TORONTO, Canada—As the fall festivals give way to awards season, you may want to familiarize yourself with the actress Sandra Hüller. You’re going to be hearing that name all season long.
One performance alone can set a season ablaze, but Hüller packs a double header. The German actress stars in what are already two of the year’s most celebrated films, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall and Jonathan Glazer’ The Zone of Interest. Both films launched earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival–winning the top two festival prizes along the way, respectively–and Hüller’s performances in both made her the most talked about performer on the Croisette. This fall, she’s set to similarly dominate every festival in sight before her films arrive at your local arthouse.
Giving two very different performances in two equally dissimilar films is a hell of a launchpad to American audiences. Or at least the ones that missed her fearless, hilarious breakout work as a depressed corporate cog in the Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann or as a flummoxed and acid-tongued director in Triet’s previous movie Sibyl. In those films, Hüller earned huge laughs without playing the joke, capable of suddenly delivering raw pathos in an instant. She’s an actress with whom you can’t really predict where she will take you from scene to scene.
In Anatomy, she continues to deliver the unexpected at every turn, and to the earn highest praise of her career so far. She plays Sandra (Triet wrote the character with Hüller in mind), an author suspected of killing her husband in their home. As her trial proceeds and her preteen son begins to doubt her innocence, and with Hüller exposing her character’s inconsistencies along with a huge helping of ego, the exposure of the secrets within her marriage further implicate her. Or maybe the opposite, depending on how you view Hüller’s vulnerability.
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
As The Daily Beast Obsessed’s Nick Schager put it, it is “a powerhouse performance of desperate rationality and emotional remoteness.” When you think Hüller is letting you in, she also withholds elsewhere in fascinating ways. Neither Hüller nor the film betray the open-question of her character’s possible guilt or innocence, and the magic trick of Hüller’s candid yet ambiguous performance is surely one of the factors that earned the film its Palme d’Or win at Cannes. To discuss whether the character is innocent or guilty isn’t just to unpack the particulars of the story, but also the intricacies of her performance.
Guilt, however, is not in question with Hüller’s other performance this year. The latest from Under the Skin provocateur Glazer, Zone follows the family of the real-life longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Höss, in their family home on the other side of the wall from the concentration camp. Hüller plays matriarch Hedwig, overseeing the order of the house and beloved garden with blithe, happy dispassion to the atrocity happening yards away. It’s stomach-churning stuff that she plays without a note of malice or cliché, adding to the horror of Glazer’s new masterpiece.
The film takes a highly observational vantage on the Höss family, and Hüller rewards that with an unvarnished, unflashy display of a woman happy with what she has made of herself. Much will be and has already been said about the film as a depiction of the banality of evil, but Hüller gets at something even darker with her performance. When Rudolph is reassigned and the family must relocate, Hüller finally unleashes the complete monster—not with bombast but with confessionality. “They’d have to drag me from here,” she bluntly states about her plushy Auschwitz-adjacent home. “We’re living the dream we wanted.”
Regardless of their surroundings, Hedwig clings to the life they have built for themselves. She relays being dubbed “Queen of Auschwitz” with a self-pleased half-chuckle. With ease, Hüller paints Hedwig Höss as evil through a psychology more everyday than extraordinary. The familiarity is what nauseates; the directness, the simplicity is what makes this Hüller’s performance so alarming.
As far as the months ahead are concerned, rest assured there will be plenty of discussion around Hüller’s slippery, confounding duo of performances. Both films are already playing side-by-side at the major domestic fall film festivals, with Toronto currently running and New York soon to come. As word of mouth for the films begins to amass, so will buzz about Hüller, without doubt. In terms of Oscars, she will be campaigned for Supporting Actress for Zone, so as not to dilute her Best Actress chances for Anatomy–but that won’t stop critics from rewarding Hüller for both performances in tandem.
Hers is the making of a household name, with no need for skepticism. In a cover story, The Hollywood Reporter was already hedging its bets, dubbing her “Actress of the Year?” Neon, Anatomy’s US distributor, quickly rebutted: “It’s not a question. Sandra Hüller is the actress of the year.” And American audiences are about to discover why.