Great Freedom’s Franz Rogowski: I would love to make a movie in India
The German actor unpacks his tender, enigmatic performance as Hans, a Nazi survivor jailed under an oppressive anti-gay law
1968, West Germany. A man checks into prison and is made to strip. He obliges compliantly, with a prison guard watching. Then, in a gesture that can be read as both binding and subtly defiant, he flashes his butthole to the guard. This is Hans, the tragic but irrepressible lead of Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom. Now streaming on Mubi, the film, which won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, begins chronologically from 1945, after the Allies have freed the Nazi concentration camps. But for Hans—who’s homosexual and has been arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code—the horrors have dragged on.
Hans is played by German actor Franz Rogowski, known to world cinema viewers from films like Victoria, Happy End, Transit and A Hidden Life. Great Freedom has been hailed as one of his finest performances yet. We spoke to Franz about slipping into the role of Hans, creating intimacy in bleakness and his process of ‘finding my own reality’. Excerpts…
Great Freedom has travelled widely since last year. What has been your experience promoting and talking about the film?
It's been wonderful. Several of the journalists I spoke to have had a gay experience themselves, growing up in countries that are more or less oppressive, rigid, and scared (of homosexuality). Therefore, there has been a lot of personal engagement with the film and in the research of good questions.
You’re 36. Did the world of pre-reunification Germany as portrayed in the film surprise you?
I grew up in a country that always saw itself as democratic, transparent and open. But while preparing for the film I realised it was not so. We had structural violence in our past. People were scared of something they knew was literally dangerous, since they could go to jail for that. We got rid of Paragraph 175 in 1994, which is pretty late given that I was born in 1986.
What was the research process for the film?
Sebastian, our director, talked to people who had gone through such experiences. He also spoke to holocaust survivors, and people who had lost their loved ones due to imprisonment.
My approach was a little different. I am scared of recreating someone else's life, or embodying a different history, profession or sexual orientation. Instead of doing that, I try to find my own reality within the fictional character. I used painful experiences from my own life. For example, I went through a harsh diet and lost a lot of weight. So I would be in physical pain for real and not pretend to know what would be the emotional state of someone who was just freed by the Allies and then sent to prison for being gay.
The story unfolds in three timelines: the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Han’s body language changes throughout.
The 40s is where I was the weakest, physically speaking. I would almost turn into a piece of furniture. It was hard walking up the staircase. Sitting on a stool, by contrast, was easy. Acting in this section was largely static. It was about using the space for my purposes. Whereas in the 50s, I’m a young man, almost a rebel, who can feel beyond the walls of the prison. Finally, in the 60s, we see someone who has come to a point of acceptance. I’m slow but not weak.
Is less more for you in acting?
I love it when the music, the editing, the sound design, the dialogue and the action all work together to create a movie. Whereas other movies have a tendency to open up space for a performance. Politically speaking, I am not interested in the great performers doing a very good job. I am more longing for a utopic space where things exist rather than dominate one another.
Tell us about the scene where Hans has a ‘date’ with a younger inmate.
We were shooting in a corner for quite some time. It was a cold night, but comfortable. We had a lovely crew who created a space of respect and silence. People were moving slowly, making sure the moments between shots didn’t turn noisy and hectic. We were in that zone for three to four hours. The more we did it, the more familiar we became with the intimacy and tenderness.
But sometimes, when you get used to intimacy, you lose the magic. Because after two hours of kissing, it turns into a normal act. Which it isn't; it’s a very precious moment for the two of them. So we were playing with being on and off camera and staying connected and then emptying our systems again.
The heart of the film is Han’s friendship with drug-addict cellmate Viktor, played Georg Friedrich.
Georg is an actor I have always admired. I like how he approaches a character. There is something truthful about it. We were looking forward to tell this love story together.
From the first day, we had an easy-going friendship. We had two cells, one for shooting and another where we would smoke cigarettes and talk about life. It was a pleasure working with him. He is a man of great honesty and simplicity. I could laugh with him about the mistakes we made along the way.
What do you make of the film’s enigmatic ending, where Hans visits a prison-style sex club under a bar?
It's an open ending. For me, I am an optimist. I need to see this as a positive ending. It's about Franz, he has found freedom and independence from a system that forgot about him for a long time. Even though the law has changed, it doesn't really affect him because he has already made up his mind. He found his freedom by surrendering to a system rather than fighting it. It's a very different concept of revolution.
Is there a country/film industry you’re looking forward to work in?
I would love to come to India and make a movie there.
Great Freedom is on MUBI.