Sandra Hüller Could Cap Off an Extraordinary Year With an Oscar Upset. She Deserved It For This Dark 2016 Comedy, Too

Sandra Hüller defined 2023 moviegoing, perhaps more than any other actress—at least on the art-house side of things. If you care about film but somehow hadn’t become aware of her before last year, you’re almost certainly a Hüller fan now, after her turns in both Anatomy of a Fall (as a writer on trial for the murder of her husband) and The Zone of Interest (as a Nazi who just wants to tend to her Auschwitz-adjacent garden.)

Both of those films are up for Best Picture this year, and Hüller also received a well-deserved best actress nomination for Anatomy of a Fall. The role was written with her in mind—the character’s name is also “Sandra”— and you can see why. It’s hard to imagine anyone else embodying the specific mix of pride, exhaustion, and intelligence she brings to this prickly character, whose guilt or innocence the film never definitively establishes.

There’s a reason that her delivery of the line “Your generosity conceals something dirtier and meaner” in the film’s show-stopping couple-fight flashback has become such a meme. She delivers it with a cutting fury that’s unnervingly relatable. And then there’s Hüller’s work in Zone as Hedwig Höss, a terrifying portrait of someone we know to be a monster taking comfort in tidy domesticity. The scene in which she tells her husband (Christian Friedel) that she refuses to leave Auschwitz is chilling not because it’s a depiction of evil but because—like the blowout in Anatomy of a Fall–it’s such a recognizable marital spat.

These films have put Hüller on the moviegoing public’s radar like never before. And if you’re looking to experience more of her work, there’s at least one other Oscar-worthy Sandra Hüller performance out there—her turn as Ines, the exasperated businesswoman in Maren Ade’s brilliant Toni Erdmann. Ade’s film debuted in 2016 at Cannes, and quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed films of that year. It was my first introduction to Hüller—and it’s an outstanding one. In Ade’s comedy, the stressed-out consultant Ines is beset upon by her amusing but strange father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who eventually starts posing (in a wig and fake teeth) as the eponymous “Toni Erdmann.” It’s essentially a warped father-daughter bonding saga that unfolds over nearly two hours and forty-five minutes.

Hüller’s trick is how she embodies Ines’ unraveling as her dad’s antics both annoy and free her, eventually leading to an uproarious scene that combines full frontal nudity combined with expert physical comedy. If you need more convincing, set aside four and a half minutes to experience Hüller’s incredible rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” with Simonischek on keyboard, and watch the way Hüller shows us Ines’ reluctance dissolving as she begins to belt the song out, with little care for whether or not she’s perfectly hitting the notes.

As we begin our final approach to the 2024 Oscars, we’re taking one more look back at the films and performances that blew our minds last year—and looking even further back, to spotlight earlier Oscar-worthy work from the filmographies of this year’s nominees.

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