Sandra Hüller doesn’t stand on protocol.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says, slipping quickly into the informal German “Du” when she recognizes me. “Can you give me five minutes? I just have to dump my shopping and make sure the dog’s OK.”
We’re meeting early at a designer hotel in Cologne, Germany, a spot favored by visiting film crews for its proximity to the train station — just across the street — and its relative anonymity. Hüller, dressed in bell-bottoms and sneakers, a jean jacket thrown over a plain white T-shirt and with no makeup, has the morning off after an outdoor shoot for her next film was canceled due to a thunderstorm. She gets her dog sorted with a walker — more on the dog later — and sits down to talk.
“You have to take me as I am. With my groceries, my dog,” says the 45-year-old German actress, smiling. “I admire my American colleagues who can really perform in interviews, who can flip a switch and turn it on, but I just don’t have that skill.”
Fans of European art house cinema will recognize Hüller from her barnstorming performance in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, an improbably funny German cringe comedy that wowed at Cannes in 2016. But at the French festival this year, her performances in two films — Justine Triet’s legal thriller Anatomy of a Fall and Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest — took the Hüller hype to another level. “Hüller confirmed her reputation as one of Europe’s most versatile and fearless actresses,” swooned news network France 24.
Anatomy and Zone are two radically different films. Triet has made a twisty, emotional legal drama, a French intellectual take on The Staircase. Glazer’s film, his first since 2013’s Under the Skin, is an aesthetically austere and chilling contemplation on the banality of evil. Linking them both is Hüller, an actress of sharp intelligence, raw emotionality and what the Germans call “Mut zur Hässlichkeit,” or, “the courage to be ugly,” a fearless determination to take on unlikable, unsympathetic characters who couldn’t care less what you think of them.
“I don’t want to speculate on her as a private person, but as an actress she is extremely elusive and multifaceted,” says Triet, who first worked with Hüller on the 2019 comedy Sibyl. “She’s able to evoke both this tremendous empathy and at the same time be incredibly cold. She has this frankness, this directness that is outside of all the dynamics of seduction. She can be incredibly tough and then just sort of melt.”
Anatomy won Cannes’ Palme d’Or for best film, while Zone took the runner-up Grand Prix. It was an unprecedented one-two win for films with the same lead actress. The buzz for both movies, and for Hüller, has only grown since. Going into the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, where the features will be introduced to North American audiences, Hüller has quietly become an early favorite in this year’s awards season. One of Europe’s most acclaimed art house stars is primed to go mainstream — if she wants to, that is.
Born in 1978, Hüller grew up in Friedrichroda, a small town (population 7,000) in rural Thuringia, in what was then East Germany. The daughter of educators — her father taught at a center for apprentices, her mother gave after-school tutoring — she first caught the acting bug when an artistic-minded teacher and a school theater course brought her to Berlin. The Berlin Wall fell while she was still in high school, and, at 17, she applied and was accepted to Berlin’s renowned Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 2003.
“The Busch was known for technical skill, craftsmanship,” says Christian Friedel, her co-star in Zone. “Busch graduates could always function, always deliver.”
German stage acting is notoriously hard. Members of state ensembles are full-time employees, expected to work day and night, seven days a week, in often mentally taxing and physically demanding performances.
“German theater is pretty extreme; they seem to have naked people screaming onstage all the time,” says Frauke Finsterwalder, who has directed Hüller in two films: 2013’s Finsterworld and Sissi & I, which premiered at Berlin this year. “I always try to work with German theater actors because they are fearless, they are used to pushing the boundaries.”
An instant star of the stage — Hüller was voted young actress of the year in 2003 by Germany’s Theater Heute magazine — she made her film debut in 2006 in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem in a harrowing turn as a woman who undergoes a brutal exorcism. Hüller’s performance seems the opposite of technical and controlled. The scenes of her violent seizures, which her character’s devout Catholic family takes as a sign of demonic possession, are wrenching and painful to watch.
Charlotte Rampling, president of the Berlin Film Festival jury that year, was impressed, awarding Hüller, then 28, the Silver Bear for best actress.
The international art house crowd really took notice of Hüller in 2016, when she played an ambitious corporate consultant who has a complicated relationship with her prankster father in Toni Erdmann. Hüller’s performance — including such meme-able moments as a NSFW scene involving petit fours, a spontaneously nude corporate party and her belting out Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” — became the stuff of Cannes legend.
“We started getting an idea that people really liked the film after the first press screening,” Hüller recalls. “And it just sort of grew and grew throughout the festival. I thought I was very cool, very calm about the whole thing. But looking back at the interviews I did, I’m all over the place. I’m so nervous, so excited.”
The movie was the critical favorite in Cannes that year and Hüller heavily tipped for best actress. In the end, it was snubbed by the festival jury, with the best actress honor going to Jaclyn Jose for Ma’ Rosa. But it didn’t matter. Sony Pictures Classics acquired Toni Erdmann for the U.S., where it grossed $1.5 million domestically (not bad for a German comedy) and was nominated for an Oscar in the best international feature category, only to lose out to Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman.
The Oscar nomination got Hüller some attention in Hollywood — “I met a few producers, there were some suggestions, but nothing came of it,” she says. Back in Europe, however, directors, particularly French ones, were desperate to work with her.
Triet created her character in Anatomy of a Fall very much in Hüller’s image.
In the film, Hüller plays Sandra, a successful novelist accused of killing her husband. Steadfast in professing her innocence, as the film proceeds, we see Sandra caught in lies — vicious fights with her husband, how she got the bruises on her arms — that seem to undermine her claim. In the trial, the prosecution and the defense spin contrasting, speculative narratives based on few facts and much conjecture.
“Sandra would be begging Justine on set: ‘Tell me, am I guilty or not? Am I a murderer?’ She needed to know to play the role,” says Swann Arlaud, who plays Sandra’s defense attorney in the film. “But Justine would never say. It was hard for her because, as an actress, Sandra never cheats — she’s always present, concrete. Not knowing what her character was up to made it incredibly hard for her.”
Nevertheless, Hüller was able to embrace her character’s ambiguities without her performance losing any of its authenticity. Every scene with Sandra — and Hüller is in virtually every shot of the film — feels realistic and believable. But every scene can be read both ways. When Sandra sneaks into her son’s room — she’s been forbidden to meet with him alone because he is a key witness in the trial — is it to comfort him or to try and influence his testimony? When she switches from her character’s (passable) French into (fluent) English during cross-examination, is it so she can be more precise, more truthful, or because she just finds it easier to lie in that language? It’s impossible to tell. Hüller’s performance is a master class in ambiguity.
“I really don’t know if Sandra killed her husband,” says Hüller. “Justine never told me, and I never decided myself. I quickly realized that this film is not so much about if she did it or not. It’s more about how we feel about her and how our feelings toward her change with this or that information that we get about her.”
Says Johan Simons, a theater director who has worked regularly with Hüller since 2007, most recently in an award-winning, gender-switched version of Hamlet that premiered in 2019: “Sandra is very, very intelligent, and she can play anything she can imagine. But she’s not some sort of quick-change artist, putting on a role and tossing it off. For her, it’s an emotional, a physical journey.”
In Hamlet, Hüller felt she wouldn’t be able to maintain the energy of the character if, during the intermission, she went backstage with the other actors. She decided to stay out, onstage, over the break.
“It was 20 minutes long, and the whole time, there’s Sandra Hüller, standing onstage, off to the side,” says Simons. “People started rushing back from the break, coffee in hand, peering around the corner to watch her.”
Critics often describe Hüller’s performances as “precise,” “clinical” and “cerebral,” but at the heart of most of her greatest roles is a moment where she loses control, gives in to her emotions and just lets it rip: the climax of the fight with her husband in Anatomy of a Fall; the singing scene in Toni Erdmann; her epileptic fits in Requiem.
Every role, she says, comes from a deep, emotional place. Her key to connecting to a character is to find a person in her life from her family, friends, her intimate circle, whom she can link to the performance. She won’t, of course, name names.
“I’m not going to tell you who they are. That’s none of your business,” she says with a laugh. “For me, I think my art comes from almost a childlike place, someplace very vulnerable and very intimate. It’s something I don’t really like to talk about.”
Clearly, Hüller is not a sharer, at least not with the media. She mentions a daughter but won’t give her name. The same goes for her dog, who makes an appearance in The Zone of Interest. “She’s called Dilla in the film — that’s all you need to know,” she says wryly. “Listen, it’s not my job to show people in my work how I really am, and it’s not their job to find out who I really am. If someone wants to find out about the real me, they can write me a letter and we’ll go out for a drink.”
Notes Finsterwalder: “Sandra has no red lines; if it makes sense for her character, she’ll do anything. But she has an excellent bullshit detector when it comes to anything that’s exploitative or gratuitous.”
Before The Zone of Interest, films about the Holocaust used to be one of Hüller’s red lines. She’d sworn to herself that she would never play a Nazi. Part of it was what she calls the “perversion” of re-creating the most horrific period of human history using movie tricks — “Someone moves in to powder your nose before you scream, ‘Heil Hitler!’ It’s just obscene” — but another part was not wanting to connect, emotionally, with a monstrous character like that of Hedwig Höss, the real-life wife of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. (Rudolf Höss was hanged for war crimes in 1947.)
In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, Hedwig is showing her mother around the Höss family garden, their little piece of domestic bliss built just yards from the concentration camp. She takes her on the tour, pointing out the roses and gardenias in bloom. Hedwig’s Weimaraner tears across the grass, barking furiously at the sound of guard dogs behind the wall, the crack of distant gunshots, but Hedwig just calls her back, annoyed her pet is spoiling her presentation. We spot smoke rising above the garden wall. Smoke from the crematorium.
“Sandra told me: ‘I don’t want to give this woman my tears,’ ” says Friedel, who plays Rudolf.
When Glazer first approached Hüller about the role, the director says she was “naturally very apprehensive about portraying Hedwig Höss. We spent months talking about the project before she agreed to the role. [But] I had no other actor in mind. For me, she was the only one capable of achieving it. It got to the point where I couldn’t imagine the film without her.”
Talking to Glazer, Hüller became convinced he wasn’t going to tell this story in a conventional way, wasn’t going to fall into the trap of making Nazis fierce, exciting or somehow thrilling. The Zone of Interest never shows the atrocities of Auschwitz. We stay with the Höss family in their little Eden, watch them tend to their garden, eat dinner with their children, picnic by the river, while just out of sight the genocide continues. Hedwig knows very well what’s happening on the other side of the wall — at one point, she threatens a Jewish girl who works in the house that she could “have my husband spread your ashes” across the fields — she just chooses to look away.
Glazer rebuilt the Höss house, installing surveillance-like cameras to capture the actors’ performances as they moved through the set. He deconstructs the conventions and clichés of the Holocaust film by not trying to stage the horror, but making the viewer a passive, perhaps complicit, observer of the Hösses’ banal inhumanity.
“The team was in the basement, so we were basically alone in this house,” says Hüller. “We never knew what camera was on us — you couldn’t turn your face in one direction to get your better side, and you couldn’t check where the light was if you hit your mark. We were just being observed, and I think that creates something different than if this had been done in a conventional way.”
But Hüller still struggled with the character. Accustomed to finding a deep emotional connection with the people she portrays, she found it impossible to empathize with Hedwig.
“Meryl Streep says you have to love every character whether they are evil or not. I thought about that for a very long time, and while I love and adore Meryl and everything she’s done, I don’t think I agree. I didn’t love Hedwig Höss, and I never will.”
Needless to say, Hüller takes her work very seriously — as she does her role in the industry. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when theaters in Germany were shut down, putting thousands out of work, she spoke up for technical staff and others on short-term and freelance contracts with no means of support. In 2020, the German government gave her an order of merit for her activism. Her view on the dual strikes is unambiguous.
“I think the strikes in Hollywood are really important because it’s important to stand up for what’s right, to say: ‘We aren’t just material for your content, we are people. We need money for rent,’ ” she says.
What Hüller doesn’t take too seriously is herself. She’s brought her dog to the photo shoot, introducing an element of chaos into the proceedings. At one point, while she poses for the cover shot, leaning back on a sofa and staring intently into the camera, the dog jumps into the frame, flopping down behind her, wiggling excitedly.
“Du Rampensau! [‘Stage hog!’],” Hüller chastises her pet. When her efforts to shoo her away fail, she calls out: “Cheese, cheese, does anyone have any cheese?” A handful of Gouda chunks solves the problem. Dilla (again, not her real name) follows us to the kitchen, and the photographer finishes the shoot.
Despite several comic roles — in Toni Erdmann, Finsterworld and Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man, where she has a hilarious cameo as a lifelike but emotionally malfunctioning android — Hüller insists she’s not funny.
“I’m often quite silly, but I can only be funny out of desperation, when things go wrong. I can’t play to a punchline. If I know the end of the joke, I get bored and I miss my mark. I’m watching Friends now with my daughter, and I think what they do, building a scene to a punchline, is amazing. I could never do that.”
The humility seems genuine. Hüller has seen the awards buzz around Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest and knows Hollywood will likely come calling. But asked about the prospect of working on bigger American movies, the German actress remains grounded, and surprisingly unambitious.
“Now I know what I’m supposed to say, and I know what my American publicist wants me to say,” she notes cautiously. “And of course, 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. I’m also a mother — that’s my primary responsibility. So it’s a double-edged sword. Every award, every compliment, every job offer is great, but we’ll have to see if anything comes from it.”
Hüller’s last taste of Hollywood glamour was at the 2016 Golden Globes for Toni Erdmann. The day after the ceremony, she flew back to Germany to do her certification to become a forklift operator for a role in Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles.
“I’m still a licensed forklift driver,” she says proudly. “That’s a real skill. And a bit of job security. I can always work in a warehouse, stacking crates. I’m completely serious. You never know where life will take you.”
A version of this story appears in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.