"Sometimes, I just wonder what's going on," admits Sandra Hüller.
The German actress has long been an esteemed figure on the international cinema scene, but this year, she became one of its biggest stars when her latest films, Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall and Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and took home the festival's top two prizes; Anatomy of a Fall won the prestigious Palme d'Or, while The Zone of Interest won the runner-up Grand Prix award. Hüller received acclaim for her performances in both films.
Nearly five months later, Hüller is still trying to wrap her head around the attention she's received this year. "It's what you dream about when you go to work," she says. "I'm so grateful that all of this has happened, not only for me but for the films themselves." The actress admits, "There have been times before where I've been recognized for my work, but not so much the films. That can be really painful. But all of us have gotten recognized this year, and that's because we all did it together."
In Anatomy of a Fall, Hüller stars as Sandra, a successful novelist suspected of killing her husband. When she tries to clear her name, Sandra finds her innocence challenged and her relationship with her visually impaired son, the only witness to her husband's mysterious death, pushed to the breaking point. It could not be more different from The Zone of Interest, which opens in December, a WWII drama about a Nazi commandant and the life that he lives with his wife (played by Hüller) and their children at their home next door to Auschwitz.
"I'm very grateful, and I'm very excited. At the same time, I was born in a small town in the former GDR [German Democratic Republic] and that part of me never goes away," the actress tells A.frame. The past few weeks have seen Hüller traveling around the world to promote Anatomy of a Fall, but she knows that eventually this specific whirlwind will die down. "Right now, I’m sitting here in New York and I was in L.A. a few days ago, so all these possibilities are in front of me, and I get to see all these things throughout the world and show them to my daughter. I love that."
"But eventually, I'll go back home and end up folding laundry again," Hüller muses. "Everything's just happening at the same time now."
A.frame: Justine wrote Anatomy of a Fall specifically for you. When you find that out, does that make you feel even more pressured to get it right? Or does it make you feel more confident that you will?
I think what it mostly did — and this was also partly because we had already worked together — was it made it so that I knew she wouldn't try to play any games with me. I knew she wouldn't have me do one thing and then make it look like another thing in the edit. There was an understanding between us: What we'd both fight for in order to portray this woman was something that we didn’t even speak about, because it was totally clear to both of us. When people write specifically for you, it can really go wrong. In this case, I was lucky that Justine didn't write it for me as a person, or to impress me, or because she had a fantasy about me. She wrote it for me as an actor. She trusted me to be able to do it in the way that she wanted it to be done.
When you get a role like this, that is so layered and ambiguous, what are the first questions you ask or the steps that you take to find your way into the character?
I don't normally like to talk or ask questions to get into a character. That's not really something I do. I prefer to just allow them to reside in my body. They don't exist, so they can just come to me. With this film, I was so in love with the strength of this woman and the way she doesn't complain about people treating her wrong. Justine puts all of this out on the table for everybody to look at and see, but she never has the character verbally say anything about it, and nobody else says anything about it, either. I loved how she lets her be alone with her grief without making her talk about it all the time. There was even a sentence in the script when she leaves the courthouse, and the journalists are asking her questions where she says, 'I just want to go home. I want to grieve in peace,' and Justine didn't even let that line stay in the film. I admire those choices so much, and they made it really easy to just spend time with the character.
The most basic preparation I had to do for the film was language-based. I had to learn so much French. I already spoke a little bit and understood more than I could speak, but I really wanted the character to be able to understand the way that she was saying things in French, because there are so many different ways to say certain things. When I'm making a film in German, I'm always so picky about the tiniest little changes and the tonality and feelings of the words. All those things mean something. So, I was very occupied with learning as much French as I could. That meant a lot of rereading the script, and with that came more questions about her relationships with her son and her husband and all of those things. None of it involved making a biography for the character, though. I strongly believe that everything we need to know about a character is in the script, or it isn't. I'm not a writer. I can't make up the biography of a character. I find that's the case for myself, at least. Maybe I'm just lazy. [Laughs] But it always feels like crossing a line, because if the character doesn't tell me something, who am I to make it up?
When you’re an actor, part of the job is forgetting about the camera. Your character in Anatomy of a Fall, though, is constantly aware that she's being perceived. Did that change your process at all?
I see what you mean, but I think the difference is that the camera's not there to judge. The camera is there to see, to watch, and to capture everything. What this character is confronted with all the time is judgment, and I think that's a different thing. It puts a completely different pressure on somebody than just being — ideally — lovingly observed by a camera. That's what we want, right? We want the camera to not be hard on us. We want it to embrace us, so even though I know what you mean, those two things somehow aren't related in my mind. My character doesn't feel observed. In a way, she feels judged all the time, and she has to deal with that, and that's another thing altogether. It doesn't affect my own relationship with the camera, either, because I still end up fumbling around and making funny faces all the time. That just happens no matter what. [Laughs]
You've said that you asked Justine numerous times whether your character was guilty or not, and she never told you. Did you ever come to your own conclusion?
I do have to say that it was a misunderstanding that I asked her all the time about that. I asked her once, two days before we started shooting. That was the only time. I never did it again, and she didn't have an answer for me. But, yes, I was dealing with the ambiguity. I ultimately found something else much more interesting to think about, though, which is the way that others will think about her and even the way that I thought about her. The first time I read the script, I was torn between one opinion and another opinion. I thought it was interesting the way that I was confronted with my own judgment about her, whether it be how she chooses to be a mother and a wife and also maintain her own liberty. She takes up space in such a nonchalant way that I'm not used to. I wish I could, but I was raised differently from her. She refuses to be part of this patriarchal narrative of life, and I love her so much for that. I learned to live with the ambiguity because of all of that.
If I had one wish, it'd be to hear every single theory that everyone who sees the film has afterward, because I think there will be even more opinions and ideas than we think. People are capable of coming up with so many different explanations for stories like this. That's really, really interesting to me; the question of whether or not she herself did it doesn't even cross some people's minds, because they're coming up with things about other characters in the story who could have done it. There are so many different reactions people can have to it all.
You mentioned the qualities in Sandra that you admire. Were there any aspects of the character or specific scenes that proved especially challenging to play?
It all starts with that first conversation, with the student interviewing her, and the thing that's tricky about it is that she's answering like an old white man. She's answering the questions in a way that we've heard so many times before, which is so boring, but the fact that she's doing it at that point disturbed me. It was really hard to shoot that scene, because I knew it was the entrance into the story, and I didn't want people to immediately suspect her in that moment. I wanted them to have respect for her. There were so many things that I had on my list that I wanted to get across, and it was just too much. All she's doing is having a conversation in that first scene, but you're making all these projections about her anyway. Ultimately, I just tried to have a good time with it, like she does. We shot that scene twice, because the first time we did it, it wasn't working. It was just too loaded.
Justine makes very different films than your The Zone of Interest director, Jonathan Glazer, but both filmmakers have such specific voices and exacting visions. As an actor, what makes working with directors like that so rewarding?
There are so many things that you don't need to discuss with them. That's the first thing that stands out. There's a basic understanding of what creative inspiration is about with them, and the fact that it's not always in our hands. We can work really hard making plans, scripts, sets, costumes, doing our hair and makeup, and all of these things, and I could make up some stories about my character — which I mostly refuse to do — but what happens once we really start to [make something]? Nobody knows. They understand that, and not everyone does.
Some people want to control everything, but not those two. They don't. They really like the moments when things happen that they didn't foresee. Both of them are also really kind people, who really know how to do their job. They, as artists, don't need to fight for their position. They don't need to have power over anybody, and that's what I see in Justine and Jonathan. They're just there, and they're always including everybody in the process. I like that a lot, and there's a great sense of humor and a real humility on their sets.
Both Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest require you to play extremely intense roles. How do you shed them at the end of a shoot?
I've learned over the years that it's just a matter of patience. I just have to let it happen. Mostly, it's not the characters themselves or the work itself that I need to let go of, either, but the energy of the work. The high adrenaline, the speed of everything, the rhythm of the work, getting up early and going to bed late — that's not how we really behave in our lives. Why would we? Once you're back in your other world again, it takes time to recalibrate. I just have to let it happen. I don't have a ritual or anything. When I first started, it was a lot harder to do than it is today, because the world of film was so overwhelming and so much more beautiful than I thought my life was at the time, which is different now.
You're still very much in the midst of promoting both Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest, but given the success those films have experienced this year, are you looking toward the future? Do you have plans for what you're going to do or hoping to do next?
I don't think I'm going to change anything about my life or process. Maybe in the next room [where all the publicists are] somebody's laughing, because that's what people in my position always think. But I've always worked really hard. I've always been kind to people. I like being around other people, and I haven't been hurting, you know? I try to be as private as I can and things have seemed to just come my way on their own. Whenever that's happened, I've been able to decide whether I've wanted to be part of something or not. If things stop coming my way, I'll have to find a new way to do what I do, but I'm not going to force anything. That's how I've worked so far, and I think I'm just going to continue doing it this way.
By Alex Welch