Franz Rogowski on Michael Haneke, Terrence Malick and Being Germany's Next Big Thing

Franz Rogowiski
Schramm Film

From Haneke's 'Happy End' to Malick's upcoming 'Radegund,' the dancer turned actor has become an unlikely star by breaking all the rules.

Unabomber. That's my first impression of Franz Rogowski. Dressed down in olive slacks and a black hoodie — pulled right up to cover his features — with dark sunglasses, the hottest German actor of the moment looks ready to blow something up.

It doesn't help that, just before we start our interview — at a painfully hip hotel lobby in Berlin's painfully hipster Friedrichshain neighborhood — Rogowski hands over two suspicious hand-wrapped packages to the concierge. “Mail these for me, yeah?”

A second later, Rogowski defuses any threat, pulling off his shades and throwing back the hoodie to reveal a truly goofy two-toned baseball cap. He throws me a crooked smile. “I haven't had breakfast yet. You hungry?”

Rogowski has made a career out of confounding expectations. The 32-year-old autodidact looks, and sounds, nothing like most people's idea of a European film star.

“People say I resemble Joaquin Phoenix,” Rogowski grins, showing off his scarred lip (from an operation to repair a birth defect) and crooked, pugilist nose. “A guy with a lumberjack's body trying to be a prima ballerina” is how Rogowski has described himself, and it fits. Wiry but muscular, his body is that of a dancer (which, before turning to acting, he was). And onscreen he seems more comfortable moving than talking. When he does speak, it's with a pronounced lisp, another apparent flaw Rogowski has somehow turned into an asset.

Over the past year, thanks to critically acclaimed performances in half a dozen films, Rogowski has gone from virtual unknown, even within Germany, to the next big thing. It started last Cannes, with Michael Haneke's Happy End, in which he played Pierre, an angry, drunken son of the coldly determined Isabelle Huppert. Rogowski more than holds his own against cinema's grande dame, despite not speaking French — he delivered all his lines in German, with French dialog synced later in postproduction. His performance could also go down in movie history. Pierre's soused karaoke rendition of Sia's Chandelier is the first — and likely last — genuinely funny scene in a Michael Haneke movie.

Rogowski choreographed the drunken karaoke scene himself, even picking the music, but before the shoot, Haneke stepped in. "Within 30 minutes he came up with a much better choreography," he says. "Haneke knows exactly what he wants, exactly. As an actor, you're like a color for his palette. He has everything, literally everything, in his head already. The camera doesn't run two seconds longer than it needs to. Postproduction on a Haneke film takes a week. The editor just stitches together what Haneke has already completed in his mind."

Working with Terrence Malick — for the director's upcoming period drama Radegund — was the polar opposite.

"Terry does 30-minute takes. I'm really interested to see what Radegund will turn out to be. Because he doesn't do scenes, he just creates a space where things can happen and turns on the camera. You're in a prison. You see a sunbeam coming in the window. You play with the light. And for no reason, you start to cry. If nothing happens, Terry comes in and whispers something in your ear. With the camera running the whole time. The difference is Haneke takes a week to edit, Terry takes up to four years. But both are great. And both are extreme. And that's what interests me."

Extremes have been the one constant in Rogowski's short, impressive career. His 2013 debut was in Love Steaks, Germany's first mumblecore film, playing an inept and inarticulate masseur-in-training at a luxury hotel. In Sebastian Schipper's groundbreaking Victoria in 2015 — a film shot in a single, breathless take — Rogowski plays Boxer, an almost mute ex-con who lets his body do the talking.

He's followed up Haneke's Happy End with performances as a sex-obsessed cruiser in Jan Henrik Stahlberg's low-budget gonzo comedy Bedbugs; as a reality TV superhero in Daniel Wild's Lux, Warrior of Light; a lovelorn supermarket shelf stocker in Thomas Stuber's In the Aisles; and a disenchanted refugee in Christian Petzold's dystopian drama Transit.

Both In The Aisles and Transit were in competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Rogowski was also named one of Europe's 10 "shooting stars" during the fest. Which has meant a lot of attention. Profiles in the German media. Cover stories hailing "Germany's next superstar."

“Yeah, it's a lot right now — the red carpet treatment and all. But by next year, I could be off the list,” he says, adding, “I'm Swabian. We're grounded by nature.”

Rogowski's family background belies his rough-hewn image as a working-class hero. He grew up in the cozy university town of Tubingen in southern Germany — “very conservative, all Goethe, Lessing, Schiller,” he says — the son of a doctor and a midwife. His maternal grandfather was Michael Rogowski, the former head of the Federation of German Industries — or the “boss of the bosses.” He has three younger half-siblings. One's a corporate consultant. Another's studying medicine. The youngest is still in school.

But Rogowski chafed at the constraints of middle-class life, particularly at school, which he describes as “the worst period in my life — for 11 years I learned I wasn't good enough, I wasn't smart enough, I didn't fit. School taught me that for every question there is only one right answer and, in my life, the most interesting people I've known have always had many answers to one question."

He quit school at 16 (“I dropped out before I got kicked out”) and moved to Berlin to become ... a bicycle courier. By chance, a friend told him about an audition at a local theater casting for a dancer. He went. He got the job.

Because he was a dancer before he was an actor and because he seems to favor roles with little or no dialogue — critics often describe Rogowski in terms of his physical presence onscreen. Christian, his character in In the Aisles, shuffles around the cavernous supermarket like a trapped animal, continually on guard. Pierre in Happy End seems perpetually off-balance, projecting resentment and wounded masculinity. In Bedbugs, playing Torben, a world-class creep, Rogowski seems almost to push into the viewer's personal space, getting too close for comfort.

"I always think, when preparing a role: How does this guy move?" he says. “With Christian, for example, I thought of a crab or a lobster. He's a guy with a hard shell protecting a soft center. I went to fitness studios and worked on my upper body, built up this armor, my own shell." In contrast, his performance as Thorsten in Bedbugs was all neck. “I pushed my head forward, everything comes from the head, from the neck. He's right up in your face. Oh and he swears a lot, which was great."

Though red hot at the moment, Rogowski remains circumspect about his talent as an actor. "I haven't been doing this long, I've still got a lot to learn," he says. "You look at Joaquin Phoenix onscreen, you think: He's got it figured out. I'm not sure, I haven't really found my acting style yet."

But, ready or not, Rogowski's international breakthrough seems more a matter of when than if. He's careful not to mention what he's doing next — "I'm not allowed to say anything" —but admits after Haneke and Malick, the offers have been flooding in. As we say goodbye, he adds, conspiratorially, "I think we'll be talking a lot in the future."