Sandra Hüller Steps—Cautiously—Into the Spotlight
There’s a vacuousness to Hedwig that, in Hüller’s iciness, comes across as deeply disturbing. “Sandra’s struggle is in her performance,” Glazer says. “It’s a portrait of someone nonthinking. [Hedwig] never stops to think. She’s always doing. Always moving. There’s no self-reflection.” Hüller’s commitment in that regard is remarkable, since the very act of making the movie unsettled her. Her costar Friedel tells me that they expressed nervousness to each other throughout the shoot, though they both felt deeply proud of the final product: “We had phone calls: ‘What are we doing here? Is this right?’”
Hüller is always questioning—herself, her material, her character. There seems to be a kind of clinical severity to the way she assesses situations, and she does not shy away from the gravity of a given moment. Yet in making The Zone of Interest, she made room for a familiar taste of home. Her dog, accompanying Hüller on set, wound up in the movie, running around and creating dysfunction amid Glazer’s controlled portrait of evil. (Hüller guards her privacy to the extent that she won’t publicly reveal her pet’s name.) So what was it like, allowing the warmly personal into such a severely professional environment? “Well, she’s her own dog personality. She’s not a part of me,” Hüller replies—with a laugh! A new layer unpeeled. She’s smiling now, alive at the very mention of her pup.
Glazer, the British director, was apparently grateful that Hüller’s dog was untrained, providing the movie with a fresh dose of chaos. At this, I mention that my own undisciplined dog would probably not fare so well on a film set. “Where is your dog?” Hüller asks immediately. “Oh, please, please. I want to see him.” I look around but he is, alas, out for his morning walk. Then we share, against all odds, personal stories about the lives we lead with our pets. We somehow apologize to each other for getting too private.
Eventually, I lead us back toward the subject of work, and Hüller answers my initial question rather dutifully: “To be loved by a creature, while playing this character, was really soothing and important for me.” I can tell she’d rather go back to the dog stories.
Hüller is a true international star, making movies across Europe—she performs regularly in English, German, and French and is currently improving her Spanish. But in Germany, a sticky tradition continues to drive her up the wall. Theatrically exhibited films in the country are often dubbed, so the characters all speak German—even if, in the original cut, they definitely do not. Hüller tends to dub her non-German-language movies herself. She recalls the “cruel” dubbing experience for Anatomy of a Fall, which she agreed to at the request of its German distributor. She’s visibly upset by the memory of being in that recording booth. “It makes me so mad, I can’t even tell you,” she says.
The movie’s communication barrier—Sandra takes the stand not well-versed in French yet is required to speak it—is crucial to the narrative. But the dubbed German cut has each character speaking the same language anyway, so that plot point—that key aspect of Hüller’s exacting characterization—simply evaporates. “When I’m acting, voice is such an important part of it: It says so much about where I am or how I really feel, if I am tense, if I’m at ease,” she says. “It’s a long topic, and I’m still not over the fact that I really did it.” She says she may never dub again: “It’s awful. It’s really—I find it humiliating and sort of damaging to myself.”
It may sound like a small thing, but Hüller’s at her most vulnerable telling me this. In conversation, as in her movies, she builds slowly toward candor. She doesn’t make it easy. The real gift comes when she lets you in.
HAIR, DANILO; MAKEUP, KATE LEE; MANICURE, MARISA CARMICHAEL; TAILOR, MARKO GUILLÉN; SET DESIGN, ROBERT DORAN. PRODUCED ON LOCATION BY VIEWFINDERS. FOR DETAILS, GO TO VF.COM/CREDITS.