Daniel Brühl Reflects on His Eclectic Career: ‘I Don’t Want to Always Drive in Second or Third Gear and Feel Safe’

During a roundtable interview at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where star Daniel Brühl is being feted with the KVIFF President’s Award, the actor-director-producer recalled the “very bittersweet memories” of his directorial debut, the dark German comedy “Next Door,” being chosen for competition at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival, only for the festival to be held virtually that year. Three years later, as part of KVIFF’s celebration of Brühl’s career, “Next Door” is set to screen at the Grand Hall, the festival’s premiere venue, with a proper in-person audience.

Inspired by an idea that came to him while dining in a restaurant in Spain a decade ago, Brühl’s prickly film combines a meta examination of movie stardom with a stark critique of rampant gentrification. The two-hander stars Brühl as an egotistical actor, also named Daniel, who stops into a local Berlin bar while on his way to a big Hollywood audition and finds himself in a battle of the wits with a disgruntled neighbor named Bruno (Peter Kurth, “Babylon Berlin”).

More from IndieWire

Although producer Malte Grunert, who received a best picture Oscar nomination for “All Quiet On The Western Front” two years ago, convinced the actor to step behind the camera and work with his company Amusement Park Films for his directorial debut, Brühl told IndieWire he credits fellow multi-hyphenate Julie Delpy with first inspiring him to pursue this other side of filmmaking. “I was in LA and I was struggling,” Brühl said, thinking he had “too much respect for filmmaking” to try his hand at it. Delpy, who has directed Brühl four films in the last fifteen years including “My Zoe” the first film Brühl worked on as a producer, pushed him to give it a shot.

Brühl developed his idea with novelist and screenwriter Daniel Kehlmann (“You Should Have Left”) into a two-hander, which he felt he was capable of directing as a first film. In “Next Door,” Brühl plays a heightened version of himself, a self-centered actor who broke out starring in a “Stasi comedy” (Brühl’s breakout film was 2003’s “Good Bye, Lenin!”), stars in an Emmy- nominated TV series (from 2018-2020 Brühl starred in the Emmy-nominated “The Alienist”), who is on his way to audition for a superhero film (since 2016 Brühl has appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as baddie Helmut Zemo). “Some of my friends say it’s quite close to who I really am,” he laughed.

A running joke in the film is Daniel’s desire to play Beethoven in a biopic. In real life Brühl has no such high aspirations. “I wouldn’t dare to play that man,” he said, while adding that it’s fun to be offered a role and think, “that’s absurd!” and then dig deeper. When first offered the role of Karl Lagerfeld in the French language Disney+ series “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld,” he thought, “What?!,” but then “something made me think, I want to play that role. There was something in it that I found very interesting.”

In the series the polyglot actor plays the late fashion icon as he rises through the world of haute couture in 1970s Paris, including his rivalry with Yves Saint Laurent (Arnaud Valois) and his tempestuous relationship with his lover Jacques de Bascher (Théodore Pellerin). On his ability to act in several different languages Brühl shared with the roundtable that, “I like to play in different languages because you discover the strengths and weaknesses of each and every language. It explains so much who the character is and where he comes from. It is a wonderful tool and has a strong effect on your acting.” He continued, “Ultimately, Karl Lagerfeld had to be in French. I would have not accepted it if it had been in English or German. That was the culture that he loved. He wanted to be more French than German.”

With several films and television projects coming up, Brühl shared that as he approaches what he refers to as his “midlife crisis” (the actor turned 46 in June), he wants to continue working outside his comfort zone, “I don’t want to always drive in second or third gear and feel safe.” This means seeking projects that are diverse and different, which the actor told the roundtable he finds are ultimately “more challenging and interesting and thrilling for me.”

On his docket is the upcoming HBO series “The Franchise,” from Armando Iannucci, Sam Mendes, and Jon Brown (“Succession”), which began filming in February. Although the series satirizes the superhero film industrial complex, Brühl stressed to the roundtable he isn’t drawing inspiration for his performance in the “shockingly authentic, incredibly witty” show from his work with the MCU, but confessed that he “has been in other projects where I felt the despair and frustration that I could use. I’ve been there once or twice. I’ve been in that place.”

Brühl is also reunited with “Rush” director Ron Howard for the survival thriller “Eden,” which filmed last autumn in Queensland, Australia. Written by Noah Pink (“Tetris”), the film follows a group of people who attempt to build a new society on the Galápagos Islands. Brühl stars alongside a stacked ensemble cast that includes Ana de Armas, Jude Law, Vanessa Kirby, Sydney Sweeney, and “All Quiet on the Western Front” breakout star Felix Kammerer.

And finally, there is his second directorial effort, the recently announced “Break,” which will feature Kammerer as German tennis champion Gottfried von Cramm, whose refusal to identify with the rising Nazism of the 1930s put him at odds with the German government. As a filmmaker, Brühl told the roundtable he is ready to take a big swing and “potentially fall on your nose and break a leg. Otherwise it’s not fun.”

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.