This story about Sandra Hüller first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.
Justine Triet has a word for Sandra Hüller, her star in the dark family drama “Anatomy of a Fall,” which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: ungraspable.
“It is a word in English that I didn’t know before yesterday,” she said in early October. “And now I want to use it all the time, for Sandra.”
The word certainly applies to Hüller’s character in “Anatomy of a Fall,” in which she plays a successful writer (also named Sandra) who is accused of murdering her husband. Triet never tips her hand to reveal whether Sandra is innocent or guilty, with Hüller finding a way to suggest both alternatives at the same time as the thorny film swings between a portrait of a fracturing relationship and a charged courtroom drama.
But “Anatomy” isn’t the only powerful project that Hüller is in this year; it’s not even the only one that premiered in Cannes in May. The German actress is also one of the leads in Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” a dispassionate and chilling examination of a Nazi family that lives in a bucolic house just outside the gates of Auschwitz, where the father, Rudolph Höss, is in charge of the mass extermination of Jews. Hüller’s Hedwig Höss is a woman who loves her lifestyle and to all appearances doesn’t give a thought to what’s happening on the other side of that wall. She’s hard to understand, but more than that, impossible to find sympathetic.
The two films are a study in contrasts: “Anatomy” urgent, talky and in-your-face, with Hüller’s character pleading her case through much of the action; Zone all about distances, with the camera backing off from these awful people who want to live normal lives unshadowed by their monstrous deeds. You could say that both characters are ungraspable, and Hüller would probably agree — but when Triet used the word, she made it clear that she applied it not to Sandra the character but to Sandra the actress.
In conversation, there’s something elusive about Hüller. The 45-year-old, who was born in Suhl when it was part of East Germany, is friendly but a little hesitant; she’s said that she admires actors who can spin anecdotes and charm interviewers, but there’s also a sense that she doesn’t do that partly because English isn’t her first language (German is) but also because she chooses not to.
The first time TheWrap interviewed her, at a screening of “Toni Erdmann” in 2016, she was enjoying a breakthrough with that Oscar-nominated film after a career that had begun on the stage and then included a string of films that didn’t get much exposure outside of Europe. At that Q&A, I brought up a story that director Maren Ade had told me about how, during rehearsals for the movie’s uproarious naked dinner party scene, Hüller opened the door nude to give a late-arriving actor a start. At the screening, Hüller said she didn’t know what I was talking about, that it had never happened — but when I saw her again a week later, she apologized profusely and said she’d misunderstood me and the story was true. When I reminded her of our earlier encounter when we met for this story, she said she didn’t remember that and wouldn’t have answered the door naked, but maybe she did so in her underwear.
So who is Sandra Hüller? She’s gifted, private and, yes, ungraspable — but she’s also made a big and bold mark on cinema in 2023, when she became the first actor ever to star in Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner (“Anatomy of a Fall”) and its Grand Prix winner (“The Zone of Interest”). She speaks three languages in those two films — English and French in “Anatomy” and German in “Zone” — and she also appeared at this year’s Berlin Film Festival as one of the stars of “Sisi & I,” a historical black comedy in which Hüller plays 19th-century countess Irma Sztáray, who became a handmaiden to Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Susanne Wolff), also known as Sisi. (The 2022 film “Corsage,” shot at the same time, was another revisionist and feminist film about that monarch.)
“It is what it is,” she said matter-of-factly of having “Anatomy” and “Zone” simultaneously stirring up awards buzz. “It’s a great blessing that they are both running at the same time and that I can find out so many more things about my work and what people think about it. To me, it feels like a gift.”
Like many other things these days, you can thank the COVID-19 pandemic for the Hüller logjam this awards season. “The Zone of Interest” was originally scheduled to shoot in 2020 but was delayed to 2021 because of the pandemic, giving her only six weeks off before she began shooting “Sisi & Me.” When that film ended, she had about three months before “Anatomy of a Fall” began production, though she was also taking lessons to improve her French before that film.
“I like to have a lot of free time between works,” she said. “I like the time to settle and to reconnect with the life I’m living, because shooting can be very intense. There’s a whole thing that goes on with the body hormone-wise when you’re working — adrenaline and dopamine and all these things that you can’t live with every day or you’d go crazy. I need some time to get it out of my body.” A shrug. “But sometimes, you can’t do that.”
The Holocaust movie, oddly, was both the most difficult one to do and the one that took the least out of her. “I didn’t feel like getting into character while working on ‘The Zone of Interest,’” she said. “I usually tend to be more empathetic with the characters — to love them more, to give them more of my fantasies and more of myself. With Hedwig, it felt wrong to give her anything from me. So I was just watching her and doing what Jonathan told me.”
She was encouraged by the way Glazer shot the film, with cameras set up in the corner of rooms in the house where the Höss family lived, and with the film crew watching from the basement rather than sharing the rooms with the actors. “Jonathan just wanted to show the life of the people with death next to them, caused by them,” she said. “He didn’t want to have any heroism, or to have actors wondering which side would be the best to show, and where’s the light and where’s my mark and all this technical stuff. The topic is so much bigger than these technical questions.”
She shook her head. “I would never have done the movie if it had been a biopic about the Hösses. I never wanted to be part of this world.”
And even though the story is being told by a British director, Hüller felt compelled to be careful with the material because of her nationality. “Doing this as a German, with my ancestors being responsible for all this, is something that I cannot deny,” she said. “The people in my country have the responsibility to keep talking about this, even if some of them deny it. The responsibility not to make it be forgotten and not to let it happen again.
“This was something that happened to the world where time really stopped. It changed the world completely. We were wondering so many times what the world would be like now if this hadn’t happened. And we can’t even imagine it. It had such a big impact that you cannot treat it like every other movie, and I cannot treat the character like every other character.”
After finishing work on “Zone,” Hüller used the “Sisi & I” shoot to wash Hedwig out of her system. “Irma is the complete opposite of Hedwig,” she said. “She’s a very childlike, non-judgmental, kind person. I was thinking about that when I accepted both roles, that Irma would come after Hedwig and wipe her out.”
Shifting to “Anatomy of a Fall” after “Sisi,” she said, was more a case of getting back to her usual way of working. Triet had written the script (with Arthur Harari) with Hüller in mind for the character of the woman who always leaves us questioning her motives and actions. “I was obsessed by her,” the writer-director said. “I don’t always know if it’s the best to write for an actress, but she was very (much) in our mind during the writing. Just thinking about Sandra helped us create a more realistic character.”
In one way, the film’s biggest complication for Hüller was the language: The character speaks English to her husband and son, but she’s required to speak French, in which the actress is less fluent, in the courtroom. The question that dominates the film is set up in the first few scenes, when Sandra’s husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), either falls, jumps or is pushed to his death from the top floor of the couple’s French mountain chalet. We gradually learn that Sandra has lied about certain aspects of their relationship, but we never know whether she killed him. And Hüller never knew, either.
“I was captivated when (Justine) sent me the script,” she said. “I’d never read anything like this about the division of power between modern couples, and I wanted to find out if she did it. I really wanted Justine’s thoughts on this, but she never did tell me. But we found out quickly that it doesn’t really matter. It’s more about what we think of the character and about our own limits and moral boundaries. Can we deal with a woman who doesn’t feel shame? It was not if she did it or not, it was the way she was treated as a human being in this trial.”
On the other hand, having an answer would have given Hüller a clearer idea of how to play Sandra, right? “Yeah,” she said. “It would’ve made it so much easier for me. But I can defend this character no matter what she had or hadn’t done.” In the end, she gave Triet different takes to fit whatever interpretation the director wanted. And more recently, Hüller even got a promise from the director: “She told me two days ago that she will tell me if Sandra did it in 10 years. But not before.”
By that point, Hüller may well be better known in the United States: With the one-two punch of “Anatomy” and “Zone,” which are being released in the U.S. by Neon and A24, respectively, it makes sense that she may be getting interest from Hollywood. On the other hand, that should have happened seven years ago after “Toni Erdmann,” but she said it didn’t.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, so I really don’t know if they are interested in me now,” she said. “Also, I don’t know what kind of direction that would go. I can do some things, but there are some things I certainly cannot do — like superhero stuff, I just couldn’t. I would probably burst out laughing all the time.”
But after emerging from the COVID shutdown with a blast of three movies and lots of Oscar buzz, does she have a sense of where she wants to go next? Have her priorities changed? “They’ve changed because time has passed and I’m a bit older,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I never had any special interests, hobbies or sports. And then my English and German teacher opened a drama club in my school when I was 14 or 15 and it was so much fun — more fun than I had ever found in doing anything else. Now, COVID has shown me how fragile the system is and how fast things can just go away or be postponed. It showed me how precious it is to be able to do this.
“I’m curious what comes from this. But I’m really, really happy that I have this experience — and even if nothing happens, I cannot be disappointed. I would just go on living my life.”
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