Why this film’s painfully real argument went viral

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By Emma JonesFeatures correspondent

Alamy Sandra Huller in Anatomy of a FallAlamy

The German actress Sandra Hüller has an Oscar nomination for her blistering performance in Anatomy of a Fall. The film’s viral moment could make her a contender for the top prize.

In two of this year’s most acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – films, German actress Sandra Hüller plays two characters who in different ways are perceived as monsters. In the case of Hedwig, the wife of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, growing a garden and ignoring the death camp over the fence in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest – this perception is more readily understood. But what about when the monstrous mantle is given to the confident, outspoken, bisexual writer Sandra, when she is accused of murdering her husband in French director Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall?

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Last month Hüller received a best actress Oscar nomination for this role, one of five in total for the film, which also took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Zone of Interest also received five Oscar nominations, putting the critical spotlight back on Hüller, eight years after she first received international acclaim for playing another woman seemingly indifferent to anyone’s opinion – Ines, in Maren Ade’s father-daughter drama comedy Toni Erdmann.

How does Hüller feel about her fictitious namesake Sandra being accused of being a monster? In the film’s lengthy courtroom scenes, the prosecution aggressively cross-examines her, using her own writing and marital infidelities as evidence to support its case. Sandra herself protests during the film, “I’m not a monster!”. Society’s judgement that, if guilty, she must be, seems already present.

Sandra’s just actually acting like a man and if that were the case no one would say anything about it – Sandra Hüller

“I find that so interesting,” she tells BBC Culture, from backstage at the International film festival in Rotterdam, where she gave a career talk.

“Even just today, a close friend of mine told me that ‘yes, Sandra’s just actually acting like a man and if that were the case no one would say anything about it’But the fact that she’s a woman and behaving that way seems to be scary for some people.”

Anatomy of a scene

The Sandra of Anatomy of a Fall is blunt, career-focused and doesn’t hide the fact she is more successful as a writer than her husband Samuel (played in the movie by Samuel Theis), who she’s accused of pushing to his death at their French chalet house. She’s also bisexual, and Hüller thinks all these characteristics add to the debate around her.

“Unfortunately, it’s rare to find female characters that have so much to tell and that are so true to themselves and that are so intelligent and so carefully written and that don’t have any clichés in them. It was really liberating to play a woman who knows a lot about herself. I think Sandra’s really done the work and I admire that very much.”

Alamy Anatomy contains a blazing marital argument that went viral earlier this year (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Anatomy contains a blazing marital argument that went viral earlier this year (Credit: Alamy)

The fictitious Sandra is neither a femme fatale nor frightened victim in the electrifying noir thriller-meets-courtroom drama written by Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari, who has co-written most of the films she’s directed. Anatomy contains surely one of the most blazing and memorable marital arguments ever seen in cinema. One particular scene went viral earlier this year, and currently has just under 10 million views on TikTok. When the film first premiered at Cannes, Justine Triet told the BBC that she had wanted to explore the tensions of a long-term relationship.

“I think it’s very complicated to live together,” she said at the time. “What do we owe each other, what do we give each other, what is love and how can we live together? It seems very simple, but in fact it is a question.”

Hüller agrees that the scene is “extraordinary” but thinks that’s down to the strength of Triet and Harari’s own relationship.

“It’s not because of us, it’s because of the writing. It helps that the people who wrote it are living together, and they wrote down their worst nightmare, how it could go really, really wrong,” she points out.

“They went into a place that was really uncomfortable, I think. And I can only thank them for that because it was brave. I’m often talking about bravery in filmmaking, but I do think it was really brave to write this as a couple; I’ve lots of respect for that.” 

An international success story

Anatomy of a Fall is an examination of the breakdown of a relationship through the lens of the courtroom, set against the formality of the French legal system, already portrayed in 2022 by Alice Diop in the film Saint Omer as inherently prejudiced towards women accused of emotive crimes.

In the witness box, Sandra is interrogated about her dedication as a wife and also as a mother to the couple’s young son Daniel (played by Milo Machado-Graner) who happens to be blind and also the main witness. Her marital infidelities with both men and women are exposed to the court.

Does Sandra’s bisexuality count against her in the courtroom, as some have debated? “It’s interesting that fact is frightening for some people,” Hüller replies. “Or that even makes her, I don’t know, less believable? I mean, let’s not even go there, it’s just ridiculous.”

Alamy Sandra is more successful than her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) – she's accused of pushing to his death at their French chalet house (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Sandra is more successful than her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) – she’s accused of pushing to his death at their French chalet house (Credit: Alamy)

Hüller has so far spent much of her career working in theatre, which perhaps stood her in good stead for Anatomy’s long scenes, which were spoken in English and French, her second and third languages. It’s something the actress says she loved and wants to do more of. “There’s a lack of control in other languages that I enjoy very much because I can never do it right. There will always be an accent and little mistakes, and I really like that fact that I can focus so much more on what I say than how I say it,” she explains.

Triet and Hüller described themselves at Cannes as “sisters from another mister” as they’ve also worked together on the 2019 comedy drama Sibyl, about a psychotherapist-turned-writer who finds her latest patient is a tempting source of inspiration for her work. While Triet’s earlier works, like Sibyl or 2016’s In Bed with Victoria, have a comic undertone that Anatomy doesn’t have, all these heroines share a strong ownership of their sexuality.

The film’s success – it’s made more than $28m internationally – has propelled Triet into a different league: she’s now a Palme d’Or winner and one of only eight women filmmakers to be nominated for a best director Oscar.

“I don’t understand why it took so long,” says Hüller of Triet’s recognition. “I really don’t get it because even when I saw her first short film, I thought, ‘this is really something’. I think it’s remarkable what she’s doing, the way she’s thinking, the risks she’s taking. I really admire her very much.”

The film’s big unanswered question

The director also took a risk in fiercely criticising French film industry policy (about the suppression of pension protests) during her Palme d’Or acceptance speech, which resulted in her being called “ungrateful” by the French culture minister. It may also have been one of the reasons Anatomy of a Fall was passed over as the French Oscar entry for best international film – although if so, Triet may have had the last laugh.

As long as we recreate those narratives…almost that just one woman is allowed in there, it’s going to stay that way – Sandra Hüller

Now the filmmaker finds herself the only woman in a directing category that also includes The Zone of Interest’s Jonathan Glazer. Only once before, in 2021, have two women ever made it to that shortlist, and the exclusion of Greta Gerwig, who made the billion-dollar box office saviour Barbie, provoked well-publicised indignation, especially from Gerwig’s leading man, Ryan Gosling.

“I still think it’s a strange picture to see Justine in the middle of four men. I find it strange. And I would have loved to have seen Greta Gerwig nominated. Of course, I would,” says Hüller. “I think though as long as we recreate those narratives about maybe it’s just the way it is, almost that just one woman is allowed in there, it’s going to stay that way.”

Getty Images Justine Triet (pictured with Hüller) is the only woman nominated in the Oscars' best director category (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Justine Triet (pictured with Hüller) is the only woman nominated in the Oscars’ best director category (Credit: Getty Images)

The actress describes her own Oscar nomination as “very nice on one level, and at the same time it’s very intimidating. There are a lot of things going on right now I have to process a bit, but I’m very happy.

“I’m lucky to receive any honour, but it’s out of my control. I can just continue to work and that’s what I’ve always done. I really try to create something that I agree with and not to do any favours to anyone. And sometimes it pays off.”

And will Sandra Hüller go off to the Oscars armed with the inside knowledge that most fans of Anatomy of a Fall are desperate to know – did she do it?

“I won’t tell because I don’t know,” she replies.

“I really don’t know! There are so many theories, and that’s the beautiful thing about this film, that everybody is making up their own story about it and everybody has their own judgment and then their own fantasy. Justine and I never discussed it and I also didn’t decide because the balance is very important for this film, that the audience is constantly moved from one side to the other. And I think it was easier to not know ourselves.”

Anatomy of a Fall is on release now. The 96th Academy Awards will be broadcast on ABC on Sunday 10 March at 7pm ET.

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