[Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers for “Passages.”]

Franz Rogowski’s intense and offbeat appeal gets its purest expression in the despairing polycule at the center of Ira Sachs’ “Passages.” In the Euro-chic romantic drama that recalls Mike Nichols’ “Closer” through the unsentimental lens of a Maurice Pialat film, the German dancer-turned-actor plays solipsistic, emotionally arrested filmmaker Tomas Freibur. On the eve of wrapping his latest film, he strays from his taciturn husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) and into the arms of Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who, when Tomas later tells her he’s in love with her, replies, “You must say that a lot.”

Rogowski is a physically striking performer, here in great shape in this film after withering as a gay prisoner post-World War II for his European Film Award-nominated turn in 2021’s “Great Freedom.” His filmography has acquainted him closely with the world’s great filmmakers, from Michael Haneke (“Happy End,” the movie that compelled Sachs to cast him in “Passages”) to Terrence Malick (“A Hidden Life”) and Christian Petzold (“Transit” and “Undine”). He’s already shot Andrea Arnold’s mysterious “Bird” and David Michôd’s “Wizards!,” both for A24, and a role in Malick’s MIA biblical opus “The Way of the Wind.” He’s a decorated actor in Europe but received his most high-profile honor yet with the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for “Passages,” which he’ll accept in Manhattan on January 3. A surprise choice in a year of Bradley Cooper and Cillian Murphy, but New York critics had been buzzing about his performance since the film’s Sundance 2023 premiere. Mubi released “Passages” theatrically over the summer to a respectable arthouse box office of $1.1 million worldwide before streaming (with, to note, a sexy ad campaign throughout New York City including on MTA lines and platforms.)

Rogowski’s raffish charm and just-so-slight lisp left by a cleft palate surgery in his childhood make for an unlikely sex symbol, and he’s certainly that in “Passages” even as stretches of the movie find him staring off into space, inscrutable, all while burning down multiple lives. You never see the outline of an actor trying to justify this character’s bad behavior, a wrecking ball of selfishness and reckless deceit. In other words, you can totally see yourself blowing up your own life for this guy, surely the year’s least didactic male movie character.

IndieWire spoke to Rogowski about the many layers of Tomas, the status of his upcoming projects, and performing the film’s intense one-take sex scene (one the MPA deemed NC-17-worthy) without an intimacy coordinator. The interview took place on November 29 just after the Gotham Awards, where “Passages” was nominated for Best Feature and Best Lead Performance for Rogowski; those kudos went to “Past Lives” and “Unknown Country” star Lily Gladstone. The New York Film Critics Circle then announced his win on November 30.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

IndieWire: Congratulations on your Gotham Awards nomination, though I’m sorry you didn’t win.

Rogowski: We had a great time and I feel like we’ve been winning so much lately. It’s always weird for me when the perception is so competition-oriented. I don’t feel like competing against the others. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I really didn’t care. It’s great that we were nominated, and there’s so many reasons why films win and why other films can win or are not supposed to win. Way too much politics for me.

You’re well-versed in the European awards circuit. Does it feel similar at all in the United States? You’re new to this here.

It is similar. I’ve been on a jury, and it’s very hard to be on a jury. There is no such thing as an objective or the right decision. I have a lot of respect for any kind of jury. In terms of the Oscars and being, let’s say, the opening for the Oscar season, I think on a much smaller scale, we have the same system in Germany where you have an academy, and the more people you know, the higher your chances are.

PASSAGES, from left: Franz Rogowski, Adele Exarchopoulos, 2023. © MUBI / Courtesy Everett Collection
PASSAGES, from left: Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos, 2023. © MUBI / Courtesy Everett CollectionCourtesy Everett Collection

Did you ever find yourself trying to justify Tomas’ behavior while reading the script for “Passages” or in production?

Oh, yes, of course. Reading the script, it was obvious that it would be hard to justify some of his actions. That’s also what we found inspiring. We are used to leading roles that take us by the hand and create this illusion of a solution for our human condition. The truth is that we are very complicated and complex and messed up. The more we experience these scenes in real life as actors, the more we understand that these characters are looking for similar things. They want to belong, they want to love and be loved, and they want to be seen, but also they want to be a part of something. The funny and sometimes cruel thing about Tomas is that he can’t even be with himself, and therefore he’s highly dependent on others, and he inflicts a lot of chaos. But I wouldn’t necessarily judge him for that. I think I would never want to be in a relationship with someone like him, but maybe an affair could be nice.

I’ve been in a relationship with someone like him, and let me tell you it’s not good. But one can see their own toxic traits in Tomas as well. In the first scene, he is this sort of recognizable type of tyrannical filmmaker that we all know. Did you channel any actual experiences with similar directors? I immediately thought you were playing a Rainer Werner Fassbinder kind of artist.

We are all drawn to these kinds of figures like Fassbinder, and also Ira finds them fascinating. I have experienced a lot of different approaches on set. If you work with Haneke, it’s very different from working with Ira Sachs. If you work with Terrence Malick, he would gently touch your shoulder and whisper something in your ear, and then you improvise in the sunset. If you have someone like Haneke, you’re not supposed to come up with any kind of idea because it’s already been decided. The whole movie has already been edited before you’ve shot the first scene. So with him, you just try to come as close as possible to something that he has already decided upon before you even start proposing material.

How does that compare to a filmmaker like Andrea Arnold, whom you shot “Bird” with earlier this year with Barry Keoghan in England?

With Andrea Arnold, this [past] summer, the atmosphere was quite different from what I’ve experienced so far. She would wait for the right moment to come, like a hunter, for hours and hours to wait for a bunch of kids to calm down until they could walk across a meadow and own the meadow and be in their own territory instead of being forced to pretend to do something naturally. And that’s her message.

I love to work with people that have a vision, and for me, they can be assholes as long as they take care of our project and are looking for something that unites us as cinephiles. But the worst thing that can happen is to work with someone that is just very kind and not good at directing, and then you have a good time. But the movie’s going to be horrible.

Franz Rogowski in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End”

Actors who work with Michael Haneke often feel more like obstacles to his vision than true collaborators. Hitchcock said actors should be treated like cattle.

Compared to the way [Haneke] treats his DP, he’s very kind with his actors. I find him also very funny and brilliant. He’s a very smart and inspiring person. I have fun memories of our collaboration. When we shot “Happy End,” I wasn’t very experienced. I mean, I’m not experienced now, either, but a bit older, I guess. There was a big scene where I am disturbing my mother’s dinner party, and I invited some refugees to our bourgeois dinner event, and then I give a little speech. When we did that scene, Michael was actually dependent on me proposing something, but at the same time, he was so powerful in his own regime, that I didn’t feel space to come up with an idea. So he would just tell me, “You are cynical.” That was too much for me, to be confronted with a result that you have to create or an effect that you have to achieve. Sometimes, it might come across as you being the obstacle to what he wants, but the truth is that he’s very passionate about what he does and has a lot of energy, and is unforgiving. But he’s also unforgiving with himself. He can be cruel, but it’s never personal. It’s always about the movie.

Martin and Tomas don’t have an agreement in terms of an open relationship, but there’s something tacit in their exchange when Tomas comes home the night after first sleeping with Agathe.In other words, we’ve been here before.

I don’t think it’s open to a degree where they’ve agreed upon a certain strategy, and it’s “cool.” They’re struggling, and don’t know what’s best for them. They ultimately want to be alive and to feel safe. They want to feel seen. They didn’t have an open relationship but every once in a while, something happened. We also understood more about their dynamics when [Martin] says, “Every time you have a premiere, this happens.”

What do you make of the last shot of the movie, with Tomas riding alone on his bicycle through the streets of Paris?

Tomas is someone who tends to forget the larger picture of his life. He’s highly dependent on physical feedback all the time. At the end of the movie, we don’t know where he goes to and if it’s like a revelation or if he’s free, finally, or if he’s in pain. Tomas is somehow feeling the wind in his face, and he’s riding the bike, and there’s something beautiful and cruel about how he’s so in the moment of his own physical reality. I wouldn’t describe him as a psychopath but he has a very hard time bridges to people. He’s very good at building intense moments you can experience on a physical level, but to build something that lasts and that is also stable? It’s very challenging for him.

I shot a movie until two weeks before we started shooting “Passages,” and I told Ira I didn’t have much time to prepare. He said, “Just learn your lines because you’re perfect for the part,” which was also a bit strange. [Laughs.]

PASSAGES, from left: Franz Rogowski, Adele Exarchopoulos, 2023. © MUBI / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Passages”Courtesy Everett Collection

In that last moment, I don’t think there is any revelation. Tomas has learned nothing.

I agree.

With the post-breakup sex scene with Tomas and Martin, my theory is that Martin topping here isn’t the usual configuration. This is a role reversal and reclaiming of power. How does Ira direct a scene like this? You didn’t use intimacy coordinators.

I like your topping theory. It’s very interesting. For me, the most interesting thing was their sex scene in relation to the sex scenes between [Tomas] and [Agathe], where you feel so much different, so many different colors. Ira’s perspective on two men having sex is very different from him observing a man and a woman having sex. He takes a lot of time for those two men because he wants to see them, and we see them with the director together. That’s also a reason, I think, why there’s a very different perception of time when they have sex compared to Tomas and Agathe. Also, Martin might be topping, but the way it’s shot, they are more kind of like they’re one. They might be in trouble, but they are shot as one sexual organism. Whereas Tomas and Agathe try to connect. They try to be intimate, but it’s rather observing each other or hectically rubbing each other’s skin, but they don’t become a sculpture. They haven’t been partners for years.

What’s the latest on David Michôd’s “Wizards!”? You finished shooting this A24 stoner comedy with Pete Davidson back in 2022 in Australia.

No idea. I guess they’re working on the editing. It’s taking them quite a while, but David and A24 are figuring it out. As far as I know, they had a version, and now they are editing a new version. They’re still looking for the right tone.

You had a small role in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” but it was enough for him to bring you back for “The Way of the Wind,” which shot in 2019.

That’s been editing for years. I think we texted on New Year’s Eve last year, and I have no idea what he’s up to. He’s taking care of his family right now, and he’s editing, and he’s famous for being a very slow editor. He also has a very intense process of inviting different editors to his farm, and then they edit hundreds of versions. Basically, it’s part of the game to make them tired to a degree where they stop thinking and they start editing on another level. But you should ask Terry, he knows much better than me.

And you may not even end up in the final movie!He has a history of cutting entire actors and storylines in the edit.

Exactly. You never know. It was like last time [with “A Hidden Life”], I was there only for a couple of days.

“Passages” is now streaming on Mubi.

Leave a comment