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Sandra Hüller’s burdens of proof, in ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ and ‘Zone of Interest’

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NEW YORK (AP) — Since Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palme d’Or, Sandra Hüller has been dogged by a question: Did she do it?

In “Anatomy of a Fall,” Hüller plays a well-known novelist, also named Sandra, whose husband (Samuel Theis) is found dead outside their chalet in the French Alps after plunging from a top-floor window. Did he fall, or was he pushed?

This image released by Neon shows Sandra Hüller in a scene from "Anatomy of a Fall." (Neon via AP)

This image released by Neon shows Sandra Hüller in a scene from “Anatomy of a Fall.” (Neon via AP)

There are no witnesses except, possibly, a border collie named Snoop. The couple’s 11-year-old son is blind. Authorities charge Sandra with murder. When the trial commences, “Anatomy of a Fall” twists a legal procedural into a thorny marital drama, putting the couple’s tumultuous relationship — all the fights, resentments and affairs — on the stand.

It is a staggering showcase for the German actor Hüller’s cunning intelligence and rigorous intensity as a performer. Is Sandra’s frank testimony convincing because she’s innocent or is it that Hüller is just that good?

“I answered the questions that were posed to her in the most honest way that was possible, but I don’t know the complete truth,” Hüller said in a recent interview. “I decided to believe her. I decided to play her as someone who’s telling the truth, even if it’s just that she believes she’s telling the truth. At the same time, I wanted her to be someone whom I could think capable of doing such a thing.”

“She should be a dangerous person, in a way,” Hüller added. “Not dangerous in a way of threatening people but dangerous in the way of: You don’t mess around with her.”

“Anatomy of a Fall,” which Neon releases in theaters Friday, has been widely hailed as one of the finest films of the year. But by an even wider margin, no film this year has left more moviegoers turning to each other afterward to ask: “So, what do you think?”

Director Justine Triet poses for a portrait to promote the film "Anatomy of a Fall" on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

Justine Triet (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

Triet, who wrote the film with her husband Arthur Harari (“It’s OK, he’s alive,” she chipperly notes), wanted to use the conventions of a courtroom drama — with its expert witnesses and cross-examinations — to dig into the subjective nature of relationships.

“For many years I was tormented by the ways in which relationships I had been in, whether with men or in friendships, could be so deformed in time by the telling of them,” Triet says. “And this indignation of: ‘No, it was real.’”

“In some ways, maybe that’s why I make films at all, so that we create an object that, once it’s made, doesn’t move anymore,” she adds.

“Anatomy of a Fall” is getting a major awards push from Neon in multiple categories, including best picture, though not in the one category it was expected to be favored. While Palme d’Or winners are typically chosen as a country’s best international film submission, France picked Trần Anh Hùng’s also celebrated “The Taste of Things.”

In discussing the snub for “Anatomy of a Fall,” already a hit in French cinemas, some noted the fiery speech Triet gave when accepting the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Triet spoke out against what she called government repression of pension reform protests in France and “the commodification of culture” under President Emmanuel Macron.

“I don’t know exactly what happened,” Triet, who became just the third female filmmaker to win the Palme. “But I don’t want to be the bad loser. I think now it’s OK for Trần Anh Hùng. Of course, at the beginning we were disappointed but now it’s OK. We’re staying in the race.”

FILE - Milo Machado Graner, from left, Sandra Huller, director Justine Triet, and Swann Arlaud pose for photographers at the photo call for "Anatomy of a Fall" at the 76th international film festival, Cannes, southern France on May 22, 2023. (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP, File)

Milo Machado Graner, from left, Hüller, Triet and Swann Arlaud at Cannes (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP, File)

That’s especially true in the case of Hüller, the 45-year-old who, after an international breakthrough in Maren Ade’s 2016 comedy “Toni Erdmann,” has emerged as one of Europe’s top actors. She also stars this fall in Jonathan Glazer’s acclaimed Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest” as Hedwig Höss, wife of the Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss. The double whammy of the two films prompted Hüller to be declared this May.

But if the spotlight is getting brighter on Hüller, it was clear on her recent trip to the New York Film Festival, with family in tow, that she has only so much interest in it. Hüller was most comfortable praising her fellow actors or talking about weekend plans with her kids. When Hüller wraps a film, she’s typically content to let the character go.

“At one point, it’s really enough,” she says, smiling. “I really enjoy the lower energy of life that normally goes on around me.”

Hüller’s entry into a role is just as organic. For her, even the phrase “getting into character” feels too clinical for a process she describes as instinctive and subconscious.

“Whenever I connect with an idea or a person or a story — and that’s something I can’t control — my perception of the world changes a little bit,” says Hüller. “I tend to see things I didn’t before that are connected to the person or the story. It’s kind of a psychological but dangerous thing.”

FILE - Actor Sandra Huller, left, and director Justine Triet appear at the photo call for the film "Anatomy of a Fall" at the 76th international film festival, Cannes, southern France on May 22, 2023. (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP, File)

Hüller and Triet at Cannes (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP, File)

In the case of “Anatomy of a Fall,” Hüller knew immediately after reading the script that she wanted to play Sandra. Triet, whose 2019 film “Sibyl” co-starred Hüller, had written it with her in mind. But Triet refused to tell her whether the character had committed murder or not.

“I decided precisely in my head. But it’s a secret,” says Triet. “For me, the most important thing to say is: ‘You need to play it like an innocent.’ It was important for me that the movie would bring a spectator to think: She might have killed him. She might have pushed him to suicide. She might be responsible without having actually killed him.”

Triet has said she’ll share her version of the story in 10 years. But whatever the answer, “Anatomy of a Fall” is about accepting and living with doubt. The couple’s son is ultimately forced to decide about his mother for himself.

“You have to decide,” says Triet. “You have to have a position before knowing something in full.”

Actor Sandra Huller poses for a portrait to promote the film "Anatomy of a Fall" on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

Hüller (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

While Hüller felt deep affection, even a protectiveness for Sandra, her relationship with Hedwig in “The Zone of Interest” was radically different. Hüller had previously never wanted to play a Nazi but she was coaxed into doing it for Glazer’s film, a formalist portrait of a family living alongside Auschwitz, seemingly unperturbed by the horror Rudolf oversees next door.

“The more I knew about her — which wasn’t very much — the less respect I had for her,” says Hüller. “I decided not to give her any empathy or any of my normal pool of feelings. Just to go on without it, to try to show somebody who’s just doing her thing and doesn’t care.”

Guilt means something else entirely in “The Zone of Interest.” There’s no question of the atrocity taking place. Hüller’s performance is just as concentrated, just as direct, but it’s empty, intentionally. For her, the real challenge of the role was the personal side of it, living with what she called “the ancestral responsibility” of the Holocaust as a German. The acting part, she shrugs, was “OK.”

“In a way, the things that I didn’t give to her I gave to the people she killed,” says Hüller. “It’s like it’s put around the corner. I served somebody else, not her.”

Film writer and critic