German star Sandra Hüller’s excellent profession

German actress Sandra Hüller made waves at international film festivals after starring in two highly acclaimed films in 2023.

She was also nominated for an Oscar in the best actress category for her role in Justine Triet’s crime thriller “Anatomy of a Fall,” which on Sunday night won the Oscar for best original screenplay, while another film she starred in, Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest,” has won the Academy Award for best international feature.

This is only the third time a German actress has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. Previous nominees are Luise Rainer, who won best actress two years in a row in 1936 and 1937, and Marlene Dietrich, who was nominated in 1930.

German actor Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall
In Anatomy of a Fall, German actor Sandra Hüller plays a novelist living in the French Alps who may or may not have murdered her writer husbandImage: Neon/AP/picture alliance

A winning streak

Hüller also swept up at the European Film Awards (EFAs), Europe’s answer to the Oscars, in Berlin on December 9, 2023. 

She had received an unprecedented dual nomination in the best actress category for her leading roles in both “Anatomy of a Fall,” and “The Zone of Interest.” 

She not only won the best actress award for her performance in “Anatomy of a Fall,” which was also proclaimed best film at the EFAs, but a day later, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association picked “The Zone of Interest” as best film of the year, and one of the association’s top acting awards also went to Hüller.

Both movies were big winners at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023, where “Anatomy of a Fall” took the Palme d’Or, and “The Zone of Interest” won the Grand Prix, the runner-up to the Palme d’Or prize.

Both films were nominated for the Golden Globe for the best non-English-language film as well. Hüller was also among the nominees for best female actor in the drama category, for her performance in “Anatomy of a Fall” and nabbed a nomination for the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards.

Hüller is well-known among arthouse aficionados, not least for her barnstorming performance in Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated “Toni Erdmann” (2016). But with “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest,” the 45-year-old actress could go mainstream. 

Roots in theater and East Germany

Hüller was born on April 30, 1978 and grew up in the small town of Friedrichroda in rural Thuringia, in what was then East Germany.

An inspiring teacher and a school theater course brought her to Berlin where, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, she applied and was accepted to Berlin’s renowned Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was just 17. 

Her ascent to the top of Germany’s theater world was quick. In 2003, the year she graduated from Ernst Busch, Hüller was voted best young actress in a poll of German critics for Theater Heute magazine. 

She’s stayed true to her theater roots even as she moved into film, regularly returning to the stage in between movie roles.

And she has remained a critical favorite, winning Theater Heute‘s actress of the year in 2010, 2013, 2019 and most recently in 2020 for an acclaimed gender-flipped performance of “Hamlet” for Dutch director Johan Simons. 

Picture of a woman with short blonde hair identified as German actress Sandra Hüller, in a German theater production of "Hamlet."
Sandra Hüller in a German theater production of ‘Hamlet’Image: JU Bochum

Raw drama and cringe comedy 

In Hüller’s movie debut — in Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem” (2006) — she plays a young woman from a devout Catholic family who take her epileptic seizures and rebellious free-thinking as a sign of demonic possession. They order a brutal, ultimately fatal, exorcism.

Hüller’s performance, wrenching and visceral, won her the Silver Bear for best actress at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival. 

But it was her performance a decade later, in Maren Ade’s improbably funny German cringe comedy, “Toni Erdmann,” that would prove to be Hüller’s international breakout.

She plays an ambitious and uptight corporate consultant whose career plans are disrupted by the unwanted interventions of her loving, prankster father, played by the late Peter Simonischek.

Hüller’s performance — which includes a raw, heartfelt, but also hilarious rendition of the Whitney Houston song “Greatest Love of All” — leaves it all on the screen. 

Picture of a zopless woman holding her hands over her chest. She is identified as German actress Sandra Hüllerin a film by Maren Ade titled "Toni Erdmann."
Sandra Hüller bares all in Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’Image: Komplizen Film

The London Critics Circle, the Toronto Film Critics Association and America’s National Society of Film Critics ranked it as the best female performance of the year.

The European Film Academy agreed, giving Hüller the 2016 award for best actress. 

From a French Chalet to ‘Big Brother in a Nazi House’

“Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest,” two radically different films, show Hüller’s tremendous range as an actress.

“Anatomy” is a twisty French legal drama. It is an intellectual thriller about Sandra, a successful German novelist (Hüller) living in an isolated chalet in the French Alps, who may or may not have killed her French husband, played by Samuel Theis.

Director Justine Triet, who says she wrote the film specifically with Hüller in mind, refused to tell anyone, neither her actors nor the audience, whether Sandra is guilty or innocent.

Hüller’s performance, acting in English and French, is ambiguous until the end. Nearly every scene, whether she’s fighting with her husband, comforting their young son or pleading her case in court, can be read both ways. 

Picture of a man lying in a pool of blood in snow while two people look on.
A mysterious death is at the center of Justine Triet’s ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Image: Les Films Pelleas/Les Films de Pierre/Festival de Cannes/dpa/picture alliance

In Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” there’s little ambiguity and virtually no sign of emotion in Hüller’s turn as Hedwig Höss, the real-life wife of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Höss, played in the film by Christian Friedel, was hanged for war crimes in 1947.

Glazer says Hüller was “very apprehensive” about portraying a Nazi on screen, something that she had until then refused to do.

But the British director convinced her his film would be different. It certainly is.

“The Zone of Interest” looks and feels unlike any Holocaust drama before it. The film never directly shows the atrocities of Auschwitz. There’s not a single scene of violence. Instead, the entire movie plays out like a perverse family drama as we watch Rüdiger and Hedwig Höss picnic by the river, play with their children in the garden or chat with their friends.

Just out of sight, but within earshot — there are echoes of gunfire, barking dogs and howls of pain — the murder continues. 

Holocaust film "The Zone of Interest" does not contain a single scene of on-screen violence.
The Holocaust film ‘The Zone of Interest’ does not contain a single scene of on-screen violenceImage: A24/Everett Collection/picture alliance

Glazer rebuilt the Höss family home in Auschwitz, just meters from the the former concentration camp that is now a memorial site, and installed surveillance-like cameras to capture the actors as they did their scenes — an approach he’s called “Big Brother in a Nazi house.” By staging his film as a reality-TV show, Glazer breaks the easy cinema conventions and clichés of the Holocaust movie. Instead of framing Hedwig and Rudolf Höss as monsters, he shows them as ordinary, even boring, making their actions both relatable and all the more horrifying. As Hedwig, Hüller is cold, almost emotionally inert. Her eyes are dark and dead, opening into a void. 

Taken together, “An Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” show an actress at the peak of her powers.

Update: This article, first published ahead of the European Film Awards, was updated on March 11, 2024.

Edited by: Brenda Haas and Sarah Hucal