A Berlin-based dancer a decade ago and now your new favourite actor, Nick Chen meets the star of Passages, Ira Sachs’ jagged drama chronicling a Parisian trio’s disastrous attempt to maintain an open relationship
Franz Rogowski has emotions to convey, not necessarily through words. A Berlin-based dancer a decade ago and now your new favourite actor, the 37-year-old German performer was first seen by many in Michael Haneke’s Happy End in 2017. In an unbroken two-minute take, Haneke captures Rogowski as he acrobatically throws himself around a karaoke bar to Sia’s “Chandelier”, the actor executing a one-handed cartwheel while his gravity-defying feet stomp across the ceiling.
That was, anyway, the scene that prompted Ira Sachs to cast Rogowski as Tomas in Passages, a jagged drama chronicling a Parisian trio’s disastrous attempt to maintain an open relationship. While Tomas is a filmmaker by profession, he’s introduced as a twinkle-toed attention-seeker who gyrates his body to loud music. “I don’t want to dance in films, but most directors think I’m a good dancer,” Rogowski remarks, laughing. “Which I’m absolutely not!”
Rogowski is speaking in The Soho Hotel, shortly before the theatrical release of Passages. It’s a pivotal moment for him. After Passages, the actor has a number of high-profile projects, many in the English language, many in a genre you’re not expecting. Up to now, he was mostly known by cinephiles for Christian Petzold’s Transit and Undine, two love stories driven by Rogowski externalising his romantic feelings towards characters played by Paula Beer. In a Dazed interview, Petzold declared that his muse isn’t Beer, it’s actually Rogowski.
I observe that Sachs also claims to have written Tomas specifically for Rogowski, making him a filmmaker’s actor. “It’s a dream come true, but it’s also intimidating,” Rogowski says. “The more people institutionalise me, the more the gap between who I really am, and who people think I am, is growing. Sometimes I enjoy that. People’s projections are like wings, or a coat to cover who I really am. But other times, it feels like I’m put on a pedestal, and I become exposed and naked – and I love to cover myself.”
What connects Rogowski’s characters, even if he’s hesitant to scrutinise it himself, is an impulsive physicality that’s impossible to script, an infectious lust for life that catches the viewer’s eye within the frame. In In the Aisles, it’s Rogowski messing around with a supermarket picker machine like a mischievous schoolboy; in Undine, it’s Rogowski running alongside a leaving train, attempting to keep up with the carriage as he professes his love through the window; the highlight of Passages is, arguably, Rogowski furiously cycling, alone in his thoughts, pedalling to a new ill-advised adventure.
“In Berlin, nobody would dare give this kind of rating to a movie that has a very artistic approach towards sex… There’s nothing offensive in our movie. I hope a lot of teenagers get to see it.”
Are such moments as spontaneous as they seem? “It’s like a treasure hunt,” he says. “I like to prepare, but it leads to me knowing my lines, not really knowing who I am. Once you start shooting, you create a character.” Passages was particularly collaborative. “It’s not just me being Tomas. It’s also Ira being Tomas. It’s the two of us not knowing how to be Tomas.”
In Passages, Rogowski shares the screen with Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the former as Tomas’s long-suffering husband Martin, and the latter as Agathe, a teacher Tomas impulsively sleeps with at the wrap party. As a trio, they depict the extreme highs and lows of bed-hopping when emotions are involved. Sometimes it’s screaming matches, other times it’s cold, silent stares. Or there’s the sex sequences, each effectively a wordless, character-driven dance.
“When I prepare, I’m very conceptual, but then on set, I’m very physical and instinctive,” Rogowski explains. “In terms of the sex scenes, the two men are one. They’re having sex as a couple. For Tomas and Agathe, they’re discovering each other. Even though they’re having sex, they remain those two individuals. They bump into furniture and everything moves because they want the space to become one. Or he looks at her, and the otherness is scary to him. He’s trying to please her and make her come, but he has no idea how the female body works.
“On the other hand, you have this sculpture of Ben’s back and his pelvis moving. You don’t only see a sculpture of a couple, but you also feel a director looking at his own creation. Ira is more aroused by two men having sex than a woman and a man. It doesn’t mean he didn’t respect the scene with Adéle – he did. But it’s a different temperature. That’s why I love his movies. They’re highly personal and subjective.”
In America, the MPA announced that if Passages were to be released with a rating, it would be granted an NC-17 – a decision believed to be informed by a tender sex scene between Rogowski and Whishaw, not the heterosexual sequences. Rogowski laments the contradiction that, in America, they have a gigantic porn industry alongside, in some areas, a societal guilt around sexuality. “In Berlin, nobody would dare give this kind of rating to a movie that has a very artistic approach towards sex… There’s nothing offensive in our movie. I hope a lot of teenagers get to see it.”
“Nobody asked to be born, and then we die, and we struggle in between” – Franz Rogowski
With increased fame, Rogowski admits it’s harder to hold onto his privacy, but he has, so far, maintained a method that works when his personal life comes up: “People can always ask, but I won’t answer.” He concedes that the attention will ramp up when his future films come out, including a starring role in Andrea Arnold’s next feature.
“We finished filming!” he exclaims. “There’s an incredible transformation happening in this [coming-of-age] movie. It is, as with other Andrea Arnold movies, set in a violent, working-class background. It’s dealing with her past, her very personal past, but there’s also something heightened and almost fairytale-ish about it. It’s called Bird, and we maybe see a bird.”
Regardless of what happens in it, Rogowski will undoubtedly use his body like, in his words, a sculpture. Upon further explanation, the actor describes the sofa we’re sharing, and our two bodies on it, as a single unit. “Every line I say, you nod and smile,” he says, chuckling when I involuntarily nod and smile like he predicted. “That’s just who we are right now. When I feel these sculptures, it feels liberating, because the concept of my individual self dissolves into something connective.
“Often the emotional drama of a character is very human, and therefore very limited and repetitive. We always want the same things. Nobody asked to be born, and then we die, and we struggle in between. But there’s stories that are more universal and timeless to do with time, space, rhythm, and pairs – like light and darkness, silence and speaking, life and death. A sculpture often creates more space towards abstract concepts. I just feel limited when it’s about me trying to love, live, and be successful. What human beings want is always the same.”
And even if he doesn’t want to dance in future movies, the dance background will always be in his DNA. “In dance, you work with universal concepts, like the architecture of your body. You don’t say any lines. You jump around, you fall on the floor, you sweat. Often, you’re in pain, but not in psychological pain – your body aches. I think I’ve translated those concepts into my acting – even though I have to say a line here and there.”
Passages is in cinemas on September 1