German actress Nina Hoss is perhaps best know to American moviegoers as the luminous star of the films of acclaimed director Christian Petzold, with their unusually sustained working relationship having thrown up a string of contemplative festival hits that include Yella, Jerichow, and Barbara. This fertile, ever-developing collaboration achieved a breakthrough of sorts with 2014’s Phoenix, a ravishing postwar melodrama that struck a chord with both critics and audiences alike. Hoss plays Nelly, a Jewish woman who returns to Berlin from a concentration camp in the immediate aftermath of the war with both her face and psyche entirely shattered. Following extensive surgery, Nelly is no longer recognizable to either herself or her former husband, who may have been the one to betray her to the authorities and is unusually quick to see potential profit in the mere vestiges of similarity that remain. In the hands of such a masterful actress as Hoss, Nelly’s attempts to play up to her husband’s wishes grow more heartbreaking with each fresh turn of the screw, with the unbelievable modulation of Hoss’s voice and body perfectly mapping out each stage in Nelly’s gradual transformation. On the eve of Phoenix’s release on the Criterion Collection, I spoke to Hoss about the complexities of her celebrated performance, what it’s like to work with Petzold, and her recent role as Astrid on Homeland.
Phoenix has been hugely successful in America. It was one of the biggest foreign films at the U.S. box office last year and now it’s being released as part of the Criterion Collection, which is a remarkably swift canonization. Why do you think the film has been such a success, particularly as it didn’t live up to expectations back in Germany?
After the premiere in Toronto, there were a lot of people coming up to me and telling me that their grandparents had fled the Holocaust or survived it, which obviously creates a very direct, very immediate connection to both the film and the character of Nelly. As to why the film didn’t work as well in Germany, it might be that the Germans have a hard time with such subject matter. There’s obviously been a great deal of debate there about that period of history, and it’s still an ongoing process. I think people perhaps read the film in a purer way in America and without as many preconceptions, with a genuine interest in the “what if” question the story throws up. As it’s such a charged subject here in Germany, there’s a feeling that you can’t introduce a twist into history like that. You can’t just claim that Nelly’s husband wouldn’t recognize her: It’s too illogical and too implausible, it doesn’t make sense, it’s something for a fairy tale or a parable. I think many people in Germany were too fixated on the “impossibility” of the story, while I would say that people in America maybe have more of a grounding in cinema so as to properly grasp it. It’s obviously a story, an assertion, but if you choose to engage with it, it reveals a huge amount about why certain feelings are suppressed. And that’s what the film is ultimately about.
One of the main reasons for the film’s success is your outstanding performance, which possesses such an incredible physicality. The focus is less on what Nelly says or does than how she actually speaks or moves, in terms of her voice, the way she walks, her stance. How did you go about developing the physical side of her character?
There were many different stages in the process. To begin with, Christian tries to shoot his films in more or less chronological order, which meant I as an actress was able go hand in hand with Nelly toward her eventual awakening. For me, the starting point was the fact that her face is bandaged so you can’t actually see her properly. That helped me understand that, at the beginning, Nelly is almost like someone from beyond the grave, a zombie of sorts or an alien, while also having something of a newborn child. And so I wanted to introduce a degree of bewilderment and impairment to her physicality, while also making it clear that she’s actually completely unformed, neither man nor woman, almost unable even to walk properly.
The idea was to communicate the sort of dehumanization I’d read so much about. It was as if the concentration camps cast a spell on their inmates, putting them into a trance-like state, a state in which they were merely there and nothing more than that, no longer really even living beings, their identity entirely stripped from them. And that’s what I wanted the basis of her subsequent development to be, as she gradually learns from Johnny how she was, as she suddenly rediscovers her body and femininity. It wasn’t about finding her way back to her old ego, but rather having her arrive in her old body once again. And although I didn’t want to overemphasize it, I thought that was a development that could be best put across in physical terms.
Were all the various physical details of Nelly’s character included in the script or did they emerge during the shoot? And how much freedom did you have in the process?
They don’t appear in the script, they were just things I thought about and discussed with Christian and then tried out once we were actually shooting to see what would happen, to see what would make sense, what would feel either right or too much. The great thing about working with Christian is that I always feel I have a great deal of freedom to explore, as he’s more than happy to be surprised, although we obviously talk a lot beforehand about the story, the script, and the specifics of the character and her path, and I also discuss with him any questions that may come up along the way. It’s ultimately about trust and so much is possible when you have that degree of trust, when you’re open to things and to taking risks, for playing Nelly certainly involved taking a risk.
How did you go about trying to access the immense trauma that Nelly has suffered?
Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah really helped me in preparing for the role of Nelly, because there I could study the faces of people relating precisely such traumatic experiences. They were all answering questions about what they’d suffered 30 or even 40 years previously and although they all spoke freely and had theoretically got over their experiences, there was a moment for each and every one of them when their voices cracked or they had to stop, or where you could see them trying to hold back tears, or collect themselves, or regain their poise. Even then, they were still unable to fully grasp what they’d experienced, and I saw that as exactly the same state that Nelly was in, a trauma so shocking and impossible to comprehend that you even doubt your own perception of it and talk about it as if it weren’t possible for it to actually have happened. And that was my way of approaching this incredible trauma, which as an actor is something you can only try and approach based on empathy, as I’ve obviously never experienced anything even remotely similar.
Phoenix is your sixth film with Christian, so I imagine the two of you have a very established way of working. How did Phoenix compare to the other projects you’ve made with him? And as Phoenix contains so many references to cinema, was watching films together an important part of the process?
Funnily enough, we watched far fewer films then we normally do. The preparation for Phoenix was actually very different. We worked almost symbiotically on all the other films, but this time round I had the feeling we were working in parallel without our paths directly crossing. I felt I just had to follow my own path and trust my instincts. Christian is someone who likes to talk and to analyze, which is great, and he’s given me such a wealth of visual references and film historical backgrounds in the past, but for Phoenix it was something I didn’t need and somehow needed to avoid. For me, it was all about the story and the character and I just wasn’t able to step out of the role to consider, say, what a particular scene might mean from the outside or whether something might be metaphorical or not.
You’d only actually made two films before collaborating with Christian for the first time on Something to Remind Me. What was the first meeting with him like and how has your collaboration developed over the years?
At the beginning, you never know where a first meeting is going to lead. I was just 21 back then and fresh out of acting school. I’d seen his first film, The State I Am In, and read the script for Something to Remind Me and I immediately connected with the character and the story. It was one of the first scripts I’d read that was like a novella. Christian is an unbelievably good writer, and reading his scripts is like having a whole world open up before you. You can almost see the locations, and you understand the characters without their being overly explained. Everything is based on precision and exact observation. And when we met, we were immediately on the same wavelength and everything he talked about just interested me: his ideas about our country and society, the films that have influenced him, the books he’s read, his way of thinking, the stories he wants to tell and how he wants to tell them. I think he was more skeptical about me than I was about him, but once we started, we noticed that we work incredibly well together.
I understand what he’s looking for without the need for much explanation. The characters he writes work in such a way that they need to be fleshed out with background details to come to life, not in the sense of creating some sort of template, but rather giving them a charge that you don’t initially understand but which keeps you engrossed the entire film. It’s such a pleasure to be able construct characters like this and be able to push the initial idea behind them further. That’s how it was at the beginning and it’s just kept on going from there, we’ve worked together for so long now because he keeps finding stories that fascinate me, not least because we’ve also started moving back in time to examine why we are the way we are today in Germany. Phoenix and Barbara are ultimately about the search for identity. How do you become the person you are? And at which points do you have to make decisions, be brave, stand up for something or not, as the case may be, and what happens to you as a consequence? These are very fundamental life questions.
Since Phoenix, you’ve played the role of Astrid in the fourth and fifth seasons of Homeland. What was it like working on a big American television series compared to working with Christian?
The biggest difference is the format, as you tell the character’s story over a whole six months. With Astrid, I felt I was able to give a series of small insights into who she was over that period. But it goes without saying that I didn’t have the same amount of time or scope that I have with Christian, although I didn’t expect that anyway. What really impressed me was the incredible speed at which we worked, the professionalism, the positive attitude. Unlike in Germany, where there’s always a lot of doubt, the entire crew worked based on the idea that if they’re there, it’s because they’re good and that that’s all you need to make things work. It was an energy I really liked. And Astrid’s such a great character, she’s funny and doesn’t take everything as seriously as Carrie, but she’s also written in such a way that I could also flesh her out and bring my own ideas to bear on her much like I do with Christian. And so, working on Homeland wasn’t actually that different in the end.
As you shot Phoenix in 2013, are you and Christian working on anything new?
Actually not! Christian’s done a couple of German television films since then and is now working on a script for a film I won’t be appearing in. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it’s right and proper that it’s like that. There’s a break for now and then we’ll see what happens. But I’m actually currently preparing to shoot a film with Volker Schlöndorff called Return to Montauk, based on a great story written by Colm Tóibín, who also wrote Brooklyn, so that’s what’s next for me.