‘Transit’ Strike: An Interview with Franz Rogowski

The 33-year-old German actor is about to take the movie world by storm.

Franz Rogowski in 'Transit.'

Franz Rogowski is on the verge of having a breakthrough year. The 33-year-old German actor, best known for his magnetic turn in the one-take-wonder Victoria, will be seen in Terrence Malick’s Radegund, just appeared in Angela Shanelec’s I Was at Home, But (which won the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival), and stars in Christian Petzold’s Transit, which opens in US theaters in March. Based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers, Transit is set in an out-of-time Marseille, where white Europeans are fleeing to Latin American countries to escape rising authoritarianism. In traditional Petzold fashion, the rules of the game are never explained, and Georg (Rogowski) becomes our guide to a Transit world that recalls The Wages of Fear, Casablanca and The Third Man.

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Rogowski began his career as a dancer and theater actor with the Munich Kammerspiele, a state-funded company known for experimental works and for producing Brecht’s first staged play. Working with the Kammerspiele allowed Rogowski to explore several facets of performance art; not only does he act and appear onstage, he has also choreographed and served as a movement consultant for several of their productions.

Growing up in the city of Freiburg im Breisgau, Rogowski knew that a traditional education wasn’t what he wanted; at age 16, he dropped out of school and moved to Berlin, where he became a dancer in a local company. His dance training comes through in the physicality of his film performances: each character he plays has distinctive mannerisms, including his walk and posture. Watching him in Transit made me think of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire — a combusting marriage between restlessness and precise character carving.

I recently spoke with Rogowski about movement, ghosts, empathy and more.

Jose Solís: I love how Transit throws you into its world without any explanatory title cards or context. Did Petzold give you all the backstory, or did you become familiarized as you shot the film?

Franz Rogowski: Christian is a man of references: he knows a lot about the history of movies. And history in general, actually, like a walking encyclopedia. He’s kind of freaky: he can give you a quote for any kind of situation, life problem or acting problem, and he can give you material to understand the background of your character and the world they’re living in. That’s what Transit is about. He chose this very interesting combination of a character born in a novel from the 1940s who finds himself in today’s Marseille, a city on the edge of Europe dealing with immigration every day, so you have people in ’30s clothes sitting next to a TV or phones. But Transit doesn’t comment on it or give specific explanations. He preferred to create a space in which you find yourself or you don’t.

JS: Are you the kind of actor who’d write a journal in Georg’s voice, or are you more interested in what happens the day of the Transit shoot?

FR: I always want to be prepared and I try hard, but I’m a physical actor, I go with the moment and interact with my partner. I have ideas about how my character behaves, how he would move in the street, but I’m very interested in the director’s opinion and in becoming the embodiment of Christian’s fantasies and projections on the book.

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JS: As a dancer, you bring a very exciting perspective to your work — you once said you thought one of your characters moved like a crab, so that’s how you played him. In modern movies, we’re usually told to focus on dialogue and words, so what you said about movement made me think about silent films and how everything centered on facial expressions and movements. What do we lose as an audience when we’re too preoccupied with dialogue?

FR: We all suffer from a lack of interaction and real communication. If you feel empathy and you feel your heart, you connect with the world around you. A lot of times we are trapped in a monologue of success, money, business and fears that disconnect us from the world.

Politically speaking, it’s very good to live with less of a monologue and listen to what’s around you. If you listen carefully, the world’s going to tell you what to do; it’s not that difficult. What I find beautiful about [film] is it combines the art of music, photography, physical performance and acting, and you make something out of these interactions. Often the characters in movies talk too much: they explain their entire situation, and then the music is an embodiment of the emotions that have already been explained. I like silent characters giving space to imagination… If a character’s going to tell me everything, I’d prefer to listen to podcasts.

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JS: Being Latin American, I was struck by scenes in Transit in which countless white people flock to the Mexican embassy — to flee Europe for Latin America. That’s the opposite of the news, so I’d love to hear your opinion on how this asks white people to show empathy for refugees who have to leave their homes to go to countries where they’re not wanted.

FR: It’s incredible how this book from the ’40s can be a book from 2018. People trying to flee North Africa to come to Europe faced the same bureaucratic hell we see in Transit. A little twist shows that it doesn’t take a lot to turn this around so that one day we are the refugees. The movie lets these two realities coexist. It doesn’t seem strange and that’s kind of scary.

JS: I love ghost stories, and as much as Transit is compared to Casablanca, it made me think of how people trapped in limbo could well be ghosts doomed to repeat the same cycle for all of eternity. Were the supernatural aspects of Transit in your mind at all?

FR: I’m very happy you brought that up. Christian referenced ghost — they’ve been a part of his work for the last 30 years. Georg is a ghost — a figure lost in time, escaping the German reality of the ’30s and finding himself today. There are no rules for him in this world, so he’s a drifter. Through Georg, you can also see what love can do, but it’s interesting to see what you can do with a character without roots.

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JS: You’ve been working with some modern masters — recently you shot a film with Terrence Malick. When given the opportunity to do something like Transit, or, say, a commercial project like a Marvel movie, which one would you gravitate to?

FR: I already wore the cape in a German movie. I love superheroes and think everyone can be one. I go from script to script, trying to understand these visions as good as I can and asking myself if I can embody this character. I wouldn’t go for a genre — I’d never be the war guy or the Marvel guy only. There are some great Marvel movies and some horrible ones and I don’t know what the future will bring.

JS: You go back and forth from movies to theater. As a member of the Munich Kammerspiele, what does your stage training bring to your film work?

FR: I come from contemporary theater, where actors, performers and dancers collaborate. In theater, I often experience myself as part of the collective body; in cinema, I’m a single person. On stage, I experience an atmosphere, I’m a creature; in cinema, I’m a person with rational thoughts. In theater, the directors I work with create spaces about language, rhythm, light and form, so it’s rather abstract. I’ve worked with Toshiki Okada and Philippe Quesne, and what they do has nothing to do with storytelling but with coexisting in time and space.

JS: Is it easier to forget yourself in a movie than on stage?

FR: I don’t like screaming around so much, so when thinking about spoken theater at the moment I prefer cinema, because I like to play in an intimate space. Classical theater is more about monologues, but I love the kind of theater I describe before: sweating onstage for four hours while you try to sculpt a statue like Sisyphus. You can’t replicate that on screen. On screen, you get to be Sisyphus for 40 seconds and in between takes you keep your body warm. Movies can feel like a race with rests in between; theater is a marathon.

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JS: Being onstage and doing the same play for weeks in a row must feel like being in Georg’s world in a way — repeating the same cycles over and over.

FR My god, it is! In Germany, we have another system: we do the same show twice a month for two years. If you’re part of a company, you’re doing eight different shows, so you’re doing two performances of each every month. You’re Hamlet one day, then a concert, then a performance, then Othello, then back to Hamlet. The schedule is difficult if you want to do cinema. If you’re in South Africa on location, you can’t fly back for one show.

JS: Do characters become a part of your muscle memory — you’re shooting this film in South Africa but moving like Hamlet?

FR: It happens. In theater, you’re used to this shift; you switch roles very quickly. But in a movie, you’re the same character for eight weeks. It happened to me recently. I made a film and came back to play a piece called No Sex, about this guy who has no sex and is living in a Japanese community where he’s trying to find what sex is like through karaoke culture and how people stimulated their bodies. The role was proving to be very difficult and I realized it was because I was playing the guy I’d just played in the movie. I brought him on stage every night and he was way too sexual and physical for the play. I didn’t even notice until people told me about it.

JS: How do you exorcize that?

FR: Empty your body. Listen to the piece, the text and the form. It tells you what to do. Acting isn’t something you do on your own, it’s a combination of things like costumes, sets, the work with your colleagues. When you work with a good actor, you just have to react. There’s no need to pretend.

JS: I love your “Chandelier” scene in Michael Haneke’s Happy End. Are you interested in doing a musical at some point?

FR: Yes, but in Germany musicals are a very bad thing; in America they’re not. I think in theater, musicals are the best of all — characters sing, dance and talk; they’re allowed to do everything. Yes, I’m ready for a great musical.