That Sandra Hüller is no ordinary actress became clear to a wide swath of critics and cinephiles with “Toni Erdmann.” Maren Ade’s global breakout 2016 comedy tracked the relationship of a hard-driving professional woman and her scruffy, anarchic father (the late Peter Simonischek), who wants to push her out of her comfort zone and make her reconnect with her inner child. Over the course of this delightful father-daughter journey, the uptight executive winds up belting out Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” and sauntering around a party völlig nackt (totally nude).
But even after rave reviews, an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and multiple Hollywood meetings, the actress stayed in Germany, continuing to pursue roles in European theater and film that kept her close to her daughter, who is now 12.
This year, though, she is on the festival circuit with two Cannes prize-winners: French filmmaker Justine Triet‘s Palme d’Or winner, the intense courtroom whodunit “Anatomy of a Fall” (for which Hüller could be nominated for Best Actress), and Jonathan Glazer‘s searing holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest,” which won the Grand Prix (for which she could get the nod for Best Supporting Actress). Landing nominations for both roles is a real possibility.
Both filmmakers responded to Hüller because she is fearless and natural, whatever she does. She is not thinking about how she looks, how to please us, make herself attractive, or win our approval. She inhabits the characters and that is it. That’s easy to say — and much harder to do.
Triet became obsessed with the actress, she told me at a meeting in Los Angeles, after she played a small role as an English-speaking director in Triet’s 2019 drama “Sibyl.” She found herself writing “Anatomy of a Fall” for Hüller, which Triet and her life partner, filmmaker Arthur Harari, wrote in French over the pandemic, later translating Hüller’s role into English.
She bet that the actress had the “magnetism” to hold the audience’s interest for two and a half hours, she said: “She’s elusive. Uncatchable. She’s always different.”
In the film, out this week in the States from Neon, Hüller plays a tough woman who doesn’t give an inch, a professional writer who doesn’t seek sympathy from the jury when she is being tried for the murder of her husband (Samuel Theis). Did she push him out of an attic window to his death? We see in a courtroom flashback one intense fight with her husband, who blames his achiever wife for his own lack of success. And we see her anxiety about her 11-year-old blind son (Milo Machado Graner), who witnesses the fallen body and, like everyone both inside and outside the movie, questions her innocence.
So did Hüller. “Justine didn’t tell me,” she told IndieWire at Telluride. “She never told me if Sandra is guilty or not. I desperately wanted to know at some point. And the only thing she said to me is that she wants me to play her like she’s innocent, which made me insecure on the spot, because I thought, ‘what does it mean? She is, but I have to pretend she’s not? What’s that message? What am I going to do with it?’ And then she felt that I was confused.”
She continued, “And then she said, ‘No, no, no, that’s not what I mean.’ I realized that it’s not about this riddle if she’s done it or not. It’s more about the things that we think about her, every little detail that we know about it, how we judge her in every aspect of her life, like the relationship with her son, with her husband, with her work, her ability to not feel guilty at any moment for anything she’s done in her life. She’s taking complete responsibility for everything she’s doing. It is a really mature thing. I admire that very much.”
Mostly, collaborating with Triet is great fun for Hüller. “The script was perfect when I got it,” she said. “And I immediately said, ‘yes,’ because I wanted to be that woman, and to explore this topic, because this relationship that they have, maybe all of us know a little bit of that. Who has the power, and who gets which space, who gets which time? Who was excusing himself all the time for not working and blaming the other person to make him sit at home? We all know that.”
“Sandra’s level of availability is very rare,” said Triet. “She is not so focused, as is common in cinema, on the well-done thing, (which is) also a functional and efficient way to go, and repeatable. Because she can give different things one day to the next because she’s connected to herself, and then also to her scene partners and the things that surround her in a way that is rare. And there’s no seduction there. She’s really deep, profound. She’s giving something that is inside her.”
The actress appreciates the give and take and lack of hierarchy on Triet’s sets. “There was a constant exchange of thoughts,” she said. “We both work from a childlike place, that’s the connection. And she’s not judgmental, she’s absolutely fair. She’s inspiring with the things that she gives you for work because there are some directors who make the world of an actor smaller with what they say with things that you already know. Or things that are not interesting at all, so you have to protect the space and you have to make it bigger for yourself. But she always adds something that’s really interesting to me and I want to try.”
It was a juggling act, giving Triet different line readings and still keeping track of the arc of the role. “You have to keep everything in sight,” Hüller said. “There’s only one or two moments where all the emotion comes out. It was liberating to play someone who just doesn’t say sorry. For what? And because I’m someone who’s extremely self-aware all the time, it was a big relief to see someone who says, ‘Yeah, I made a mistake. It’s true. That’s it, that’s me.’ I wish there would be more characters like that because people are not just one thing. We get so many offers to play people who are one color. There’s such a spectrum of things that we can do. And Justine admitted that and I really love her for this.”
For “The Zone of Interest,” when Hüller learned from a top Berlin casting agency that Jonathan Glazer was auditioning actors, she was interested. At that point, she didn’t know that the movie in question was adapting Martin Amis’ book about a family living next to a concentration camp. If she had known Nazis were involved, she said, she might not have shown up.
“I had no interest in playing those sort of people,” she said. “There are several reasons for that, especially when it’s an American or English production. There’s a certain taste to it when Germans play this part of history. And usually, it’s the first thing that we are asked to do in another country. German people can also play other people except Fascists. So that was one thing. And then I always felt this reincarnation of this strange thinking. I observed some of my colleagues getting into speaking and the power and what the uniform does, especially to men, so that I sensed a certain … enjoyment in it? I didn’t like that; I didn’t want to go to that place. So that’s why it didn’t make sense to me to play a Fascist woman.”
At the audition, the actress read two pages of two people arguing about something. She was told, “It’s about the Hoss family,” the commandant of Auschwitz. “And I was shocked,” she said. “I had a strong physical response to that, it really made me sick.”
So Hüller took it step by step because she wanted to meet Glazer. “I was fan of his movies and his videos that were part of my life for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t, to be honest, put much effort in. I protected myself from this perspective. He wanted to do it with me, and then we had a lot of discussions about that.”
At an A24 party in Toronto, Glazer said he couldn’t have made the movie with any other actress. He marveled at Huller’s transformation when she found her costumes. He said it seemed like her entire body changed to become the wife of Commandant Hoss.
With the pandemic and other concerns, the project was postponed. The actress had already made commitments. “It was a long way until we finally started doing it,” she said. “He was waiting for me. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that because that’s rare in the first place. But I had to make sure that it’s the right decision because this could have gone wrong so badly. It was such a risky thing to do to be applauded by the wrong audience, for example, like, some people could fetishize this kind of life that we live there in front of the camera. People who are fond of this sort of mindset.”
How often, in Germany or South Africa or other places, have the world of white people justified their comfort and well-being at the expense of others who are starving to death? “We do that every day,” Hüller said. “That’s what Jonathan’s point was from the beginning. They’re closer to us than we think. And it’s also a thought that I would never have admitted before because it was like, ‘That’s them and it’s me.’ We are not related in any sort. But that’s a very small blade that we are walking on there because becoming a fascist is something that goes like that, it’s really a quick thing, the moment you think you are better than another person and you deserve more than another person around you, no matter who they are, it’s like that. And you would more likely like to see them dead than to be in contact with them or have them around you.”
At the beginning of the film, a prisoner delivers a huge amount of food to the Hoss household. You see that he’s weak and malnourished as he pushes the full wheelbarrow. Details like that start to accrue as Frau Hoss runs the house and gardens and shows them off to visitors. Hoss is stupid, gluttonous, and silly.
“I sensed when we were working with it that there was nothing inside,” Hüller said. “Because I realized that as an actor, and maybe as a human being, it’s impossible to hate one part of humanity and to love your children at the same time. It just doesn’t work. So I strongly felt that there was nothing inside. Just the greed to be better than others, to have more and more and more of a beauty that she can’t even feel. She doesn’t even know how to connect with those flowers and this garden, it’s like something that she sees, but it would never get inside of her. Jonathan and I made a decision: to make her as simple and basic as we could.”
Glazer let the film play out, Terrence Malick style, with 10 hidden cameras in the house set that allowed the actors total freedom to wander and play entire scenes through for the full 10 minutes. “We didn’t see them all around the house,” she said, “so that we could start a scene in one room and finish upstairs. We never knew what he would capture, if it was our hands or faces, or just an eye, or the whole thing. We didn’t know anything. There was no team visible, they were all hidden in another building and also in the basement of the house. There was no light, no makeup, nothing that would stop us from doing what we do. It was one of the most inspiring, unusual working spaces that I’ve ever been in.”
The most challenging scene was about trying on a fur coat her husband brings over from the camp. “I just couldn’t do it right,” she said. “Because it’s not so easy to pretend you’re alone in a room when you know that there’s cameras all over the place. She had to be alone with the coat, and to pretend to be alone at the same time posing in front of the mirror. It was not so easy to find the right balance. There was a lot of takes. Also, there was one part in it where she finds a bit of hair in her mouth, and she realized it’s from a human being who had on that coat. I couldn’t do it right. There was always too much thought behind it, finding it. We tried and tried and tried.”
Another tough scene to pull off was a giggly sleepy-time romp with the husband (Christian Friedel) and wife. “We really didn’t know how much fun we were allowed to have,” she said. “Because I didn’t allow myself any sort of fun during that shooting, I didn’t go to any parties. I couldn’t even think of it! We also tried variations where they were serious or just tired, or one of them wanted to get closer. But in the end, Jonathan allowed us to let them have fun, which was perverse and felt wrong.”
And when she flirts with the gardener inside the greenhouse? “It’s a violent flirt, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s not a real flirt because it’s just a power flirt.”
As they were filming, Glazer shared that the sounds of the camp outside were going to inform the movie, as well. “We were aware of all the sounds that would be added, of all the pictures that would be added, the smoke, all the things that we would see behind the wall,” she said. “He was very transparent about these things, which I honor so much, because there’s so many directors who keep you in the dark about what they’re up to. And they just use you and your body and your soul and your face to make their piece of art. He doesn’t do that.”
Next up: Two Austrian films. She’s open to other things but isn’t seeking them out. “It’s always been this way: ‘What are you gonna give me?’”