In Sibyl, Sandra Hüller appears at the midway point for a scene-stealing role as a director attempting (and failing) to prevent a love triangle between her two leads from derailing her movie. This performance so impressed Justine Triet that she wrote the lead in her next feature specifically for Hüller.
That follow-up, Anatomy of a Fall, stars Hüller as a successful author, Sandra, who must defend herself in court against allegations that she murdered her writer husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis). The couple’s legally blind son Daniel is the sole witness, and much of Anatomy of a Fall deals with his coming-of-age as he hears unfiltered accounts of his parent’s troubled marriage presented as evidence against his mother.
While containing clear true crime elements, Anatomy of a Fall is less interested in a “Did she do it?” conclusion, instead more concerned with probing how moments in our lives and relationships are smaller pieces of a larger puzzle––when isolated and magnified they may appear like the damning piece of evidence, but things are rarely so simple. Sandra must come to terms with how a courtroom is not beholden to such complexities. There is an irony in an author realizing that narrative is everything and truth is secondary. Hüller doesn’t fault Sandra for her naivety, explaining to me she would behave the same way: “I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know what a defense strategy is. I would just say, ‘I’ll tell the truth.’”
Anatomy of a Fall nabbed the Palme d’Or at Cannes, where Hüller also earned praise for playing the wife of the Nazi commander in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest (the festival’s runner-up Grand Prix winner). I spoke with Triet and Hüller over Zoom, where we discussed how the blowout fight at Anatomy‘s center was executed, and how audiences reacted differently than Triet first anticipated.
The Film Stage: The perspective shifts frequently. Sometimes it’s from a news-camera report or from the perspective of the dog Snoop. It might engage in a hypothetical viewpoint of how the death could have occurred. How did that idea originate with shifting the camera’s POV in different moments?
Justine Triet: I have seen Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler many times. It was important to me to have these two options between sophisticated, pre-prepared, laid-out shots and others where something more impure could emerge. In general I’m very inspired by filmmakers who wield impurity in this way, who work between these different sorts of formal possibilities of large and tight shots. All of that––the unforeseen asperities––are an important part of what I do. By working the form and the technique in this way that is less-neat, sometimes by having these non-diegetic, this sort of split of sound and image––all of this goes toward the filmmaking doing what the film is doing, in the way that the going-over, and the reenactment and the nitpicking at something that’s already occurred in the trial is foiled by the filmmaking proper.
There’s sexism in the courtroom, and while it’s overt at times, you don’t always put it so front-and-center. You don’t always draw direct attention to it.
Triet: I had a lot of fun crafting the sexism. In the trial, Sandra is being scrutinized for what she is in a way that is always doing a tug of war of what a good and a bad victim would be. I was very interested in how the things, spaces, and internal territories which constitute her strength and her power in everyday life are the things then turned back against her in the trial––specifically her relationship to fiction and language and the assumed mastery that she would have over narrative as a writer. Out of that, there are these quite blatantly sexist remarks that her defense lawyer sometimes calls out, but he’s the only one who goes against this: “You can’t say such a thing.” What was interesting was exactly that switch over between what makes a person powerful and where their strengths lie and what fragility is involved in that. And the way in which this is the place that starts to seem threatening to some. That’s the sexism that she faces.
I understand you and your writing partner Arthur Harari disagreed about certain elements regarding the big fight sequence at the center of the film.
Triet: I was afraid about that scene because it’s a cliché in movies to see a fight scene between some couple who say ugly things to each other. That scene is a little trial. Sometimes I was very tough on the man, and Arthur would say you have to be very invested in him too. In all movies it’s important to be very generous with small parts. It was a big thing to say “OK, we have to be in love with both roles” when it was written.
After actors come in and do their part, it changes again. Before Sandra played it, in the writing process, we thought that fight scene would be the apogee of the female character coming out as somebody that the audience could rally against because we knew that she wasn’t doing herself any favors, and the things that she expresses and the toughness of some of the line of her arguments. But then, when the actual shooting of these scenes came, we felt on set that completely unexpectedly, through that scene, Sandra was able to––despite the toughness with which she speaks, in what she said and the way she played it––defend herself in a way that, on the contrary, became a turning point for people that started to, from that point on, side with her in a clearer way, because something that she was communicating was coagulated or federated things within.
Justine Triet at the 61st New York Film Festival. Photo by Sean DiSerio.
You initially wanted to shoot this fight scene in one day, and then it ended up becoming two days. Why did you want to shoot it in one day?
Triet: I asked Sandra what she preferred, because some actors prefer to split everything and some actors prefer to do everything, all of the scene. We chose to shoot the violent moments the second day and to concentrate on everything just before the violent moments on the first. We shot very long takes, but it was better for the energy, the vibes.
Sandra Hüller: Keeping the energy up––that’s never a problem. It’s a problem to keep the energy up when you don’t do anything on set. Samuel Thies is a great partner. We’d been preparing together on the phone, doing the lines over and over again. So we knew what the other person was saying. We were prepared really well. It’s fun to play with him. Coming from theater, I felt it’s good to have the whole scene all the time, because when I decide to say something differently here, it means something in the other place there. That was such a fragile thing that I didn’t want to cut in-between––it would have felt wrong.
Triet: It was a very intense scene. Sandra starts very high, and I learned many things about actors that day.
Hüller: To me, it’s the core thing where she could explain her motive––why she is what she is, why she’s acting how she’s acting, why she’s the part of the marriage that she is. I really wanted to win this argument. I really wanted to be the person that would be understood here. So there was high tension (as well as a lot of love in the room). It was not about getting into this fight right away. We wanted to find out: where are the points where they’re really close? Where are the points where they forgive each other? There is always a moment in a fight where you can almost let it drop, and then it starts again because one person cannot let it go. So all these things: where’s the energy going down? What is coming up again? To me it was exciting and I loved to do it because it was so complicated.
Triet: We have to keep the love between them. It was very important.
Hüller: When people are done with each other, they don’t fight anymore. They just don’t care. But they cared and it was important.
Justine, what did you learn exactly about directing actors and directing Sandra that day?
Triet: What was powerful for me was the pace and the speed at which Sandra brought powerful things to the set. We were able to so quickly go to a place of subtlety, which is far from a kind of actor’s craft performativity. As my work matures these are things that I’m less and less interested in––this kind of performative artifice. Sandra and I agreed on that in this way. Because she doesn’t add anything superficial and plays from a place that is very internal to her, my job becomes how to move toward her and how to move towards actors in general. In a way that is the root of what directing is. Of course, we’re here to tell stories and the stories can be more or less good. But the question is really how to go toward the place where the actor is so that they can deliver something of themselves. In a scene like the fight scene, when that’s the case––when something of oneself is delivered––the audience can feel it.
Hüller: To be able to do this, to open up in that way, it has to do with trust that must be created on set. It’s her work and the work of our team to open up the space for people to show themselves and to feel safe. And that’s the thing you have to do first: to allow people to fail, to allow people to do stupid things at times and to try something that they probably know will not work. But let them try. [Laughs] And they will find out for themselves. But to just find out things together, to work in a collaborative environment and to make every voice on set count––which is also what she does.
You could ask every department what they would think of the scene, and she somehow did that. She was never in some sort of bubble walking around, being away from everybody. We were eating together, everybody’s sitting around in the set. Everything was mixed-up. I love that way of working very much. I don’t believe in coming to set and having prepared something and then showing it to everybody––that doesn’t make any connection to anybody. It’s a solitary thing, and it’s not why I became an actor. I could write something on my own if I wanted to work that way, or dance in front of a mirror. But it’s not what it’s about, to me.
Anatomy of a Fall is now in theaters.