Meet Sandra Hüller - the undisputed European star of 2023 bringing Hollywood to its knees

Meet Sandra Hüller - the undisputed European star of 2023 bringing Hollywood to its knees
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

What a year it’s been for Sandra Hüller.

The German actress had her international breakthrough in 2016 with Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, which wowed the Cannes crowds for its premiere and propelled the actress to new heights outside of her native Germany. The Oscars even came a knockin', when Toni Erdmann was nominated for an Academy Award.

But this year, Hüller was well and truly in the spotlight.

She stars in two of 2023’s best films: the Cannes Palme d’Or-winning film Anatomy of a Fall, in which she plays Sandra Voyter, a novelist and mother accused of murder, and the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest, one of the most vital films in recent memory, in which she plays Hedwig Höss, the wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss - one of history’s most notorious mass murderers.

The versatility the 45-year-old actress has displayed on screen this year is truly impressive, and has drawn comparisons to both Ingrid Bergman and Isabelle Hupert. And when taken together, both Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest show a performer at the summit of her craft.

With both films getting serious awards traction in the US and already several trophy wins in this year’s ongoing awards season – including Best Actress wins at the Gotham Awards, the European Film Awards, the top acting award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and already a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress - there’s every chance that Hüller could land Oscar acting nods by starring in two non-English language films.

But before the Oscars next March – in which both films are contenders as the official submissions from France and the UK for the Best International Feature Oscar – Euronews Culture sat down with the undisputed star of 2023 in Berlin, prior to her Best Actress win, to discuss both films, the challenges involved in playing a Nazi, as well as the awards buzz directed towards her.

Sandra Hüller
Sandra Hüller - Taylor Jewell/ Invision/ AP

Euronews Culture: Let’s start with Anatomy of a Fall. I read that you weren’t sure whether the character you were playing was guilty or innocent, and that director Justine Triet told you that she’d like you to play her like she’s innocent. How did you go about navigating that uncertainty?

Sandra Hüller: Somebody asked me when I had a screening in Romania if I would say it's a film about a woman who's accused of killing her husband, or if it's a story about a son whose mother is accused of killing his father. And I think this perspective is really important. Justine never wanted to lose the point of view of the boy. He doesn't know. He also doesn't know until the end. So it's just about your own imagination, and what you are capable of thinking or not thinking.

Most of the times when I work, I try not to only think about the character. I always think about the whole thing. Otherwise, it's too narrow for me. I have to think about all the other things, too. That's why it wasn't so difficult, because we wanted to tell something else. We wanted to tell something about finding the truth, and how it's possible. I don't know if I can explain it better.

The film plays with detective story tropes and it’s interesting when you’re talking with people who have seen it – a pattern emerges that a lot of male viewers believe that she did it...

Funny, huh? But I didn't know. And I struggled with it for a few days, and then I decided that is not important. I wanted to say every sentence so that people would believe what I say. And even if somebody did such a thing that she's accused of, they would still believe maybe in court that they are innocent. I just tried to be believable in what I say.

In the film, your character is also being judged for being a woman, for being bisexual, for not being kind with other people. And for being successful. Beyond the whodunnit intrigue, the movie talks about being a woman in society.

Last night, I met a friend and she said, “You know, this word feminist is used in all sorts of ways, but in this film, it's kind of appropriate.” And that it. It’s a real, true feminist film. Even if it doesn't wave it around and shove it in your face. It shows the normal behaviour that people would have, and that makes a statement.

I think every choice for a role is a political one. (…) We need films that risk something, and we need people who have a strong voice and who are daring to articulate it.

Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall
Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall - Le Pacte

I had the pleasure of speaking to Agnieszka Holland, and she said that at the moment we need more audacious films, bold films, films that, as you say, make a statement. Is this something that you look for when you choose your roles? And specifically considering the tumultuous times we live in, films that have something to say beyond their artistic value.

I think every choice for a role is a political one. Even if you say, I don't want to deal with politics now because I just need a break and I just want to do something that is easy for myself. That's also a political decision. So, yes, I agree. We need films that risk something, of course. And we need people who have a strong voice and who are daring to articulate it.

Justine (Triet) gives a lot of freedom in creating and she gives a lot of possibilities to maybe not do the right thing. But it's never bad. She would never say "That's bad, let's do it again.” And there are some people who actually do that - “That was really bad!” It is something that doesn't really give you the feeling that you should show something more. That’s not very encouraging. She gives all sorts of possibilities, and she wants to find the way through the story with everybody. It's not her standing somewhere saying “It's this and this and this, and everybody must go this way.” Everything that's on the way, she takes with her. And then in the editing room, she looks at it and sees what she will do with it. For an actor like me, it’s a very good thing because I can do everything and I can make the character as rich as possible.

Justine Triet said that you bring your characters very close to you. But on the other hand, you said about Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest that you didn't want to get into the character's mind in that way. How did you approach those characters?

I had to find a way with Hedwig Höss, without empathizing with her, to be able to be in this project without actually playing a character. So I used all the elements that were there - the incredible hair was a big part of it, as well as the costumes, and the whole house. All these things had an influence on my presence in this experiment. I think I worked from the outside from what I wanted to show, and normally I don't work from what I want to show, but what I want to experience. I had to find other ways. For example, trying to find out how would somebody walk when you had seen so many children walking in the garden, constantly being a farmer, or carrying maybe a weight on her shoulder that she's not aware of...

One of the most riveting aspects about this part is how everything was so normalized and how Hedwig Höss behaves with her mother, the gardening, the children, as if nothing goes on next door in the death camp. You played her so normal, and so purely. Was it hard finding that kind of distance?

I think this was kind of the task, and this result is what all the script was about and what we wanted to show. The question that we asked was: How is it possible to be that way? This was the constant question in our minds when we played. But it’s hard for me to answer the question, as we didn't hear the incredible sound design by Johnnie Burn when we were there. We knew where we were, especially as Germans. We knew what it meant to be there. I was very moved by the welcoming gestures of everybody from the Polish team involved. So, this kind of humble way of working influenced what you can see now.

Using the Holocaust as a canvas for an emotional thing to tell about a family... That is something that disgusts me, to be honest.

Sandra Hüller (second from right) with Justine Triet (center) and the cast of Anatomy of a Fall for the Cannes Palme d'Or win this year
Sandra Hüller (second from right) with Justine Triet (center) and the cast of Anatomy of a Fall for the Cannes Palme d'Or win this year - Daniel Cole/AP

You’ve been open about saying how reluctant you were to play a fascist woman, sharing that you weren’t even sure whether you would show up to the audition for The Zone of Interest... How did Jonathan Glazer make you feel at ease, and convince you that his approach was going to be different that what we’ve already seen in films dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust?

He was very honest, but he didn't make me feel at ease! He was very aware of the fact that there would never be an 'at ease moment' at all during this period of shooting. Never. And even now. It is such an important thing to show and tell, and to make people feel, because this is what this film does. It makes people actually feel the horror that took place and it makes them see how easy it is to go to the place where the Höss family was - to just close your eyes to everything that is happening next door, or on European borders, let's be very open about it.

You see all the politics in each country. My country, too. We do a lot of things for convenience, and these were things that we talked about constantly for The Zone of Interest. I had a lot of respect for (Glazer’s) point of view, the artistic decisions that he made, and the fact he would not have a dramatic story about a fascist couple, or use the Holocaust as a canvas for an emotional thing to tell about a family. That is something that disgusts me, to be honest. He chose another way. He showed the most dull, basic, banal lives that you can imagine - people just wanting a little bit more, you know, just to have the nice garden, the kids in peace, and who don't care what's happening next door. That's what he did, and I found it appropriate.

We have a lot of ignorance going on in our own lives in order to live a convenient and peaceful life. We tend to look away.

Jonathan Glazer has said that he doesn't like these dramatic narratives in Hollywood movies about the Holocaust. He said that it’s very easy to empathize with the victim and that he wants you to wonder if you can be the perpetrator. What's your opinion of Hollywood movies that deal with this topic?

I think what he wanted to show is how thin the line is between us and them. Because, as I said before, we have a lot of ignorance going on in our own lives in order to live a convenient and peaceful life. We tend to look away. When I look at Agnieszka Holland’s film Green Border, that’s honestly something we should think about every day. What was important to (Glazer) is not to show the feelings of these people, but to show how much we have in common with them. So, when we look at what he did, what we did there, that we would make a connection to ourselves. Some people I have talked to have made that connection already. And they felt I wouldn't say guilty, but they were very aware of the amount of work they put into looking away. And I feel it's very important that he that he tried to do this.

Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest
Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest - A24

Can you talk about the shooting process for The Zone of Interest, with the hidden cameras in the house for example?

Even if you didn't see them, we never forgot they were there... Because that would have been weird to find yourself in a house with some Nazi memorabilia. And if there's no camera around, what I do and what am I doing here? (Laughs) But yes, this surveillance system that they built I think had a strong psychological effect on the cast and everybody else who was involved, because it creates sort of a burden, a responsibility. You are very aware of the judgment that is happening and you don't know about the artistic decisions that are made behind the camera. You don't know what kind of frame they would use. You don't know how close they are. You are in a way completely left alone with the topic and with your thoughts on it and with your acting partner, which creates a strong connection. Because you have to rely on each other. You cannot do your own thing at any moment. You are in this together. It was a sort of spiritual experience, too, if I may say, because it's not just a technical thing. I think Jonathan opened the space for something present in the space that was not only technical. And I cannot even say what it is, but I had a strong feeling that we are both sharing something unspeakable at that moment.

Considering we're talking about both Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest in tandem, because they're released around the same time and you're being nominated for awards for both films, does talking about both character make you reflect on the way you think about them? And do you establish any parallels between the two - the fact that they quite inscrutable characters, for example?

No. (Laughs) This period of working was a long period. It started with The Zone of Interest. Then I went to a German film called Sissy and I. And then it was Anatomy of a Fall. So, I had to make like an internal connection, or a task connection between the three. Otherwise it wouldn't have been possible. Because when you are in a project that is dealing with fascism and after that, going through a period piece about Sissy, a character who is completely free and who doesn't judge at all, who would feel everything, who would say everything that comes to her mind... I tried to use this to get rid of the first one. And then, be happy to move on to a complete and mature woman who is taking responsibility for everything that she's doing and feeling. Sandra Voyter is a woman who is not apologizing for anything. Maybe that is a connection, now that I think about it, because I think she was doing nothing wrong.

Both of these works are extremely important to me - personally , artistically, professionally. They took me to a place as an actor that I never thought that I would be able to go.

Sandra Hüller (second from left) for the premiere of Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest
Sandra Hüller (second from left) for the premiere of Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest - Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

You’ve been nominated for several prizes, sometimes twice in the same category for both these roles – something that doesn’t happen very often. Many are even predicting that you’re on your way to an Oscar nomination...

Where's my crystal ball? (Laughs) What can I say to this? I don't know the history of double nominations. I didn't look it up. You know, both of these works are extremely important to me - personally , artistically, professionally. They took me to a place as an actor that I never thought that I would be able to go. So, I am very lucky that I met these two teams and that we were able to make this these two sorts of films that are so different from each other and both so serious – that's also maybe what connects them! I'm just very happy that people recognize this, and that they give me the chance to travel with these films through the world.

Would that sort of awards recognition be important to you?

I can't say anything to that. It's really out of my control. I mean, it would be very, very exciting. But I don't know how to deal with this in my mind, and this is a system that I don't understand. I don't know the rules. I don't know what you have to do to be visible. There are so many studios involved in this kind of path and they make the decisions on it. So I really can't say anything!

Sandra Huller
Sandra Huller - Vianney Le Caer/Invision/ AP

When I accept something, I'm in for it completely, and there's nothing that can hold me back or that I would hold back.

Since we’re speaking about Oscars and Hollywood, one major event that happened this year was the actors strikes, which is now over. You've been very outspoken in the past about your role in the industry, specifically with regards to theatre during COVID. Do you fear that a similar situation might happen in Europe, with the encroaching role of AI and that some studios seem to view actors as essentially vehicles for content?

I don't think so. It’s interesting because I was thinking about the strike possibility, and if it would be possible in Europe or in any European country - if people would unite that way, like the American industry. The standing together phenomenon was really impressive for me, and that they really took it to the end of it until they got what they wanted. I think in Europe, we don't have this kind of film culture of the big productions where you could just replace somebody. I have the feeling it is very connected to the personalities of the actors. For now. I don't know how this will develop, but for now, I don't fear it.

But with regards to AI. I mean, you’re recording this interview with your phone on the table and your older little device, but we are all connected to these devices. One day we will see that we cannot live without them anymore, which is somehow already the case. So we are already sort of borgs, if you will. I don't know where this is leading, but for now I feel that the European film industry doesn't rely on artificial intelligence.

Your filmography is incredibly varied. Are there any genres that you haven't explored yet that you'd be really keen to do?

That's something that I can't really say. I’m always curious about what is coming my way and that stays the same. I never put any direction in it. If I did, I feel like it's like limiting something. When accepting a role, it’s kind of a gut decision that I can't really describe. When I accept something, I'm in for it completely, and there's nothing that can hold me back or that I would hold back. But the way to that decision is sometimes a bit bumpy. Sometimes it's just the place that I want to go. Sometimes, as I said, it's always a political decision and what story you want to be a part of. Sometimes it's a director that I really want to get to know. Sometimes it's a partner. I think most of the times it's something that I hadn't seen or thought before, or a story that I don't think after two pages I know already or can guess what the ending is going to be.

Considering these two films have made 2023 very much your year, is there something you take with you or that you learned from these two very different women?

I learned a lot from Sandra Voyter. I would love to have the boldness to do things the way she does. I think maybe it takes a little more practice. And from Hedwig Höss, I learned something from a bit about her. There were a lot of conversations between Jonathan and me about this person, about somebody who can accept the death of millions of people next door. Can they actually love their children or their garden or their dog? And I think they can't. If somebody who cannot love one part of humanity and wish death to the other part, it's just not compatible. That’s what I learned.

Anatomy of a Fall is in cinemas and out on DVD/ BluRay in certain European territories. The Zone of Interest is released in European cinemas in January.