German actor Franz Rogowski, for some years, is being hailed as “an emerging international star”. After his captivating portrayal of a gay man, who is repeatedly imprisoned for his sexuality, in the widely-acclaimed Great Freedom, the 36-year-old has now cemented his reputation as an exceptional artiste.
When Sebastian Meise-directed Great Freedom won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes Film Festival last year, it was undeniable that Rogowski had delivered an outstanding performance as Hans, who would follow his heart even at the risk of facing imprisonment. “I knew from the beginning that we had picked a topic that’s relevant around the globe,” he says, adding that he finds it appealing when a filmmaker has a vision that’s not determined by market needs. Great Freedom is streaming on MUBI.
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Playing Hans required Rogowski to go through grueling physical and mental preparation. Hans faces multiple jail terms under Paragraph 175, which criminalised homosexuality in Germany and was finally abolished in 1994. “People were scared of homosexuality not only because they were conservative but also because it was illegal,” he says. To delve into the character, Rogowski tried to be the person who is “looking for love and intimacy” as he could relate to these emotions.
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He says, “When I approach a character who is different from me in terms of age, cultural background and upbringing, I try to understand what might be his motivation and how he would behave in a certain situation apart from working on his physicality.” In Great Freedom, he adopts different looks for his character as the story is told over the decades. He decided to lose 24 pounds to shoot the portion when Hans is sent to prison after being freed from the concentration camp by the Allies. “I slept little and was very weak during this period,” the actor recalls. The pandemic disrupted the shoot of this portion and he regained the pounds. When the shoot resumed, he once again had to shed that weight.
Interesting, Rogowski akins his experiences of delving into a new character to that of being a tourist in a new country. “In the beginning, you start taking pictures of the place you are visiting. Then, you go to restaurants and hotels. After a couple of days, you start looking at the narrow lanes and dusty market areas. Bit by bit, you start having real experiences and get to know their culture,” says the actor, who is also a theatre artiste and dancer, during a video conversation.
Since his breakthrough role as a masseur-in-training in Love Streaks (2013), Rogowski has essayed a range of remarkable characters including speech-impaired former conman in Victoria (2015); Isabelle Huppert’s angsty son in Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2017); a refugee on the run in Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018); and a World War II soldier in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019). For someone who has played such varied but challenging roles in a short span of time, the actor’s approach has been to start any new project “with an open mind, interest, and curiosity”.
The filmography of Rogowski, who has worked with some of the formidable directors of contemporary cinema, seems well-curated. “I tend to believe that I have control over my own path. At the end of the day, this control is limited. As an actor, I have little authorship in creating those worlds. What I can do as an actor is say ‘no’. I guess the more offers you have, the more you can benefit from the luxury of being able to choose without the possibility of not having worked for a long period. I have been lucky in this matter,” he says.
The German actor, however, is not comfortable with filmmakers choosing topics with the intention of grabbing attention. “I’m a bit afraid of cinema used to serve a purpose and we forgetting that a movie can have a certain beauty because someone is using that language of cinematography to talk about the world,” says the actor, who recently joined the cast of David Michôd’s next Wizards!.