Discussing his work and himself after the release of Passages, Franz Rogowski talks about the traps of selves both real and performed
At the end of Ira Sachs’ 2023 film Passages, the protagonist, Tomas, played by the German actor Franz Rogowski, endures two brutal, entirely deserved rejections by both his soon-to-be-ex-husband, Martin, and his estranged lover, Agathe. Bereft, on his knees, wearing a ridiculous outfit, he is hunched and suffering in the hallway of the grade school where Agathe works — he has interrupted her class to make his doomed entreaty – when a brusque employee shoos him away. His response is to get on his beat-up vintage racing bike and go. The final shots of the film show Tomas riding, skillfully but recklessly, with the energetic physical control Rogowski brings to pretty much every part he plays, through the streets and sidewalks of Paris. Maybe there are tears glistening in his eyes, but he is also free.
This was how, more or less, Rogowski would show up to meetings with Sachs during the making of the film. “He would always arrive out of breath on a bike, like, jumping a curb,” Sachs told me. “It inspired me to rewrite the end of the film with Franz as the kamikaze bike rider that he is.”
It’s a recognisable Berlin type, the beautiful man speeding past on a lithe French bike, and indeed I’d felt lucky when I saw Rogowski in that role once a few years ago, darting around a corner in Kreuzberg. So I was surprised when he rolled up to our breakfast on one of those weird little folding bikes, in startup blue, and a helmet. “German engineering,” he said. He was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans cuffed for the bike. “I’m getting old, and I have a bit of a back problem, and this has suspension in the back. I’m experimenting a bit with different kinds of exercises – some are dangerous, some are necessary.”
“It’s interesting,” he continued, “even sex can cause pain. Like, you need to find the right position. And to a certain extent, it feels ridiculous to be saying those things when you’re 37. But I guess that’s when it starts.”
The other dangerous exercise is rock climbing, but even without it, it’s not hard to imagine how Rogowski developed a back problem. A former dancer and theatre actor who was kicked out of Swiss clown school after leaving traditional school at 16, he has become, over the last several years, both a beloved star of European arthouse cinema and, according to the New York Times, an “unlikely sex symbol” for the sickening combination of his shy, sensitive face and thrilling physical intelligence. He is also, simply, one of the best actors working today, and so not to be trusted. But this is why we love actors: most people are not to be trusted, but actors are explicit about it. After an hour together I determined the random comment about sex made within the first five minutes of our interview was less an indication of put-on naughtiness and more a misguided attempt at acknowledging this uncomfortable situation. His background as a dancer is obvious in the graceful movements of his thick forearms and bouldered hands, but he is otherwise tentative and tense. He slumps, his shoulders rounded; he is so compact that he seems small, though he is not. When we met, he spoke with his head tilted to one side, bad for the back again, and focused his gaze almost exclusively at some point to my right.
He is often cast as a man complicatedly in love, thwarted by identity and circumstance. In Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018), he plays a refugee in a contemporary version of occupied France who begins posing as a dead writer in the hopes of getting passage on a ship to flee the Continent; when he meets the dead writer’s wife, who has come to Marseille to search for her husband, unaware that he has died, he falls in love with her, and struggles to tell her that the missed connections she believes she’d had with her husband have been with him – he’s been using the dead writer’s documents at the consulates where she’s been searching for him. In Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles (2018), he is a forklift operator at a supermarket who falls for the married woman in charge of confectionery; he has a dark past, and she a dark present. In Petzold’s Undine (2020), his lover is a water nymph who can only live on land if she is in love with a mortal man, but if that man ever betrays her, she must kill him; Rogowski’s character, Christoph, shows up when this fate has already been set in motion, and he becomes caught up in the myth. In Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom (2021), he is a gay man repeatedly imprisoned under Germany’s Paragraph 175, which criminalised sex between men in the country until an age of consent was established in 1969; the story spans more than 20 years, and twice his lovers end up in prison with him, though the most moving of the film’s several crushing narrative arcs is his romantic friendship with a convicted murderer and drug addict.
What unites these star turns with Rogowski’s smaller roles is a sense of complete openness; he is always going for it, emotionally and physically, as if he has considered no alternative. Sachs says he first knew he wanted to work with Rogowski when he saw Michael Haneke’s 2017 film Happy End, in which Rogowski plays a supporting role as Pierre, the moody, alcoholic son of a wealthy family. At one point in the middle of the film, Pierre appears on a karaoke stage, with the neon lyrics to Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ projected onto his torso. He follows them theatrically, and then he begins to vogue, and kick, and fling his arms into the air. His amateur singing voice transforms into grunts as his effort intensifies. He cartwheels one-handed, still holding the microphone. He does a handstand, balances his feet on the low ceiling, and sings a few bars upside down. He does several more cartwheels, pushes himself up from the ground into another handstand position, does pushups in the handstand, and rolls around on the floor. The audience, seen in the reflection of the mirror at the back of the stage, offers restrained encouragement; they can’t believe him. And then, suddenly, he stops. He’s hurt himself, or he’s going to be sick, or he’s realised he’s too drunk to be doing this. His entire body becomes tense with some kind of pain, and the audience grows quiet and concerned before he slowly crawls to the wall and pulls himself up.
In Passages, the obstacle to his character’s romantic prosperity is not society, or fate, but his own attention span. A mercurial director dissatisfied in his marriage to Martin (Ben Whishaw), Tomas meets Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at the wrap party for his new film and self-consciously dances, with that shy, sensitive face, into bed with her. The rest of the film observes Tomas following his conflicting desires, back and forth between them. He appears alternately strong and bird-chested, ripped and exposed, depending on whom he is trying to convince to stay with him despite their better judgment; his timing is often very funny. Reviewers have called the character “toxic”, manipulative, and a narcissist, even as they acknowledge how compelling he is. We agreed these terms are reductive. “He desperately wants to build and to relate,” Rogowski said, “but he’s very unstable, especially when it comes to relating to himself and knowing who he is. He’s highly dependent on feedback – emotional feedback, also cultural feedback, as an artist. So that’s why I think to a certain extent, he’s innocent.”
If the film’s final scene, on the bike, is inspired by Sachs’ actual relationship with Rogowski, the rest of the film is inspired by an imagined version of the actor. Sachs wrote the role of Tomas with Rogowski in mind, which means Sachs used an idea of Rogowski he’d gotten from his other roles to make a new character out of him. Rogowski was intimidated. “When you hear this line, you know, okay, I will disappoint that person,” he said. “I can’t possibly be who he thinks I am. And that’s something that happens more and more. The more people know you or think to know you, the more scary it can become to meet people in real life.” In this case, divergence from the character might not be so disappointing. Still, Rogowski says he puts “a lot of effort” into answering the question of who he is; he has developed a Profilneurose, a colloquial term for “when you’re kind of neurotic about your social profile”, seeking constant validation. “I don’t feel good about myself unless I create some kind of relationship with something other than me,” he said. “If I just exist, I feel like I shouldn’t.”
Surely this is true, to greater or lesser degrees, of everyone; we all want, as Rogowski does, to “be free”, but we need other people as much as they get in our way. From that perspective, starring in a film like Passages must have been especially tantalising, or disorienting. The film allows Tomas to seek the feedback he wants whimsically, without apparent fear of consequence, as if Sachs has translated the unbridled performances Rogowski delivers as an actor into a mode of relating to others.
The film also avoids the constrained approach to questions of identity that its marketing suggested it might represent. “I slept with a woman last night,” Tomas says in the trailer, implying the film will feature conflict around Tomas’s sexuality; it does not, which creates a sense of momentum and possibility uncommon in contemporary anglophone cinema, even as many discussions of the film can’t help but touch on this untapped drama. “Cinema often tries to create a simplified version of life,” Rogowski said, “and maybe, therefore, we expect a queer movie to somehow also come up with some answers to all those nowadays quite complicated boxes and labels that were created around sexuality. I’m happy that the movie doesn’t really answer those questions.”
Because I’m not really a journalist, I am not bound to ask the prurient questions many other journalists have asked, or implied, about Rogowski’s love life and sexuality, to which he tends to respond with some expression of the evolved and conveniently evasive position that gender and sexuality are fluid, and categories like “man” and “woman” and “gay” and “straight” are limiting. An issue of theory versus practice. “The real division is not, you know, are you gay? Are you queer?” he told me. “The real division is, are you working class? Are you upper class? Where do you belong? I think more and more, there’s this little bubble of people that belong to the big capitals of the world, and they can move, and they’re free. And the rest have been pushed to the outskirts.” What journalists really want to ask, I suspect, is: would he sleep with me?
If we ask too much of actors – if we overstep with them, project onto them, want too badly to try our hand with them – it is because the actor can be what others cannot: someone else. He represents the fantasy that the roles we play in our public lives might not have to reflect, or affect, who we “really” are; in playing constant characters, the actor supports the comforting illusion that character is fixed, that there is a stable relationship between one’s public persona and private life. Off-screen, this responsibility is probably a burden; they are not who they play onscreen, but they also kind of are, if not before the role, then after.
Rogowski mentioned a hypothetical situation in which he might direct something, and I asked if he wanted to direct. “Every actor wants to be something else,” he said. “There’s a lack of authorship and a lot of pretending. And it kind of makes sense – the emptier you are, the more somebody else can fill you with something. And you’ll just be very, you know, happily pulling the plow because you’ve been standing around screaming, ‘I’m a horse! I’m a horse! Give me work!’” (He joke-screamed this part.) “But it’s not really yours – you’re an interpreter, you’re a vase to be filled with water or whatever. And I do feel this tension. I think I’m where I belong for now. But I hope I will grow into something that is not so dependent on others, to make circumstances to create.”
He was holding, motionless, a piece of bread for the duration of this monologue. “Do you feel empty?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m very much ADHD. My inner melody is like” – here he shook his head very fast and made a cartoonish noise to indicate craziness – “a terrible noise. Somewhere in between euphoria and depression.”
In Passages, Tomas’s wardrobe consists of flamboyantly androgynous and somehow sexily ill-fitting clothes that look borrowed from a girlfriend or found on the street: the famous mesh crop top becomes a sight gag; the loose-knit sweaters under which he wears nothing; the snakeskin jacket that’s a little too tight; the ratty brown teddy coat a little too big; the leopard-print pants that have lost their shape, and might have been designed for someone a bit taller. A person who dresses like this just puts on whatever he feels like wearing that day – with no forethought and little worry about appropriateness or convention. “He’s defying social norms, in a way that is both wonderful and uncomfortable,” Sachs said of Tomas. The character has a childish impulsivity and lack of concern for others that is the dark side of his dazzling outfits. Even when he dresses less obtrusively, his immaturity shows; at a holiday party, his belt, pulled too tight, is revealed to have ridden up, creating a small gap above his waistband.
Rogowski’s soulfulness invites tenderness, maybe even patronising, but his body is made for these confrontational clothes. He was allowed to keep some of his wardrobe after production was completed, and indeed both the character and his outfits seem to belong in Berlin, where everyone is trying out new identities at the bars and clubs, for better or worse, even past Rogowski’s age. In his 20s, Rogowski said, he did something similar – went to bars, to Berghain, trying “to find my chances – someone that would somehow take my hand.” Now, though, he says he has five or 10 friends and rarely goes out – not to bars, or parties, or concerts, or even to the cinema. When I asked where he wears the fabulous outfits from Passages, about which he’d expressed excitement in other interviews, he told me he just wears them at home.
“I’ve chosen to be in front of the camera, but the real me is actually somebody who loves to observe,” he said. “And a part of me also just wants to dissolve, you know, in a cloud of ketamine on an orgy and have it all at once.” (Ketamine has a dissociative effect that sometimes allows a person to imagine they can see themselves from the outside, among other things.) “But they’re different voices in your soul,” he continued, “and I guess one of the voices in me tells me that I don’t deserve to celebrate and to wear extroverted stuff. I have to earn it. And I haven’t earned it yet. Which I know is a silly and stupid, very German way of thinking, but I can only do it in a movie, or on a certain occasion that creates the circumstances. But when I’m out here in real life, I… I don’t know. I try to hide. I try to be on the bike as fast as I can, so I’m already gone before you see me.” This doesn’t sound like freedom. But that’s why I trusted it.
Photography Suffo Moncloa
Styling Mitchell Belk
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This article is taken from Port issue 33. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here