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Sandra Hüller. Success that no one expected

The star of “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” — two of the most acclaimed films of the year — has suddenly found herself in the spotlight of cinema-goers. Who is Sandra Hüller, one of the most intriguing discoveries of the film world?
When Sandra Hüller learned that two films she starred in, “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest,” had been selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival, she anticipated the potential loss of anonymity.

“People believe that you belong to everyone or that you have responsibilities to society. This is out of my control,” she said with trepidation. This sentiment arose shortly after “The Zone of Interest,” a film co-produced by Poland and featuring the Dr Irena Eris brand in charge of makeup, received two Oscars.

Over the past two decades, Hüller has earned a reputation as one of Germany’s most original theatre actresses. Her theatrical background has instilled in her the importance of humility towards the community and teamwork. Therefore, she was dismayed when reporters attempted to contact her family and schoolmates. Hüller has always held a radical attitude towards fame, primarily performing in theatre without seeking the limelight. The magnitude of her recent success has surpassed her expectations. She emphasizes her preference for people to focus on her complex screen characters rather than on herself.

Prelude to fame

She was born on April 30, 1978, and spent her formative years in Friedrichroda, a small spa town in Thuringia, East Germany. At 17, inspired by a teacher and participating in a school theatre course, she relocated to Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There, she gained admission to the renowned Ernst Busch Academy for the Dramatic Arts. Hüller’s ascent to prominence was swift. By 2003, upon her graduation from drama school, she was voted best young actress in a poll of German critics by the magazine “Theater Heute.” Despite venturing into film, she has remained rooted in theatre, frequently returning to the stage between film roles.

Theatre critics consistently praise her performances, and she has won the “Theater Heute” actress of the year title multiple times, including in 2020 for her role as the gender-changing Hamlet, directed by Johan Simons.

Despite her success, Hüller found living in Berlin disagreeable. Following graduation, she left the city to join the permanent acting company of a state-funded theatre in Jena. Subsequently, she performed in theatres in Basel, Munich, and Bochum. In 2006, Hüller made her screen debut in Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem.” Portraying a young woman from a devout Catholic family, her character grapples with epileptic attacks and rebellious views, which her family interprets as signs of possession, leading to a brutal exorcism. Her poignant performance earned her the Silver Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.

A decade later, she garnered international acclaim for her role in Maren Ade’s comedy “Toni Erdmann.” In one memorable scene, she performs Whitney Houston’s song “Greatest Love of All.” The film was lauded by critics and won numerous awards, including recognition for Hüller’s performance. She received accolades from the London Critics Circle, Toronto Film Critics Association, and America’s National Society of Film Critics, and was honored with the Best Actress award by the European Film Academy in 2016. While Hüller was already well-known among arthouse cinema enthusiasts, her recent roles in “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” have propelled her into the mainstream film world, showcasing her original talent to a wider audience.

Double the Triumph

Both films experienced extraordinary success at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where “Anatomy of a Fall” clinched the prestigious Palme d’Or and “The Zone of Interest” secured the Grand Prix. Additionally, they garnered nominations for the Golden Globe and Best Foreign Language Film. Hüller herself received nods for Best Actress in a Drama at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. The pinnacle of recognition arrived at the Oscars 2024, where she achieved a historic double nomination in the Best Actress category. She joins a distinguished line of German actresses, following Luise Rainer and Marlene Dietrich, to vie for this prestigious award.

“Anatomy of a Fall” and “Zone of Interest” represent two starkly contrasting cinematic experiences. “Anatomy of a Fall,” helmed by Justine Triet, unfolds as an intellectual thriller revolving around a successful German writer ensconced in an isolated chalet amidst the French Alps. Her potential involvement in her French husband’s demise, portrayed by Samuel Theis, forms the crux of the narrative. Hüller’s portrayal, delivered in both English and French, maintains an enigmatic quality until the final frames. Each scene, whether fraught with marital discord, tender moments with her son, or her courtroom defense, offers multifaceted interpretations.

— “The role of a liberated woman facing scrutiny for her sexuality, career, and motherhood resonated deeply with Hüller. I had full confidence that she would infuse this character with complexity and depth. From the moment we began filming, her confidence and authenticity were palpable. Every line she delivered exuded a profound sense of truth,” reminisces the director.

Sandra Hüller is known for her candidness and directness, qualities that undoubtedly contribute to her on-set prowess. Her unwavering sincerity permeates every aspect of her performance. The actress herself underscores the broad appeal of her character.

— “The film strikes a chord with audiences on a personal level. Since its premiere, I’ve been approached by countless women sharing their own experiences of navigating relationships marked by misogyny,” reflects Sandra Hüller.
The Dr Irena Eris brand played a significant role in the production of the Polish-British film “The Zone of Interest” by Jonathan Glazer, providing cosmetics for the actors' makeup. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival and received two Oscars.
In 2020, Sandra Hüller was named “Theatre Heute” actress of the year for her portrayal of the gender-changing Hamlet, directed by Dutch director Johan Simons.
Playing with convention

In “The Zone of Interest,” directed by Jonathan Glazer, Sandra Hüller embodies Hedwig Höss, wife of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Initially hesitant, Hüller was wary of portraying a Nazi character on screen, a departure from her previous roles. However, Glazer’s unique vision persuaded her to take on the role, promising a fresh perspective. Indeed, The film defies the conventions of traditional Holocaust dramas. Absent are the graphic scenes of violence; instead, the narrative unfolds with serene river moments, playful interactions with children in the garden, and intimate conversations among friends. The haunting drama of Auschwitz transpires beyond the immediate gaze.

Glazer rebuilt the Höss family house near the former concentration camp and installed surveillance-like cameras. By filming it as a reality show, he broke cinematic stereotypes, portraying ordinary, mundane people, which made their actions believable and even more terrifying.

The director allowed the actors the option to visit Auschwitz. “As soon as I realized that my character was aware of the situation she was in, it became clear to me that I had to come here before we started filming,” Sandra Hüller reflects. “Sometimes, visiting such places brings a sense of catharsis; it’s easier to comprehend and move forward. However, it was evident that this experience would be different. Everyone must carry it with them indefinitely, keeping it alive in their minds and conversations.”

Fairy Tale Realities

Residing in Leipzig-Plagwitz with her 13-year-old daughter, Sandra Hüller is amidst a whirlwind of activity in 2024. She has the imminent release of Natya Brunckhorst’s drama “Two to One” and her role in Markus Schleinzer’s historical drama “Rose,” about women disguised as men in the 17th century. Additionally, she is working on two projects with Australian directors. Reflecting on her current situation, Hüller muses, “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale story, but I don’t know which fairy tale character I am.” Despite her newfound success, she maintains a grounded perspective: “I like my life. I like my flat. I like my everyday life. I wasn’t missing anything. I wasn’t waiting for some kind of completion. Through success, people just believed that I could do things that maybe they didn’t believe I could do before.”

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