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Picture Palace
A portrait of the versatile and exceptional actor Sandra Hüller

Sandra Hüller at the 96th Oscars Nominees Luncheon
Sandra Hüller at the 96th Oscars Nominees Luncheon | Photo (Detail): © picture alliance / Sipa USA | Sipa USA

She has gained international recognition in recent years and is one of Germany’s most celebrated female actors. In just one year, she embodied three radically different characters on screen and is now nominated for an Oscar for her role in Anatomy of a Fall.

By Susan Vahabzadeh

Sandra Hüller has been a firm fixture on German theatre stages for over 20 years. Theater heute magazine has declared her “actress of the year” so often – most recently in 2020 for her performance of Hamlet at Schauspielhaus Bochum – that she’s probably become accustomed to all the praise. But when The Hollywood Reporter put Sandra Hüller on the cover of an autumn edition under the headline “Actress of the Year?”, this was indeed a rare honour. Yet her international breakthrough happened some time ago, when she played a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016). In 2023 though, even by her own lofty standards, Sandra Hüller’s accomplishments have been impressive: she appears in two of the best films in the competition at Cannes, Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest. The first movie won the Palme d’Or, and Sandra Hüller has now been nominated for an Oscar for her role in it. The second, The Zone of Interest, which is being released in German cinemas now, secured the Grand Prix in Cannes.

In just one year, Sandra Hüller embodied three distinctly different characters on screen: in Sisi & I, Anatomy of a Fall and now The Zone of Interest. In the rather comical role of Countess Irma, she falls in love with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whom she accompanies to Corfu as a lady-in-waiting. In Anatomy of a Fall, French director Justine Triet dissects a broken marriage. Hüller is playing a writer who is more successful than her husband and who comes under scrutiny after the husband’s sudden death. It is unclear whether it was an accident or suicide or whether the wife had a hand in it. She remains elusive and impenetrable. In Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which comes out in German cinemas now, she plays a chillingly detached woman, Hedwig, the wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel). The family lives right next to the camp and the sounds emanating from it are unmistakeable as Hedwig tends her flower beds. She is obsessed with enjoying her bourgeois idyll, seemingly oblivious to the world around her. Sandra Hüller fully immerses herself in her role. Her face is often bare, as if too much make-up and costumes would detract from her expressiveness. The Hollywood Reporter applied the German phrase “Mut zur Hesslichkeit”, or “courage to be ugly”. But that doesn’t quite capture it, because we see that she can also appear suddenly soft and gentle.

Sandra Hüller is an exceptional actor, and her talent quickly attracted attention in the theatre. Born in Suhl in 1978, Hüller began acting when she was still at school. She attended the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin and was a member of several theatre companies, joining the Kammerspiele in Munich in 2012. Her cinema debut was equally impressive; her first major role was that of Michaela Klingler in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem in 2006. The film is based on the true story of an exorcism in southern Germany in the 1970s, with Hüller playing a young student from a deeply Catholic family, who suffers from epilepsy and starts to believe herself that she is possessed by the devil. The film featured in the Berlinale’s Competition programme and immediately earned Sandra Hüller a Silver Bear for Best Actress. Schmid recalls being spellbound by Hüller’s performance even during the audition: “You could see everything on her face, even the tears. It was clear even then that she was immensely creative. Someone with less talent plays almost the same thing over four takes. Sandra has a lot of imagination, she always comes up with new ideas.”

Does an Oscar nomination for best actress now promise a career outside Europe? When she was asked this question during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter back in the autumn, her response was refreshingly cautious. She knows what her American publicist wants her to say, she replied, but she did not then fulfil their expectations: “I’d love to work in the U.S. I have a long list of amazing people I’d love to work with. But I’m a European actress. A German-speaking European actress. That will always be my base.” Besides, she adds, she’s also a mother, and that is her primary responsibility. “Every award, every compliment, every job offer is great, but we’ll have to see if anything comes from it.”