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Daniel Brühl transforms into a Prussian and Proustian Karl Lagerfeld on Hulu: ‘Underneath all his layers was a great romantic’

The German-Spanish actor plays the man who came before the icon over six episodes, portraying the eternal outsider in the nocturnal excess of early 1970s Paris

Daniel Brühl
Actor Daniel Brühl, who stars in the series ‘Becoming Karl Lagerfeld,' in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva
Héctor Llanos Martínez

Nearly 20 years ago, Karl Lagerfeld and Daniel Brühl began an improbable cycle that is now arriving at a close. It opened when the designer captured the photographic essence of the actor who, decades later, has made a dramatic metamorphosis to embody fashion’s Kaiser in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, a series available for streaming on Hulu in the U.S. The Spanish-German performer has one of these fateful images on his phone on Monday during his visit to Madrid to promote the project. In it, an introspective Brühl can be seen on the right side of a Polaroid shot, gazing towards a zenithal light that falls across him. The photo announces a career bound for greatness, one of an artist who sees no need to make much noise about the fact.

It was the only time that the two Germans would meet in person. And though it might seem that they have contrary personalities, a nearly immediate understanding took hold between them. The encounter took place after the debut of Brühl’s film Good Bye, Lenin! (2003). A fashion magazine commissioned Lagerfeld to take photos of various actors on the rise, Brühl among them. At one point, the young, would-be movie star turned away, uncomfortable with the overwrought facial expressions his fellow actors were conjuring in front of the camera lens, for what they thought would be the magazine’s cover shot. The Kaiser looked at the ambivalent Brühl and nodded his head in a discreet gesture of approval. Lagerfeld offered to take some solo portraits of him. Recently, when the actor learned he would be playing the designer, Brühl reached out to the assistant from that long-ago photo shoot and asked for the images.

For Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, Brühl tapped into the spirit of a man who he defines as “a vulnerable young man, fragile — one of the great romantics, as if he were a character from a Proust novel.” The opportunity to play the Lagerfeld who came before the character the designer invented for himself was what led him to accept the role. “I had an intuition that told me it wasn’t madness, but a gift,” says Brühl, who was relieved to play “at least once a historic German figure without having to wear Nazi boots.”

At the start of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld’s six episodes, the designer is not exactly the successful man who has become engraved in collective memory. It’s the year 1972 and the nearly 40-year-old German is still unknown to the larger public. He lives with his mother in Paris and makes a comfortable living as a fashion mercenary with little of his own creative personality. During a creative block that has extended to his sex life, he falls in love with Jacques de Bascher, a dandy ensconced in the city’s high society who is played in the series by Théodore Pellerin. With him, Lagerfeld finds the courage to confront his friend and rival Yves Saint Laurent (Arnaud Valois), the local legend with whom the couple forms a complex love triangle under the watchful eye of Pierre Bergé (Alex Lutz), Saint Laurent’s partner and companion.

This chapter in Lagerfeld’s turbulent rise to fame, shown through characters as banal and colorful as they are glamorous, shows the man who came before the empire, the icon who reinvented the Chanel identity, surrounded by women like Paloma Picasso, Loulou de la Falaise and Marlen Dietrich. When the designer arrived in France in the 1950s, Germans were unpopular, and so he invented himself a Swiss father. This was an outsider who was hungry enough to face off with France’s god, Saint Laurent. “I was endeared by that need to be passionate and human, which he didn’t always manage to be. As he achieved his goals, Lagerfeld added more and more layers to his public image, to that shield with which he protected himself,” says the actor. “My friends, whom I know very well and can tell when they’re lying to me, liked the result, so for the moment, I’m satisfied.”

Daniel Brühl
Daniel Brühl plays Karl Lagerfeld alongside Théodore Pellerin’s Jacques de Bascher in the series.

Brühl, who has built an enviable international career and spends a good part of his time in a country home on Mallorca, feels partially identified with the anachronism that Lagerfeld inhabited. “He was a solitary man in a Paris of excesses, in which everyone was lost in the night, drugs, and sex. And meanwhile, he was trying to retire to a palace and be loyal to one man. He wanted to bring the fairytales in his head to life,” says the actor. The complicated and unstable love story with de Bascher helped Lagerfeld to find the courage he was lacking, but in addition to romance, it brought to his life a fair amount of manipulation and toxicity, says the actor.

After the six episodes that have so far been released, the actor says there remains much to tell when it comes to Lagerfeld’s story, including the portrayal of the persona the designer invented for himself. As such, he wouldn’t mind taking up the project again in a second season. Not to mention, post-love Lagerfeld. De Bascher, with whom it is said the designer never had sex, was claimed by the AIDS epidemic, dying in the late ‘80s at the age of 38 in seclusion so that no one could bear witness to his physical decline. The designer installed an extra bed in de Bascher’s hospital room so that he could accompany him until the end. A decade later, Lagerfeld launched a perfume that bore his partner’s name, Jako. “When they offered me the role, I was in shock, but now I would like to delve deeper into it, until I meet the Lagerfeld I encountered 20 years ago,” says the actor.

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld
‘Becoming Karl Lagerfeld’ is set in 1970s Paris.Disney+

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