In the Oscar zone

Sandra Hüller plays Hedwig Höss in The Zone of Interest.

German actress Sandra Hüller stars in two Best Picture nominees

By Juan-Carlos Selznick

The extraordinary German actress Sandra Hüller is featured in two films that are Oscar nominees for Best Picture—The Zone of Interest, which plays at the Pageant Theatre March 3, and Anatomy of a Fall, which is currently streaming. Hüller is exceptional in both, and her performance in the latter has earned her a nomination for Best Actress.

Both films are challenging in unique ways, and Hüller’s performances and the characters she plays are markedly different from each other. In Anatomy, she plays a writer who becomes a murder suspect when her husband dies suddenly and mysteriously at their chalet in the French Alps. In Zone, she plays the wife of Rudolf Hess, the WWII commandant of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where she reigns over the grandly palatial manor house erected just outside the barbwired walls of that Nazi death camp.

The Zone of Interest deals in ferocious ironies that may seem obvious, maybe even too obvious, but it plays shrewdly and powerfully on barbed nuances of those ironies. As a brilliantly detailed period piece, and as a calmly skewed domestic drama, it yields up trenchant insights from within the spectacle of a family’s bucolic life alongside a massive “death factory.”

Director Jonathan Glazer (also Oscar nominated) does not dwell upon the horrors of Auschwitz, but his film doesn’t ignore them either. One of the things that makes Zone a film worth seeing (and thinking about) is that it’s also about people who don’t want to see, let alone think about, horrendous realities that are, literally, right next door to them.

Glazer and his cast populate the film with realistic character portrayals that sometimes have a sly touch of cartoonish marionette to them. Hüller, the best of the lot, brings a subtle psychological realism to a woman who sometimes also acts as if she’s living inside a fairy tale version of the good German wife.

Zone begins and ends in protracted darkness, and its intermittent motif of small brilliant patches of light and color engulfed in darkness generates some unexpected emotion. The occasional emergence of a distinctly radical score (by Mica Levi) creates some interesting moments as well.

Much of Anatomy of a Fall is a weirdly engaging courtroom drama, fueled in part by what may or may not be a murder mystery. But it’s also the portrait of a troubled marriage, and of another problematic household. And Hüller’s character—a writer, a doting mother of a gifted son, an independent woman, a reluctant housewife—is very much at the heart of it all.

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