Meet Germany’s Meryl Streep, Champion of Women Directors
The extraordinarily Nina Hoss (“Phoenix”) opens up to Richard Porton about her latest film, “My Little Sister,” and why her last three films were directed by women.
Nina Hoss, the German actress best known to American audiences for her work with filmmaker Christian Petzold, as well as her recurrent role as the intelligence operative Astrid in Homeland, also has deep roots in contemporary German theater. Her mother, Heidemarie Rohweder, was a well-known stage actress. In 2006, Hoss won acclaim for playing the notoriously difficult role of Euripides’ Medea in a much-lauded production at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. Since 2013, she has been a member of the ensemble at Berlin’s Schaubühne theater.
The Schaubühne’s stage is an important backdrop in Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s My Little Sister, which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival on Monday. Hoss’s role, a playwright named Lisa whose beloved twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) is dying of leukemia, gives her the opportunity to combine her theatrical chops with her proven mastery of cinematic acting technique. When push comes to shove, Lisa’s devotion to her brother outpaces her love for her increasingly self-involved husband, Martin (Jens Albinus), a man thoroughly preoccupied with retaining his job at a posh Swiss boarding school.
When I sat down with Hoss in Berlin to discuss My Little Sister, she readily acknowledged that the film’s focus on theater was enormously appealing: “It felt so truthful inasmuch as we’re all so rooted in this milieu. For example, the scene in which my mother, played by Marthe Keller, mentions those famous theatrical figures from the German past such as Bertolt Brecht and Peter Stein, resonated with me. I’m so familiar with their legacy. We either grew up hearing about them or know their body of work. Also, it was fantastic to be, for once, behind the scenes at the Schaubühne. This is where Lisa comes to life—writing behind the scenes to fulfill the desires of her audience.”
Thomas Ostermeier plays a theater director who resembles himself, and one of the film’s central conflicts involves his aversion to allowing a dying man to go onstage to play Hamlet, and Lisa’s conviction that her brother will feel rejuvenated once he’s back on his home turf.
Hoss admits that this is a tricky quandary. “Are you exploiting someone in a vulnerable state if you put him on stage? Or if an actor really wants to perform, do you allow him to do so? You’d like to protect him from himself. Still, she knows how much this means to her brother and sees how energized he becomes when he’s on stage. His face is bright and his eyes glow. Lisa wants him to go on stage because she knows him and knows that this prospect gives him strength. Acting is a very intense experience and gives you a lot of energy, even if you’re exhausted and experiencing tragedy. When you go out there and play someone else, you feel transformed. Lisa sees that and wants him to have that experience; she wants him to fulfill his desire to share his love for acting with an audience. In addition, it was so amazing to be in that space you know so well. That gave it an extra dimension.”
Another extra dimension is lent to the film by the fact that Eidinger has in fact played Hamlet on many occasions at the Schaubühne. For Hoss, Eidinger’s theatrical savvy and familiarity with Shakespeare lends the film a special authenticity. “Lars has played Hamlet in the past and still does. Another actor could have played the part, designed the character and imagined what it’s like to perform the classics. But when Lars comes on the stage in the film, I feel the 350 performances he’s played as Hamlet at the Schaubühne.”
Hoss’s fascination with the seamless blend of Eidinger’s own theatrical persona and his role as a fictional performer makes it logical to query Hoss about her own process as an actress. Is she a purely intuitive performer or does she carefully research her characters and their backstories?
“Yes, I try to do research, as much as I can. With Petzold’s Barbara, I visited hospitals and observed the doctors, because I wanted Barbara to be a good doctor and understand what that means. There are little things, such as not talking down to your patients and looking them directly in the eye. There are these little things that you observe. Some parts are closer to my experience and I feel I get them more quickly. With others, I have to work harder to find the essence of what the characters want and how they manage to get it.”
“In this particular case,” she continues, “we just talked a lot and shared our experiences. And Lars watched documentaries about people on the verge of death to discover how to play that role. But, mainly, I work very closely with the script. That’s my Bible, to find the arc for the character and the crises that transform her into a slightly different person. Like, for example, the scene where she finally breaks down. She can’t hold it together any longer, but that’s also a relief. It’s satisfying when I’ve answered all my questions about my character and her motivations.”
It’s also striking that, at a time when there’s continued outrage toward the dearth of women directors in both Hollywood and abroad, Hoss’s last three films—My Little Sister was preceded by Katrin Gebbe’s Pelican Blood and Ina Weisse’s The Audition—have boasted women at the helm. Nevertheless, she admits: “This was just a coincidence, especially since there still aren’t that many women directing today.” That being said, she “was excited to see what stories they’d come up with and how they’d tell them. I was curious to see how their approaches would be different from that of male directors. It was great that all these fantastic stories came my way and that they were all written by women. I embraced this opportunity wholeheartedly.”
When I compared Hoss’s close collaboration with Petzold to the famed working relationship between Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, she nodded in agreement. Although many critics and fans are wondering when she’ll reunite with the director, whose latest film, Undine, also premiered in this edition of the Berlinale, she maintains that she’s taking a mere “pause” from this fruitful partnership.
“I thought it was such an amazing collaboration. At times, you have to let in a little air in and take a break. It doesn’t detract from what we did,” she offers. “But sometimes you need to explore yourself in a different way and it could be very interesting to eventually go back and explore new territory.”