German star Sandra Hüller shines at European Film Awards

9 Dec



At the European version of the Oscars, all eyes are on Sandra Hüller, who is nominated for best actress twice for "Anatomy of a Fall" and "The Zone of Interest."


German actress Sandra Hüller is the undisputed star of this year's European Film Awards (EFAs). Europe's answer to the Oscars, the EFAs will be held in Berlin on December 9. Hüller has received an unprecedented dual nomination in the best actress category for her leading roles in Justine Triet's "Anatomy of a Fall," and Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest." 


Both movies were big winners at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where "Anatomy of a Fall" took the Palme d'Or, and "The Zone of Interest" won the Grand Prix, the runner-up to the Palme d'Or prize.

And both are major Academy Awards contenders as the official submissions from France and the UK for the best international feature Oscar. Sandra Hüller is well-known among arthouse aficionados, not least for her barnstorming performance in Maren Ade's Oscar-nominated "Toni Erdmann" (2016). But with "Anatomy of a Fall" and "The Zone of Interest," 2023 could be the year the 45-year-old actress goes mainstream. 


Roots in theater and East Germany

Hüller was born on April 30, 1978 and grew up in the small town of Friedrichroda in rural Thuringia, in what was then East Germany. An inspiring teacher and a school theater course brought her to Berlin where, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, she applied and was accepted to Berlin's renowned Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was just 17. Her ascent to the top of Germany's theater world was quick. In 2003, the year she graduated from Ernst Busch, Hüller was voted best young actress in a poll of German critics for Theater Heute magazine. 

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She's stayed true to her theater roots even as she moved into film, regularly returning to the stage in between movie roles. And she has remained a critical favorite, winning Theater Heute's actress of the year in 2010, 2013, 2019 and most recently in 2020 for an acclaimed gender-flipped performance of Hamlet for Dutch director Johan Simons. 


Raw drama and cringe comedy 

In Hüller's movie debut — in Hans-Christian Schmid's "Requiem" (2006) — she plays a young woman from a devout Catholic family who take her epileptic seizures and rebellious free-thinking as a sign of demonic possession. They order a brutal, ultimately fatal, exorcism. Hüller's performance, wrenching and visceral, won her the Silver Bear for best actress at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival. But it was her performance a decade later, in Maren Ade's improbably-funny German cringe comedy, "Toni Erdmann," that would prove to be Hüller's international breakout.

She plays an ambitious and uptight corporate consultant whose career plans are disrupted by the unwanted interventions of her loving, prankster father, played by the late Peter Simonischek. Hüller's performance — which includes a raw, heartfelt, but also hilarious rendition of the Witney Houston song "Greatest Love of All" — leaves it all on the screen. The London Critics Circle, the Toronto Film Critics Association and America's National Society of Film Critics, thought it was the best female performance of the year. The European Film Academy agreed, giving Hüller the 2016 award for best actress. 


From a French Chalet to 'Big Brother in a Nazi House'

"Anatomy of a Fall" and "The Zone of Interest," two radically different films, show Hüller's tremendous range as an actress. "Anatomy" is a twisty French legal drama. It is an intellectual thriller about Sandra, a successful German novelist (Hüller), living in an isolated chalet in the French Alps, who may or may not have killed her French husband, played by Samuel Theis. Director Justine Triet, who says she wrote the film specifically with Hüller in mind, refused to tell anyone, neither her actors nor the audience, whether Sandra is guilty or innocent.

Hüller's performance, acting in English and French, is ambiguous till the end. Nearly every scene, whether fighting with her husband, comforting their young son or pleading her case in courtroom can be read both ways. In Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest," there's little ambiguity and virtually no sign of emotion in Hüller's turn as Hedwig Höss, the real-life wife of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Höss, played in the film by Christian Friedel, was hanged for war crimes in 1947.

Glazer says Hüller was "very apprehensive" about portraying a Nazi on screen, something that she had until then refused to do. But the British director convinced her his film would be different. It certainly is. "The Zone of Interest" looks and feels unlike any Holocaust drama before it. The film never directly shows the atrocities of Auschwitz. There's not a single scene of violence. Instead, the entire movie plays out like a perverse family drama as we watch Rüdiger and Hedwig Höss picnic by the river, play with their children in the garden or chat with their friends. Just out of sight, but within earshot — there are echoes of gunfire, barking dogs and howls of pain — the murder continues. 

Glazer rebuilt the Höss family home in Auschwitz, just meters from the the former concentration camp that is now a memorial site, and installed surveillance-like cameras to capture the actors as they did their scenes — an approach he's called "Big Brother in a Nazi house." By staging his film as a reality-TV show, Glazer breaks the easy cinema conventions and clichés of the Holocaust movie. Instead of framing Hedwig and Rudolf Höss as monsters, he shows them as ordinary, even boring, making their actions both relatable and all the more horrifying. As Hedwig, Hüller is cold, almost emotionally inert. Her eyes are dark and dead, opening into a void. 

Taken together, "An Anatomy of a Fall" and "The Zone of Interest" show an actress at the peak of her powers. Despite some impressive rivals in the Best Actress race — Leonie Benesch for German drama "The Teachers' Lounge," Finland's Alma Pöysti for "Fallen Leaves," Mia McKenna-Bruce in the British drama "How to Have Sex" and Eka Chavleishvili for Georgian film "Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry" — Sandra Hüller's main competition at the 2023 European Film Awards will be...Sandra Hüller. 


Author Scott Roxborough

Edited by: Brenda Haas

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