Reel Streaming: The Quiet Brilliance of Nina Hoss
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 32
By Laurence Lerman
I raved over the work of Gene Hackman a couple of columns back, zeroing in on two years of his four-decade, 80-film career and maintained that though a number of the titles may have been stinkers, there was nary a poor performance in the bunch.
Well, two weeks and a dozen or so streams later, I’m prepared to make the same declaration for the German actress Nina Hoss, who, for nearly two decades, has proven herself to be one of her country’s shining stars. Over the past ten years or so, she’s emerged as one of Europe’s leading actors, appearing in ever more international productions and a handful of notable Hollywood projects. Probably not coincidentally, she’s been asked to join the juries of several international film festivals that have previously honored her with awards for her work.
Over the previous month, I’ve streamed more than a dozen of Hoss’s nearly 30 films, starting with the devastating 2008 drama A Woman in Berlin, about a German journalist struggling to survive the Soviet troops’ invasion of Berlin during the last days of World War II, and then moving my way up to a pair of her most recent releases. At this point, I've decided that in terms of emotional resonance, physical presence and a purity of technique that initially calls to mind the work of Isabelle Huppert, Nina Hoss appears to be incapable of a bad performance.
Though she is a well-known and appreciated presence on the art-house circuit, Hoss is probably best recognized on these shores from the handful of American productions she’s appeared in over the past several years. She was initially effective as an efficient German government operative in Anton Corbijn’s 2014 A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman, which then led to a higher-profiled three-season recurring role as a German spy in Showtime’s Homeland (2014-17).
But it’s Hoss’s work with leading German filmmaker Christian Petzold that’s worth placing at the front of your streaming queue.
Petzold is the most successful director of Germany’s “Berlin School” movement of character-driven, realistic works by filmmakers who were primarily schooled in Berlin and who began to emerge in the late Nineties following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the city’s reunification in 1990. Directing his own screenplays, Petzold’s dramas and thrillers are all set in a contemporary Germany populated by characters whose quietly growing tensions find them moving unsurely through their outwardly attractive surroundings. Everything seems to be aligned but vaguely not…until things become more noticeably unsure and off-balance. Plot points contribute to this mood, of course, but Petzold’s strikingly stark compositions and the work of his actors are the primary factors here. In many cases, it’s not what the actors are saying as much as the quiet moments in between.
Unlike the colorful films of the New German Cinema’s R.W. Fassbinder and his favorite leading lady Hanna Schygulla, it's that sense of unspoken, uneasy calm where Petzold and Hoss have truly connected over the course of their six collaborations. It began back in 2001 with the TV movie Something To Remind Me, a Hitchcockian thriller about a parole officer and a seemingly lonely blonde.
Hoss and Petzold’s four most recent films all subtly tease their way through a particular genre while commenting on the many changes and contradictions of life in and around a reunified Berlin. Yella (2007), a veiled remake of Herk Hervey’s 1962 cult horror favorite Carnival of Souls, stars Hoss as a woman whose troubled past continues to haunt her after she leaves her life in Eastern Germany and plunges into the shady world of venture capitalism in the West. In Jerichow (2008), Hoss is a small-time immigrant local businessman’s bored wife who gets dangerously involved with her husband’s new driver à la James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice; And in the nearly pastoral drama Barbara (2012), Hoss is a Berlin doctor in 1980s East Germany who’s banished to a small country clinic as a punishment for applying for an exit visa to the West.
Then there’s 2014’s strikingly original Phoenix—Hoss’s latest film with Petzold and definitely the pair’s strongest—where she is Nelly, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz whose horrible disfigurement from a bullet wound to the face prompts a series of facial reconstruction surgeries. With a new face and tenuous identity, Nelly returns to Berlin and her husband Johnny, who doesn’t recognize her even as he notes she bears an uncomfortable resemblance to his presumably dead wife. It’s when Johnny convinces her to impersonate his late wife in a scheme to collect the deceased’s inheritance that Nelly begins to suspect that Johnny may have betrayed her to the Nazis years ago.
Again, it’s the unsettling stillness in the film and its leading lady that makes it all so effective. Hoss’s sad eyes hold us in thrall, particularly in the early scenes when they’re sorrowfully staring out from her bandage-covered face.
In this past year, Hoss starred in two international productions that have made some ripples stateside (virtual ripples, which is no small feat during this Covid-drenched era). First, she serves up just the right dose of intelligent frazzle in Ina Weisse’s The Audition (2019), as a violin teacher at a German music-oriented high school who causes problems for herself and her family by taking on a questionably promising new student.
Next, in 2020’s My Little Sister, Hoss is a successful playwright who puts her own agenda aside to care for her twin brother, a well-regarded actor who’s terminally ill. Switzerland’s submission for Best International Feature Film in this year’s Academy Awards, My Little Sister is a finely detailed tale about a contemporary woman, a creative and successful one, and how she navigates through the dictates of her career, her family life as a wife and mother and the immediate demands of being a caretaker to her beloved twin. It’s the kind of film that would be slotted as a “women’s melodrama” if it was made in Hollywood, but in the hands of young Swiss writer/directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, it’s a low-key, realistic and very telling study, filled with the quiet strength and sensitivity for which its leading lady is known.
And speaking of Hollywood, in 2019, Nina Hoss accepted an invitation to become a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. That’s actually one of the better decisions the Academy has made recently—and only a couple of years after bestowing on Isabelle Huppert her first-ever Best Actress nomination for her role in Paul Verhoweven’s 2016 Elle (which also garnered Huppert a Golden Globe award, her first). And soon, like Huppert before her, Nina Hoss, whose remarkable body of work finds its center in the quiet, might be on the verge of making a lot of noise on this side of the Atlantic.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.