Daniel Brühl interview: ‘I’ve said no to playing every high-ranking Nazi – Hitler was offered twice’

Daniel Brühl
Daniel Brühl: 'Longing to create your own perfect world, to avoid being bored by your reality? I found that very endearing about Lagerfeld.' - John Balsom

‘Look,’ Daniel Brühl says, ‘I’ll show you.’ In a poky kitchenette above a photo studio in west London, Brühl screeches backwards in his chair, stands up, takes a step to one side, then keeps rising until slightly on the balls of his feet. Puffing his chest out, he arches his spine before drawing his arms up into a hold, as if ready for the flamenco. He stiffens his neck; he purses his lips. And all of a sudden, by some strange magic, there he is in the room: Karl Lagerfeld. Acting, eh?

Anybody tasked with playing a real person faces the same broad challenge: how to pull it off without falling into caricature. It’s why, a couple of years ago, when Brühl received a call confirming he’d be playing Lagerfeld, the late, exalted German fashion doyen, in a new six-part Disney+ series, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, his first reaction after calmly putting the phone down was to break into wide-eyed panic. ‘I went, F--k. How do I do it?! Because the danger is it becomes a mere copy. So you need to make it individual while living with people going, “No, no, no, he wasn’t like that…”’

That’s true for any actor, whether they’re playing the Pope or Marilyn Monroe, but Brühl faced a particular additional hurdle. That despite being the subject of dozens of books and documentaries, despite working all over the world until well into his ninth decade, and despite dying so recently – in 2019, aged 85 – that even his cat is alive (and thriving), hardly anybody still around who met Karl Lagerfeld truly knew him. Which was exactly how Lagerfeld liked it.

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld and, right, the man himself in 1979
Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld and, right, the man himself in 1979 - Landmark Media / Alamy | Daniel SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

‘I took in everything I could read and watch and listen to, but his books all contradict each other, because he lied so much,’ Brühl says. Acquaintances were no better. ‘I met so many people who were all, “Oh, Karl! Karl, Karl, Karl…”’ He clutches his chest in mock familiarity. ‘He was so good at giving people the impression they knew him, but they didn’t know Karl any better than I did...’ Brühl shakes his head. There is little he deplores more than affectedness.

In the end, he found one genuine, lifelong friend who really could share their insight: the French art historian and photographer Patrick Hourcade, who first met Lagerfeld in 1976 and published the biography Karl: No Regrets in 2021. ‘[Hourcade] was this old man in Paris, completely unrestrained and direct. I walked in and he said, “Get up! Walk! Now, show me your hands. Yes, the nails need to be longer – Karl liked to scratch people when he got nervous…”’ Brühl laughs. ‘It was so interesting, these details.’

As he demonstrated his walk for Hourcade, Brühl, who is half-German, half-Spanish, had ‘an epiphany, that Lagerfeld is like a torero, a bullfighter. Because bullfighters, I’ve always thought, are so feminine and graceful and elegant, but so masculine and macho at the same time. I said it to him: “Monsieur Hourcade, I’m thinking of a matador?”’ Brühl recalls Hourcade’s face lighting up. ‘He went, “Oui, oui, oui! C’est ça!”’

And so before every single take, Brühl would do the same thing. He would rise until almost on the balls of his feet, he would puff his chest out and arch his spine, he would draw his arms up, then he would stiffen his neck and purse his lips. ‘My whole body language would change. Sometimes you need something very technical to hold on to.’ Then, and only then, was he ready to become Karl Lagerfeld.

At 45 years old, Daniel Brühl has the CV of an A-lister: as well dozens of European films – not least his breakout role in the 2003 German tragicomedy Good Bye Lenin! – he has been Bafta-nominated for his turn as Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s Rush, worked with Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, and played real-life politician Matthias Erzberger in All Quiet on the Western Front, which won four Academy Awards. On the last, Brühl was also an executive producer.

He’s done Marvel, in the form of Captain America: Civil War; led the acclaimed US period crime series The Alienist; and quietly given the best performance in dozens of other Hollywood films, from The Bourne Ultimatum to A Most Wanted Man, all without receiving nearly enough attention.

Yet sashaying into the studio in London, near where he’s been filming a comedy series created by Sam Mendes and Armando Iannucci (‘as a German, surprisingly, I am invited to do comedy’), he could just as easily pass for a particularly dashing hedge funder, or a tactically prodigious but temperamentally uneven football manager from the Pep Guardiola school of cashmere. His crew-neck jumper is sky blue; his beige trousers wide-legged; his Derbies medium-brown leather; his beard immaculate.

‘If Brühl were a natural American or British talent, without a doubt he’d be a household name,’ Peter Morgan, who wrote Rush, has said. ‘Based on the level of his acting ability but also on who he is, he’s here for the long haul.’

Rush, 2014
Rushfocudrf on the fierce F1 rivalry between Niki Lauda (played by Brühl) and James Hunt in the mid-1970s - Alamy

Brühl is not recognised outside the eurozone a great deal, so he enjoys it when he is. ‘If people are friendly and don’t bark “Asshole!” at you, it’s nice, it’s good. All the actors who say they’re not vain are liars – it’s about how you hide the vanity. It has to have a limit, though, so I’ve never had a problem with the fact I’m not Marlon Brando.’

A confident, entertaining blend of laid-back and irascible (that may be the Spanish/German split), Brühl makes a version of that point a lot – that he loves the film industry, but it’s also stuffed to the gills with phonies.

He lived in Berlin for 25 years, and still has stakes in both a production company and a tapas bar (‘We wanted to visit here as fans of Daniel Brühl and tapas – it’s safe to say we were not disappointed!’ begins one Tripadvisor review). Yet the Brühl family – Daniel, his psychotherapist wife, Felicitas, and their sons, aged seven and three – moved to rural Majorca in 2022. 
‘Like a lot of us, we came to a standstill in the pandemic and started questioning things. Berlin is a great city for a certain time in your life, but I was lured back to a different lifestyle. Now, we’re surrounded by sheep, donkeys and mountains. We can hike directly from the house.’

Brühl photographed with his wife, Felicitas Rombold
Brühl with his wife, Felicitas Rombold, to whom he apologised during the filming of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld: 'I'm sorry but for the next three months I'm completely in love with this man, you have to forgive me' - Getty

Hollywood has never tempted him. ‘No, no, never.’ One of his closest friends is Fran Healy, lead singer of the band Travis (Healy used to live in Berlin), and he now hangs out with him when in LA, rather than in ‘the movie bubble’.

‘He’s very discreet, not like me, and I remember he said, “Oh there’s a little barbecue at my place, why don’t you come?” Then Thom Yorke was there, one of the guys from Air, the Red Hot Chili Peppers… Just a casual barbecue party, and I loved it because I was outside of the competition and stress and all that s—t I get from my industry.’

Brühl is now at a point in his career where he doesn’t have to audition, so Lagerfeld came to him. The character is objectively fascinating, not least because the designer was a man as talented at appliquéing his own life story (among other things, he repeatedly lied about his age and his parents’ backgrounds) as he was at creating haute couture.

The truth is that Lagerfeld was born and raised in a reasonably well-to-do family in Hamburg, and from an early age showed himself to be a preternaturally talented and innovative dress designer. Moving to Paris, he worked for Fendi, then Chloé, where he became creative director and vied with his friend and contemporary Yves Saint Laurent to be the most talked-about designer in town. Around the same time, he met the great love of his life, the French aristocrat and socialite Jacques de Bascher.

The new mini-series follows Karl Lagerfeld's life pre-white ponytail
The new mini-series follows Karl Lagerfeld's life pre-white ponytail - Getty

This is the period Becoming Karl Lagerfeld covers: the young, driven and obsessional Lagerfeld in Paris in the 1970s, discovering who he is – or at least choosing the components of his armour. It covers his life before the white ponytail, sunglasses, gloves and starched Hilditch & Key collars; before he became synonymous with Chanel, the house he revived and made sexy again when he took over couture in 1983; and before journalists knew his acid tongue was ever-ready with an outrageous soundbite.

‘I’d guess that even in Germany, 99 per cent of people, if they were asked to picture Karl Lagerfeld, would say the later one, dressed in black, with the ponytail and the shades, and being witty and arrogant but distant, almost artificial, so it was interesting to find out who he was before,’ says Brühl, who is astonishingly good in the series.

In later life, the epithet ‘controversial’ hitched itself to Lagerfeld’s name for understandable reasons. ‘These are fat mummies sitting around with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly,’ he contributed in 2009, at the height of the size-zero debate. ‘I don’t like the sister’s face. She should only show her back,’ was Lagerfeld’s reported review of Pippa Middleton, three years later. And ‘one cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place’, he sighed in 2017, about Angela Merkel’s immigration policy. And so on.

Lagerfeld knew what he was doing when he became a pantomime villain. ‘I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask,’ he once said. But that bitterness, and the way he ended up – heartbroken and alone after de Bascher’s death from Aids in 1989, following 18 years in an allegedly non-physical relationship; then burying himself in his work, living alone in opulence with 300,000 books, and leaving millions to his Birman cat, Choupette – fascinates Brühl.

‘Knowing what he said later in life, what I find interesting is that very often the most horrible things we say are born out of fear and aggression,’ he says. ‘I mean, look at how paranoid f--king Putin is and all those guys.’ He holds a finger up. ‘I mean, not to compare Putin and Karl Lagerfeld, please… But you can see the things he had to deal with, as a homosexual German in Paris, that must have been tough. And to keep that armour, living this contradiction of being constantly in the limelight but very lonely and reclusive, is fascinating.’

'I learnt to live with the label of being a "complicated" actor. But ultimately people respect it,' says Brühl
'I learnt to live with the label of being a "complicated" actor. But ultimately people respect it,' says Brühl - John Balsom

Brühl, who was born in Barcelona but moved to Cologne as a baby, then shuttled between the two countries throughout his childhood before living in both as an adult and international film star, is something of an expert on the complex topic of how Germany treats homegrown talent that moves abroad. In short, Germans are weird about those who leave.

‘Yes, and weird about our own culture. That’s because we lost our sense of humour. The reason we even had a sense of humour is because of the German Jewish and, you know… So we are not self-confident, and we couldn’t, back in the day, offer Lagerfeld what Paris and other places could,’ he says.

‘I remember a funny interview he gave when he came back to Hamburg and was asked why he left. “Hamburg is the door to the world,” they said. But Lagerfeld said, “Well yes, you’re the door to the world, but I wanted the world, not the door.” So they had this ambiguous relationship with him.’

Boris Becker is another global star Germany has treated warily. Brühl, a tennis obsessive who plays with friends or his coach once a week, and is often spotted in the stands at Grand Slam events, knows him. ‘What a life. What I love about him is he’s a flawed guy, the gambling and women, the business, losing it all, ending up in prison in England, but he’s still Boris f--king Becker, one of the greatest. Yeah, Germans are not very kind to their own people.’

Daniel Brühl: 'In Germany they like to put you in a box, so for ages I was just the nice guy, with a reputation for helping old ladies across the street'
Daniel Brühl: 'In Germany they like to put you in a box, so for ages I was just the nice guy, with a reputation for helping old ladies across the street' - John Balsom

Brühl met Lagerfeld once. He’s slightly loathe to join the ‘Oh, Karl...’ ranks in telling the story, but knows it’s probably the sort of thing you should do in a publicity interview. ‘It was fine, I was young, in 2000 or something.’ For a magazine, Lagerfeld was taking pictures of Brühl and various other young German actors at the Berlinale film festival.

‘There was this embarrassing moment where there was this group picture, and everyone had to get on this little platform. All the others were trying to get in because they knew it would be the cover, but I just stepped away because the way they were behaving was so pathetic, acting like they loved each other. [Lagerfeld] saw this from the corner of his eye and gave me this little nod. He was like, “Yeah, it’s not cool.”’

They then did single shots, ‘and he could tell I was nervous, but he just took it away with some good jokes. He was very warm and had some gentleness behind the dark shades. And he was like, “I like you, young man, because you didn’t want to be part of that circus.”’ Brühl physically shakes himself out of the memory. ‘So I like to think he would approve of this young man playing him 20 years later.’

It is unlikely Lagerfeld would have much truck with the idea of ‘authentic casting’: that people should only play characters whose personal experiences align with their own. Nor does Brühl, but he’s aware the tiresome question will likely be asked of him now.

‘When they’re playing this card, of course at the beginning I had to ask myself that question: “How can I do this?” But then, really, in all modesty, I thought given the age range, given that I have the German cultural background, given that I speak French well enough to be able to do it, there aren’t many alternatives [to me] out there,’ he says.

‘So I’m not homosexual, but I was taking it extremely seriously, and I think reached a point of beautiful truth with Théodore [Pellerin, the Canadian actor who plays de Bascher] to the point where I said to my wife, “I’m sorry but for the next three months I’m completely in love with this man, you have to forgive me.” And she said that’s fine, because she also loved Théodore.’

Brühl with Theodore Pellerin, who plays the French aristocrat and socialite Jacques de Bascher in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld
Brühl with Theodore Pellerin, who plays the French aristocrat and socialite Jacques de Bascher in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld - Alamy

The son of a German documentary director, Hanno, and a Spanish teacher, Marisa, Brühl doesn’t have a lot in common with Lagerfeld, but they do both enjoy the seductive power of dishonesty. ‘I had deep empathy with that because I did a similar thing as a kid. I’d lie to make myself more interesting.’ At school in Cologne, Brühl says, he would take advantage of the fact his classmates couldn’t verify anything he said about his time in Spain.

‘Like, [the artist] Joan Miró was from the same village we went to on holiday, so I said we were related. Complete bulls--t. And a huge embarrassment for my parents, my father wanted to die.’ He shakes his head. ‘So longing to create your own perfect world, to avoid being bored by your reality? I found that very endearing about Lagerfeld.’

But Brühl didn’t stop there. By age seven or eight, he’d play dead in the bath, placing a hairdryer next to the tub and waiting for his mother to walk back in. He has a brother and sister, but they’re 11 and 12 years older, so were usually out. He smiles. ‘And, somehow, my mother would always buy it. I was very impressed by how much you can sell and people will buy.’

School theatre was easier on his mother’s blood pressure, and Brühl obviously excelled, before an uncle who directed radio plays invited him to read. That led to language dubbing – a common easy-money option for young German actors, and even easier when it’s early Jackie Chan films you’re translating. ‘Half of it was just, “Uh!”, “Ah!”, “Ow!”’ Brühl recalls.

He made his first TV film at 15, but his father disapproved of his acting intentions, preferring he become a scriptwriter or 
journalist. ‘He thought actors were vain and unemployed.’ (Well…) Eventually, after Brühl’s lauded domestic breakthrough, as a young man with paranoid schizophrenia in the film Das Weisse Rauschen (The White Noise, 2001), ‘he called me and said, “OK, I accept, you can act.” It was like [being granted] absolution from the Pope.’

Internationally, Good Bye Lenin! put him on the map. In it he plays a man whose fiercely socialist mother wakes from a coma months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fearing the shock might kill her, he pretends nothing has changed.

It has been difficult for Brühl to shake his role in Good Bye Lenin!
It has been difficult for Brühl to shake his role in Good Bye Lenin! - Alamy

It became one of the most successful German films of all time, including Bafta and Golden Globe nominations, and eight German Film Awards.

I tell Brühl there is a YouTube compilation of him looking like he’d rather hit himself in the face with a spade than talk about Good Bye Lenin! again. ‘Ah? Funny. Well, there have been times when I was really sick of it, and it still drives me insane sometimes when it says “Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!)” because I did that when I was in my 20s, but it was a blessing. You want to evolve, though. In Germany they like to put you in a box, so for ages I was just the nice guy, with a reputation for helping old ladies across the street. Which isn’t exactly “cool”.’

Then there’s the German-actor-in-Hollywood rite of passage: the uniform. ‘I’ve done my bit…’ he sighs. Playing a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds ‘was a no-brainer’ simply in order to work with Tarantino, but he’s drawn a line now. ‘In the last two or three years, I’ve said no to I think every single high-ranking Nazi. No, really. I was offered Hitler twice. I was offered Goebbels. Himmler… I mean… Mengele… all of them.’

Brühl worked with Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, 2009
Brühl worked with Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, 2009 - Alamy

In fairness (to his agent), he’s also surely been offered almost everything else, too. Being able to speak Catalan, Portuguese, French and Italian, as well as German, Spanish and English, only helps.

‘My father always told me that quote from Charles V, who said, “To God, I speak Spanish; to my mistress, French; and German to my horse.” All these languages are good for something.’

Rush, about the fierce F1 rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the mid-1970s, was a rare chance to co-lead a big Hollywood film with a German-speaking character. Lauda, an Austrian, was alive at the time of shooting, and gave Brühl constant advice. Director Ron Howard remembered delaying a shot after seeing Brühl in character, in his F1 car’s cockpit, on a mobile phone call to Niki Lauda.

‘Do you put on the gloves first and then the helmet? Or the helmet, then the gloves?’ the fastidious Brühl was asking the real Lauda, Howard recalled. It’s probably a good thing Lagerfeld wasn’t around to help with his latest series – they’d never have finished it.

Rush, 2013
Brühl's performance in Rush saw him nominated for a Bafta, losing out to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

He still likes F1. ‘I was a fan of Senna, then lost interest, but I got back into it after spending time with Niki, and driving Formula 3 cars to train. I met Hamilton, Vettel. But I was more fascinated by the old days.’ He also prefers his road cars vintage: in Majorca it is ‘a poor old Frenchman, an orange 1973 Peugeot 304 convertible. I love it, it never works.’

He’s just finished making another film, Eden, with Howard, while the project with Mendes and Iannucci, called The Franchise, is an intriguing-sounding satire of the moviemaking industry. Brühl plays the director of a superhero blockbuster trying to ‘survive the madness of doing a film such as that’.

Which he’s done in real life, of course. ‘It’s not about my experiences at Marvel, but there was one film I did, which I won’t mention, that reminded me how surreal it can be being trapped on a thing like that.’ On that occasion, ‘I realised on day one it was a terrible mistake.’

What does one do in that situation, go into autopilot and think only of the money?

‘That also doesn’t help. You would rather give it away and be free. You go through all these processes: depression, frustration, anger, and still trying to defend your own skin. But it’s very hard.’ When vast US tech companies or studios are involved, ‘it’s sometimes so weird, because things are coming back from people who have to prove that they’re important, when they have nothing to do with the actual thing you’re doing on set. It becomes Kafkaesque.’

'Actors don't want to be controlled too much by strategic decisions'
'Actors don't want to be controlled too much by strategic decisions' - John Balsom

Brühl deals with it, he says, by being difficult. ‘I learnt not to shut my mouth. If they say there’s big people [in charge], I don’t care – they’ll regret the moment they ever gave me their number. I learnt to live with the label of being a “complicated” actor. That’s the way they always put it, “complicated”, just when we are fighting for a better result. But ultimately people respect it.’

In addition to jobsworth executives, our shifting social mores and the fear of offence have meant that a film set can be a very delicate place these days. ‘And the tone, the things you cannot say, the things you cannot do…’

Does that make it a better working environment? ‘No, creatively speaking it does not. I think it will change again, this is like a chapter we have to go through, but if it becomes worse even than now, we will reach a place like the stiff 1950s, and the longing to break out of it will be so strong that it will change again,’ he says.

‘Actors don’t want to be controlled too much by strategic decisions, which they have to take these days and didn’t in the past. You don’t want to be too dictated by that.’ As it was, the role of Karl Lagerfeld – ‘in French, in Paris, with a streamer [Disney+] that makes sure it travels…’ – he opens his hands out, as if to ask how he could possibly have turned that down.

‘The thing is, if you’re as self-critical as I am, and so paranoid and neurotic, you cannot be harmed and touched by other opinions. I think David Bowie said something like if you’re slightly out of your comfort zone, but not too much, you feel it, and it’s a nice feeling…’ He leans back.

And when people go: ‘No, no, no, Karl wasn’t like that’?

‘Then you just have to go: f--k it.’

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld streams on Disney+ from June7