Daniel Brühl on playing Karl Lagerfeld: ‘He never lost touch with the pulse’

Karl Lagerfeld, the most prolific fashion designer of the 20th and 21st centuries, was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Biographies contradict one another. His age was a mystery, with reports that he had two birth certificates, one dated 1933 and the other 1938. Living alone in Paris with a Siamese cat called Choupette, he once declared: “I don’t want to be real in other people’s lives. I want to be an apparition.”

Capturing Lagerfeld on screen might therefore seem like pinning down a ghost. But that did not deter the German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl who, early in his preparation for playing the revered couturier in a six-part TV series, had an epiphany. What if he conceived of Lagerfeld as a matador in the bullring?

“Maybe that’s my half-Spanish side,” Brühl says cheerfully. “I thought, oh, it’s very macho and dominant but also very graceful and feminine at the same time. That image I kept for the rest of the show. The other actors were laughing at me when sometimes before a take I would do the olé! but it helped me to get into the right tune.”

The approach pays off for Brühl in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, based on Raphaëlle Bacqué’s novel Kaiser Karl. Set in the 70s, it shows the ambitious outsider trying to break into a world of Paris high fashion where Yves Saint Laurent (played by Arnaud Valois) reigns supreme.

Lagerfeld was born into an affluent family in the German city of Hamburg, hardly a fashion powerhouse, but at 14 moved to Paris with his parents. In 1954 a coat he designed won a fashion contest organised by the International Wool Secretariat; Saint Laurent won that year’s contest in the dress category.

Lagerfeld apprenticed at Balmain and in 1959 was hired at another Paris-based house, Patou, where he spent four years as artistic director. After a series of jobs with labels including Rome-based Fendi, Lagerfeld took over the reins at Chloé, known for its romantic Parisian style.

He also started his own label, Karl Lagerfeld, which though less commercially successful than his other ventures, was widely seen as a sketchpad where the designer worked through his ideas. In 1983 he took over at Chanel, which had been dormant since the death of its founder, Coco Chanel, more than a decade earlier.

Although he spent virtually his entire career at luxury labels catering to the very wealthy – including 20 years at Chloé – Lagerfeld’s designs quickly filtered down to retailers, giving him global influence and laying the foundations of the modern fashion industry.

Speaking via Zoom from Paris a day after the TV series’ premiere, Brühl elaborates: “He was a very clever businessman. Karl Lagerfeld, even as a young man, was a great self-promoter and knew how to handle journalists, how to create brands, how to adapt to each and every single brand that he was working for like a chameleon.

“Then, of course, Chanel, the next chapter, a brand that was struggling and that he revived. It’s pretty impressive what he left; his legacy is gigantic. I guess personally what inspired me the most is that, even when you’re getting older, to not lose the grip and not become too nostalgic, to stay curious no matter what.

“This is something that I find very admirable in Karl Lagerfeld, that he had his books and he had his refuge but he never lost touch with the pulse, with the zeitgeist, with the young people.”

Lagerfeld was open about his homosexuality – he once said he announced it to his parents at 13 – but kept his private life under wraps. Following his relationship to Jacques de Bascher, who died of Aids in 1989, Lagerfeld prized solitude above all until his death in 2019. Only his cat, Choupette, would join him at the table for lunch and dinner.

Brühl, who turns 46 this month, reflects: “It’s funny with Karl because I guess he gave people the impression that they all knew him so incredibly well. I met so many Karl experts, especially in Germany, but then very often I found out they probably met him twice.

“I met him once and that doesn’t make me a Karl Lagerfeld expert. He was very clever and so charming. He told me some jokes about Berlin but after two minutes I had the feeling that I know this man. That’s why there’s so many Karl Lagerfeld experts who think like, ‘Yeah, I knew him so well.’”

But Brühl did come across a genuine expert: the artist Patrick Hourcade, who met Lagerfeld in 1976, became a close friend and wrote the memoir Karl: No Regrets. The actor recalls: “I met him in his apartment filled with incredible art and he was completely unrestrained.

Daniel Brühl in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld. Photograph: Disney

“He said, ‘Show me your hands! Ah, the hands are not bad but let the nails grow. Because he did this like a cat [Brühl motions like a cat clawing his arm] – he was scratching people. Now stand up, stand up, walk, walk, walk. No, no, no, smaller steps, smaller steps.’ I said, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But it was great!”

This led to the matador revelation; Hourcade liked the idea. Brühl’s Lagerfeld is a youngish man in a hurry; the trademark white ponytail and high starched collar are yet to appear. The actor, wearing a grey jacket, black sweater and winning smile, continues: “What I find fascinating in Karl’s life and also in this show is you are in the 70s: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

“A time of revolution, of sexual liberation and then there’s that anachronistic element to it because Karl Lagerfeld very often lived in his intellectual realm and in his fantasy and with the money that he had earned was capable of creating these cerebral worlds, these fairytale paradises, especially for the love of his life.

“He bought a castle and everything within the castle had to be perfect down to the candles. To play someone who does that with so much dedication and obsession and precision was fascinating.”

The sumptuously shot series, directed by Jérôme Salle and Audrey Estrougo, begins with Lagerfeld as an unknown 38-year-old designer striving to emerge from Saint Laurent’s shadow. He encounters De Bascher, a young French dandy, who ends up in a love triangle with Saint Laurent.

Brühl says: “I decided to show a young, vulnerable, insecure and fragile Karl Lagerfeld and a side of him that people do not know that much about, including me. Then later on in his life he created that shield and that persona that I met when I met him. He did that probably also to protect himself from all the suffering and all the things that he had gone through, including that very dramatic love story.

“I found that interesting because it’s not the Karl Lagerfeld that you would expect to to see. I wanted to know from Patrick Hourcade about the tenderness and the emotional side to Karl Lagerfeld, and he gave me some precious advice and told me little stories, anecdotes of his vulnerability that I could not find in any book.”

The sense of rivalry with Saint Laurent appealed to Brühl, who played the Formula One driver Niki Lauda opposite Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt in Rush in 2013.

“I love to play guys with complexes and that pain of wanting to be loved and respected but never getting the same attention as Yves Saint Laurent, the god and the artist and the elite, the Frenchman who is celebrated by his own people; Karl Lagerfeld is just that prêt-à-porter mercenary.

“This is always, as an actor, something to play with, which is aways a pleasure: competition. Mozart/ Salieri. It’s the love and hate. It’s the jealousy and it’s the respect. It’s the friendship and it’s the competition. I thought a lot about Rush when I did this one. As we know, the analogy to sports: there’s no Nadal without Djokovic and Federer. They keep on pushing each other and this is what I also enjoyed a lot.

The other key relationship is with De Bascher, played by Théodore Pellerin. Brühl reflects: “You never know beforehand how the chemistry will be. I’ve never done a love story with with another man that is emotionally pretty demanding.

Karl Lagerfeld in 1972. Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

“After I met Théodore, I called my wife and said: ‘Honey, I’m sorry, but I’m going to be in love with a man for a couple of months,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I love this young actor so that’s fine.’” He adds with a laugh: “So we had an open relationship.”

Lagerfeld was an impressive linguist, switching between perfect French, English, Italian and his native German during interviews at fashion shows. Brühl was born in Barcelona to a German father and Spanish mother, and grew up in Cologne, Germany. How many languages does he speak?

“It would be four or five with Catalan because my family is a mix,” he says. “But we are all impostors. I spoke French very well when I was little because the contact to my French side of the family was more intense and bigger and we spent more time in France. If you’re not practising it, you’re losing it.

“But on this show, I said to them, ‘Oh, don’t you worry, my French is like Karl’s, I speak like a machine gun.’ And then I came to the first read through and all the actors went” – he mimics fast French – “and I was, ‘Oh, shit! I really need to work on this for a bit longer.’ It’s like horseback riding.”

Brühl’s breakthrough film was the 2003 satire Good Bye, Lenin!, in which he played a young man trying to protect his mother from the shocking news that her beloved East Germany disappeared while she was in a coma. Since then his career has ranged from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds to Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War to voice acting in the German versions of Disney’s Brother Bear and Cars. Most recently he starred in and executive-produced an acclaimed version of All Quiet on the Western Front.

“I’m very pragmatic,” he muses. “I’m almost 46 now and I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’m still being offered interesting stuff. The fact that I’m talking to you right now, that I’m doing something that I’m doing interviews for and interesting, meaty roles are being offered to me is a gift – it’s wonderful. The more diverse and the more different they are, the better. You always want to look for something that you haven’t done before.

“I think it was David Bowie who said the nicest feeling is to be slightly outside your comfort zone. I always would know if the weight is too heavy for me to lift or culturally it would be impossible – I mean, I couldn’t play a cowboy from Texas, for example, even if the part was great, I would probably say this is not going to happen.”

But Brühl adds: “With Karl Lagerfeld I loved to say yes – ah, oui oui oui oui! – to hang up the phone and and think shit, how am I going to do it? Because it was complex. But I love that. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle of thousands of pieces. At the beginning you think ‘Oh, this could well be a a fucking catastrophe and a disaster, a caricature, ridiculous.’ But I love that feeling. I’m craving these opportunities.”

The Guardian

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