies that play with different elements, different materials, and different textures. You have the music, you have the silence, you have the images, you have the acting, but I don’t have to be this main guy all on my own. Already he creates a lot of space for this character. Sometimes the best choice is to exist in the fiction and to respond to what is happening around you. I think, to embody your emotions, that is something that maybe in American movie culture is more of a tradition than the culture I come from. We don’t always show our emotions. You know what I mean? In acting there is obviously expression and style, but I think maybe Germans are a little more introverted. I don’t know.
JD: Another word I might use is “microscopic.”
JD: It puts the audience member in a position to be more intuitive, because your character and his motivations are pretty ambiguous up until a certain point.
FR: The first time we met, Christian and I, I told him, “Man, I really like your script, but I’m not going to play a refugee. I can’t be a refugee, I don’t know how they feel. I’ve never experienced anything like that. It would be arrogant and wrong if I pretend to know how that feels,” and we were both on the same page. He said, “Of course not, that would be so wrong.” Thats what so great about Georg: he’s not crying and there aren’t any Nazis going ‘Heil Hitler.’ No, he’s a guy on his path. He lives in wartime but he’s not really busy with the war, he just has to flee. He wants to leave Europe. But I don’t have to comment on that. I really like that about the movie. Also the fact that we chose characters from the 40’s, from a novel that was inspired by German history ,and combine this with today’s Marseilles, at the edge of Europe, dealing with immigration on a daily basis, I think the movie doesn’t comment on this at all. It just coexists between two worlds. We don’t show that he is a refugee. It’s more up to you to experience this reality than him showing it to you.
JD: The movie does seem to hang suspended in a very unique space and time. You’re seeing things and events from the 40’s, like TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT or CASABLANCA for example, but it’s modern and not those things at the same time.
FR: CASABLANCA is actually a very strong reference for this film.
JD: You hear it in the dialogue, the whole idea of characters seeking transit papers...it gives the movie a very unique place in time. It isn’t trying to be a strict adaptation, it’s existing in its own world, that isn’t that different from our own. It isn’t about refugees, that’s a part of it, but it has its own agenda. What was it like playing a character that was written for the 40s, but is also modern?
FR: You can’t really play it the way its written. I think we chose a language that is quite neutral. It could be from the past or it could be from today. The voiceover has, how do you say, a lyrical language? The dialogues are what they are, you can’t really connect them to the book or Marseilles as it is today. I think that’s what Christian is really interested in, figures lost in times. Ghosts. It’s something he has been working on for the last 30 years. These characters have a lot in common with ghosts.
JD: His films do take on a very ghostly, haunted atmosphere. What is it like working with him as a director?
FR: It’s great. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of cinema. He has a quote or reference for every kind of acting situation. It’s a little freaky actually, but it’s very inspiring. We would watch movies. We have movie nights on a roof terrace with a shitty projector and a white wall. For example, we would watch CASABLANCA, and he would talk about his own perspective on certain words and scenes, and what the connection is for him between other work, the work we were going to do, and this novel. He’s an intellectual. He gives you a lot of material to work with.
JD: I’m curious, do you remember what movies he showed you in preparation for TRANSIT?
FR: The truth is, and it’s one of my secrets, that I always forget (laughs). I always forget. For acting though, it’s good, because with every new movie you have to start again from zero. But yeah, I forgot basically all of the titles (laughs). It’s really bad, I really have a memory issue.
JD: You are going to be featured in the new Terrence Malick movie, RADEGUND, and I’m sure there’s only so much that you can say about it. But I am curious: as opposed to someone like Petzold, what was it like working with a filmmaker like Malick?
FR: During that time, when I was shooting with Malick, I was doing the Haneke movie. Petzold’s special approach is he would only do one take. He would rehearse in the morning, take all the time it needs, no set, no technicians, nobody. Just the actors and the director, like a very intimate theater rehearsal situation. Then we would go to costume, then make-up while the technicians would come in, build up the set, and once we would return to the set, we would do one take and that’s it. We’d do another only for technical reasons, like if something would go wrong. That’s it. Haneke, he was the mood of my summer two years ago (laughs). My mood was based on his work. His work was forty takes for one scene and sometimes also just letting you know that what you’re doing is not good enough. Then you have to figure it out yourself. The only reason that approach works is because people trust him. Like me personally, I admire his work and I think he has done some of the most amazing films I’ve seen in my life, and I’m willing to do this with him. But it is quite painful, forty takes and a guy just telling you that what you’re doing is kind of crap. So then during that shoot, when I wasn’t filming with Haneke, I would go into the mountains of Germany and meet Terry, with his cowboy hat. Totally different approach. More like an energy guide. He goes with the moment and the flow. You can see that he had all the possibilities, but his set was very intimate. We would just do 30-45 minute improv takes in a row. Me and August (Diehl), who plays the main character, we would, for example, be in a prison, where the scene was taking place. The take would be 30 minutes, and it would just be us, sitting in this cell, waiting, forever. Then maybe, after 20 minutes, a ray of light would shine through the window and Terry really liked it, and so did we. So then we’d sit in the light, and he would come to us and whisper something in your ear, and I would repeat it once he left the frame. So a totally different approach. You could say that Terry doesn’t really create scenes but spaces and atmospheres. It was an incredible experience.
JD: What sort of limits does that directing style put on you as the actor? Do you find it challenging, freeing, or both?
FR: Limitations are always freeing because total freedom, I think, is too much for a human being. You can’t really limit freedom if you don’t know where it ends, you know? Therefore, I think that the limitations are something very important. The fact that he does improv scenes doesn’t mean you do whatever you want. It requires a lot of being in the moment and listening to each other, trusting each other. It’s like hunting the beauty of little things; singing a song, listening to the silence. It’s a very different approach, but I would never say this is the best approach or only approach. I just love Terry for showing me his way of making movies, and I am very thankful we had this time together. I was only on set for two days but it felt like, “This guy really knows me, thats so weird. I trust him, and I would go wherever he needed me to go.” It’s really strange. It’s very easy, then, to understand why everyone that works with him is so happy to have worked with him. Because he gives you trust and sees you as...lets say he’s a painter…and he sees you as a certain color, but it doesn’t feel like he limits you or puts you in a box. It’s more like he shows you the beauty of your own color. Often, I feel an ‘orange’ is asked to be a ‘blue,’ and thats pretty dramatic in front of the camera and it’s really painful. I think he also wants that process. He wants to see what could happen. Then, in the end, he takes a lot of material and takes a lot of time to edit it. Nobody then knows when the premiere will be. All I know is that August, the main role, went to sound studios for over the past two years, on a weekly basis, trying out new versions, new options, new possibilities. So they’re really composing this work. One could think of it more as a composition of music, than a narrative, that you would just edit. Then with Haneke, in his head it’s done before he starts shooting. Then he and the others, that don’t have his head, try to come as close as possible to how he sees it and what he has already done. I think sometimes its very hard for him to come on a set and realize that the other people don’t fully understand his visions. So he has to accept some compromises with his own imagination and the reality, and that’s sometimes painful so he starts screaming, but he would never scream at you because you’re an idiot. He’s fighting for the beauty of art, his movie. He just wants his movie to be good and therefore it’s not personal.
JD: His movies are very exacting, like an almost cold precision of an idea.
FR: Yeah, and you can’t be so cold if you don’t love human beings, and hate them at the same time. (Laughs.) Which is great.
JD: Which seems to be the total opposite of Malick, who seems to be guiding you through, like, an acid trip or something.
FR: Yeah, I can imagine that, especially when you work with him over a period of one, two, three months. I was just jumping into two days, and it already felt like a little trip. Maybe not acid, more like a little magic mushroom from Holland.
JD: That’s where the good shrooms are?
FR: Yes, but not as good as the ones in New York.
JD: This is good to know. You’ve been asked a lot of the same questions during your press circuit, with a lot of people comparing you, at least physically, to Joaquin Phoenix or Vincent Gallo. What does that do to you as an actor? Do you not give a shit or do you find those kind of comparisons intimidating?
FR: It’s not intimidating. It’s more a compliment than anything, but I think comparison never really works. But they’re both great, and I have no problem with that. (Laughs). If people need to compare, I’m here.
JD: It seems easier for people to make a comparison.
FR: Of course. I mean, I have a cleft-lip, so then you already see the connection. (Laughs.)