cannes 2023

Cannes Can’t Take Its Eyes Off Sandra Hüller

An actress known for her superability to suppress the emotions of a composed character is in not one, but two incredible festival films. Photo: Les Films Pelléas

At Cannes this year, the name in the air for Best Actress is Sandra Hüller, who stars in two of the festival’s biggest critical knockouts: The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s crushing Holocaust drama, and Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet’s marital-murder-mystery thriller. The roles — and the movies themselves — couldn’t be more different, but in both, Hüller is convincing and magnetic as an outwardly composed woman trying and occasionally failing to hold it together in the midst of something seriously harrowing (that she may or may not have been responsible for).

Hüller is a German actress who’s made some impeccable choices over the last few years. She broke out internationally back in 2016 as the star of the Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann, playing a fiercely uptight businesswoman whose eccentric father trolls her relentlessly in hopes of shaking her out of her self-induced paralysis and depression. When he finally succeeds, Hüller has a nervous breakdown that sees her, among other things, hosting a party for her co-workers in the nude. In another recent movie, Triet’s dramedy Sibyl, Hüller plays an ambitious film director whose actor-lover is openly cheating on her with her leading actress. She boldly forges ahead and keeps the cameras running anyway until suddenly, without warning, she dives off the boat on which they’re filming and quits the movie entirely. Hüller seems to specialize in playing characters like this: repressed, outwardly strong, often chilly women who can’t quite seem to let go of the wheel, who compartmentalize relentlessly in the name of achievement, who cultivate an air of unknowability, and who, at one point or another, totally fucking lose it.

In Zone of Interest, which is just barely based on Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, Hüller plays Hedwig Höss, the wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel). The two live an idyllic-seeming life, working in their lush garden, hosting birthday parties for their children, swimming in the nearby lake, cracking jokes with each other at bedtime, and, oh, yeah, just over the concrete wall behind them, there’s Auschwitz. We never see the camp, exactly — we get glimpses of Nazi guards walking back and forth in their towers, or plumes of smoke pouring from the gas chambers just over the top of the wall, or the backs of prisoners being shoved through tall grass — but we do hear it, constantly, terribly, viscerally: a man begging for his life as he’s dragged toward his death, or a woman being murdered by the Nazis, or a chorus of unearthly moans and screams rising from the gas chambers.

This unfathomable violence right next door, in plain sight and always audible, doesn’t seem to affect the family at all, least of all its patriarch and matriarch. There are small hints that it’s seeping into the cracks for some of them: Hedwig’s visiting mother is kept awake at night by the smell of the smoke, and leaves the next morning without a word; the ambient horror of it all might be causing Rudolf and Hedwig’s daughter to sleepwalk and their sons to act aggressively toward each other. But Hedwig and Rudolf are the banality of evil personified, going about their day-to-day lives not only normally, but with dignity. They’re proud of their home, of their jobs, of their lifestyle, of the strides they’ve made toward achieving the Aryan supremacy they believe is their due.

Hüller’s performance is particularly chilling in its commitment. She never blinks. She never tries to imbue Hedwig — who’s based on rigorous historical research that Glazer did on her real-life counterpart — with any sort of subtle, secret warmth or empathy, but she also doesn’t turn her into an exaggerated villain. Instead, Hüller plays her as placid and intensely controlled, utterly without shame. Once or twice, she lashes out violently at her household staff, perhaps betraying some unknowable guilt at her core. But we never see even the slightest creep of self-knowledge or regret pass across her face. Hüller plays Hedwig as quotidian, unexceptional, and worst of all, completely recognizable — like when Hedwig and Rudolf, in their separate beds, are giggling like a married couple in any other 1940s-era film might. “She’s lying there laughing, and we’re all watching on the monitor and laughter is infectious, you know?” Glazer says in the film’s press notes. “I thought, Are we siding with them? Are we empathizing with them? What are we doing here?

The only genuine emotion we witness is during a scene roughly halfway through the film, when she tells her husband, who’s just been transferred to another concentration camp, that she won’t be going with him to his new post — she’ll stay back with the children, because this beautiful space she’s worked so hard on, the house with the “Jews over the wall,” is their home. As she talks, she openly weeps, but not for any other reason than deep self-pity. Glazer remembers Hüller asking him if Hedwig is “moved” in the moment. “I said, ‘Of course she’s moved, it’s what moves her. What is she moved by? So if you’re going to cry in this scene, cry for yourself.’”

In Anatomy of a Fall, Hüller is Sandra, a German writer who lives in a remote town in the French Alps with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their 11-year-old son Daniel. When Samuel’s body is found in the snow below their chalet, the police wonder whether Sandra is responsible or if Samuel killed himself. The movie, which is primarily a courtroom drama, concerns itself with the concept of absolute truth — of shared reality, subjectivity, appearances, judgment, and whether or not we can ever really know another person or accurately represent ourselves.

Hüller is yet again externally cold and tough, a successful and prolific writer who can work anywhere and under any conditions, even with her husband passive-aggressively blaring an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P” at full volume. As in her other movies, Hüller holds her character’s emotions just beneath the surface; we see them ripple across her face, then suppress in favor of a stonier presentation. She’s confident, not concerned with people-pleasing or social mores; she writes autofiction unapologetically, even at the expense of burning interpersonal bridges. During an argument, when her husband accuses her of chilliness, she reminds him that’s why he married her — why he didn’t choose some “stupid bitch” who would smile at his friends on command. That ruthless careerism (plus her bisexuality) make her an easy target for the opposition.

But Triet and Hüller build a character that’s more complicated than an “icy, ruthless writer” archetype. Sandra is German, but lives in her husband’s French hometown and speaks primarily English at home. During the trial to determine Samuel’s cause of death, she’s forced to defend herself in French. Her lawyer reminds her again and again that the actual truth about how he died doesn’t matter, just the jury’s perception of her; we see her rehearsing her language skills and her performance of herself. Even just after her husband’s death, Sandra apologizes for starting to cry, then asks her lawyer if he’d like Parmesan for his pasta. When she actually loses her composure, after her husband declares, “You’re a monster. You’re coldhearted. You have no shame. That’s your superpower,” Sandra throws a wineglass at a wall. It’s a testament to Hüller that throughout Anatomy of a Fall, I had no idea whether she murdered her husband or not.

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Cannes Can’t Take Its Eyes Off Sandra Hüller