I attended a beautiful concert yesterday, and today is the first day of lockdown in Germany.
For somebody who is in a league of their own, Nina Hoss sure invites a lot of comparisons. In many ways, what she does—her genius—is incomparable, singular, and absolute. It must be some kind of a crime that international audiences don’t yet know her name more widely as they should.
She remains one of Germany’s most prized actors—she has physical stacks of them, too, from Berlin, San Sebastián and Toronto, to name a few. As a muse, her collaborations with Christian Petzold—Wolfsburg, Yella, Jerichow, Barbara, and Phoenix—has been likened by critics to that of between Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg. The Los Angeles Times hailed Hoss as one of the few actresses in Europe who can match Isabelle Huppert for technical brilliance and emotional range. “Meet Germany’s Meryl Streep,” proclaimed The Daily Beast earlier this year, resurfacing whispers that she has more than paid her dues for a Hollywood crossover vis-à-vis her refined and nuanced turns that can, not only make good material great, but elevate mediocre ones into something worth checking out. This festival season, she appeared in a pair of films that have a surprising amount in common, given that they both star Hoss as women who become deeply invested in saving the lives of her loved ones, at the selfless cost—and also a selfish one, as Hoss went on to add in our below conversation—of putting her own life on pause in order to do so.
In Katrin Gebbe’s Pelican Blood, Hoss plays a horse trainer named Wiebke, who has an adopted daughter already and is in the process of adding a second one named Raya. Wiebke travels to Bulgaria to adopt the new 5-year-old and problems surface almost immediately. These are not your general child-rearing issues. The exceedingly difficult addition to the family bites her new sister, screams at the top of her lungs, smears feces all over the bathroom, and then turns into a pyromaniac. As we witness Raya’s transformation from docile orphan to an aggressive bad seed, her mother and sister begin to wonder whether they made the right decision in adopting. Told repeatedly to give up on what is clearly a very damaged child—who may be interpreted as being actually possessed—Wiebke refuses. This is ultimately a story about how far a mother, especially an adoptive one, will go to redeem the soul of a child she has allowed into her heart.
In Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s My Little Sister—Switzerland’s official Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film—Hoss is Lisa, the film’s titular sister, who goes to great lengths to protect her twin brother, Sven (Lars Eidinger), who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Under the illusion of recovery, Sven is a theatre actor who fights with every breath to get back on the stage. Lisa, a playwright, not only understands his desires but pushes him and all those around him to support the cause. Lisa returns to their Berlin family home in order to set Sven up with their mother in his final days. However, it soon becomes obvious that this will simply not work out, as their childhood home becomes more like a vacuum of discord at the hands of their overbearing mother, leaving behind a trail of tension and disapproval. Sven is instead invited to stay with Lisa and her children in the snowy alpine region of Switzerland to recuperate. By this point, Lisa has given Sven her undivided attention—her everything. It tests her own sense of self as Sven succumbs to his illness, and her own life begins to implode and crumble under great duress.
Hoss will next appear in, among other things, Jane Anderson’s hotly-anticipated Women in the Castle, an adaptation of Jessica Shattuck’s best-selling 2017 novel of the same title. Set during and after World War II, the story concerns a trio of German widows of conspirators involved with an assassination attempt on Hitler. Hoss will star alongside Daisy Ridley and Kristin Scott Thomas.
My Little Sister screened at AFI FEST 2020. The film opens in select theatres in early 2021.
It’s great to connect with you again. We met in 2012 when Barbara was coming to America.
It was a while ago! I don’t remember where the interview took place. [laughs]
I remember it so distinctly because it was in a part of Manhattan that I usually never go: on the east side of Midtown right on the water. I’ve been to that same house twice for interviews. I think it belonged to somebody on the distributor side of things. It was an incredible house.
Oh yeah, great! I’m always so thankful that people remind me of these things. Beautiful!
I was actually thinking about you over the summer after watching Pelican Blood at a film festival in South Korea. It won the top prize there. So my natural inclination is to compare that role with the one in My Little Sister. I wonder if you saw some overlap in your understanding of these two women.
It’s hard to say because you don’t tend to think about them as continuing stories. They pretty much stand on their own and exist under different circumstances. But really, on the one hand, yeah, they’re both about selflessness. Both movies don’t question the fact that we don’t let someone we love and care about to fall. Wiebke and Lisa both want to help until the very end. Nevertheless, it’s not entirely selfless because they both get something out of it as well. It’s about rebuilding. It’s about empathy and for a short period of time giving yourself to someone that you love, be it the person you live with, your kids, or the brother. But at the end of the day, you become more whole as a person also because you come to understand yourself better through going on this journey and I think that is the same for both Wiebke and Lisa. They don’t hide away from hardship. They’re not really following what they need to be doing right now. They know what’s important: to push that aside and give their everything so they know that the other person is okay. That, I think, both women do have.
In My Little Sister, Lisa and Sven are bonded, not only through blood but a shared creativity in the realm of theatre. Did Stéphanie [Chuat] and Véronique [Reymond] discuss with you why it was so important to them that these are not just siblings, but twins? It seems paramount that they are.
Lars [Edinger] and I had Stéphanie and Véronique sitting in front of us every day, and it’s about them. Because [Stéphanie and Véronique] are inseparable in such a beautiful way. They’ve really known each other for so long. They went to school together since they were in kindergarten. They’ve always been together and made this journey. They were clowns together as kids and then they became actresses. They weren’t always working together in that respect, but always creating something, until they started writing and then directing. When you speak to them, you have this feeling that they’re one person in a way. They’re strong individuals as themselves, but they love working with each other. One lets in an aspect of the other, and vice versa. That’s why it’s such a joy working with them. You get the feeling that they’re so in tune. It makes you think, oh my god, what if one of them has to go? What would the other person do? You have the feeling that they need each other. They love each other so much in the creative process. They’re not always together in their private lives, but in this communal process of making the film, they are. That’s why [Lisa and Sven] had to be siblings—twins. There’s an underlying language and understanding and similarity that only siblings have, and especially twins. Even if they’re their own individuals, you just know why the other person is behaving the way they do. You can read the signs without even knowing it. Of course you lose everything if the other half then has to go, because the thought of it is already painful in the imagination. If it happens, it’s just devastation, you know? I think that’s why they created these two characters.
I hope this doesn’t sound too outlandish, but given the freedom of interpretation, I saw Sven and his deteriorating state as a manifestation of Lisa’s dying creativity. They’re just so tethered to one another.
I haven’t really thought about it like that. It makes sense! [laughs] But on the other hand, Sven, by going through that, gives her the power to be okay on her own as well. I think that’s his gift to her. He goes, “You have to write. You stop writing new work and I will go. I’m not going to let you waste your life now. You’re too good to not be good.” Lisa decides to write something for Sven at the end. She gets into it again. She gets excited. This takes us back to what we talked about earlier: it’s her selfless act, but while doing it, you realize it’s another trick of his. Sven knows Lisa would do anything for him. She’s going to write now, as he had wanted her to do.
Lisa says in the film: “An actor who feels wanted, feels alive.” Do you identify with that?
I’m thinking about it even as I’m saying this. [laughs] Being wanted is one aspect, and it’s felt more strongly for one kind of actor than another. I feel it when I’m on stage. That’s the only time I can describe it as feeling the most alive as an actor. Because you have been training, you have the freedom where it’s all yours. And you share it with others—you’re being watched. It’s so many things in one go that you’re just very aware of everything. You are alive. Sometimes when you have an accident on stage—it has also happened to me—you are not aware of it until the end applause. That’s when you feel the pain from it. So there’s something going on with actors on stage, and that’s what I would describe it as. It’s like, “Can we maybe postpone [that hurt] a little?” That’s what Lisa wants for Sven in My Little Sister: the adrenaline, the rush. You don’t want him to die on stage. She just wants him to have the opportunity to feel himself one more time. I think that’s the present Lisa wants to give him. I think Sven is very much someone who lives for the audience. He wants them to want him. He wants the applause, the appreciation. So I guess that is why Lisa is right in what she says. For Sven, I think it’s completely true.
When a movie is as self-referential about its own medium as My Little Sister is, does that inevitably color the ways in which you engage with the material? Like in the movie, I had remembered you telling me years ago that your mother was also a theatre actress. I know that Lars has done Hamlet, like in the film, in his own career. Your other co-star, Thomas Ostermeier, who plays a theatre director, has that same background in real life. So there are explicit instances of art imitating life going on here.
It’s interesting because Lars and I do have heavy respect, a stronger sentiment, in wanting to portray something that we live in and know so well to be even more truthful. Because it’s something that we love so much, you don’t want to betray it somehow. But I didn’t really learn anything new in doing it. I just felt like, oh, I know that. [laughs] It’s the craziness, you know? Artists are a little crazy. If you look at it from the outside it’s like, “What are they talking about? What are they doing? These people…” But the artist is like, “This is everything.” We’re just very passionate people. Sometimes with [Lisa and Sven’s mother] you think, oh my god, they also in real life push back at everything. She can see that her son is ill and understands the situation, but she has her own way of coping and dealing with it. It’s not helpful, you know? It’s tense, of course, but I love that the movie also has a very warm and moving eye on it. It’s exposing about the narcissism, I guess, which is also in this world. It’s what Lisa has to deal with basically. She’s in this family of narcissists. Sven is one, the mother is one, and the father was probably the biggest one when he was still alive. And the mother refuses to give that up—she’s not even hiding it. I think the mother feels that she still has a foot in the theatre world through Sven. That’s why she has trouble accepting his illness. When he’s gone, that won’t be the case anymore for her. She has to decide: “Do I give into this illness?” She’s really having a hard time letting go of that part of herself. Narcissism.
There’s a very interesting moment towards the end of the film where Lisa carves out a maze in a sandbox. I wondered about that scene because it’s the only instance I can think of that doesn’t need to be there in terms of moving the story forward. It’s so full of feeling and poetry. I thought it might have something to do with Lisa helping Sven find a way out because we learn that they’re atheists.
I’m hesitant to influence you because it’s always my hope that people find their own meanings and make up their own minds about everything outside of my own interpretation. But for me, it has everything to do with the little boy there who’s riding around on the bicycle at the sandpit. For me, he symbolizes Sven. Lisa is also emptied out. She’s out there, giving into the feeling of being alone with everything. It’s the first time that she allows herself to have a breather, to not function for anybody else. She is just with herself and it’s a moment of peace. There’s a playfulness with the little boy, and she must’ve spent hours doing this, making the maze. It’s very meticulous. That moment to me is a moment of calm. There’s just snow falling. There’s no concept behind anything else. It’s just snow, and that’s what came out of her.
It’s also interesting how we’ve come to absorb the sight of face masks in film. It’s totally unrelated to COVID in this movie, but that detail of Sven having to wear one due to his illness makes the film feel so up to date with what’s happening in the real world. Instinctively, the world of My Little Sister becomes contemporary in a really strange way. How has the pandemic shaken up your life in terms of the work?
With work, well, I haven’t done that this whole year. [laughs] So far at least, everything is postponed. I really don’t know if anything will happen sooner or later, but I know generally that I’m going to work on a great American series beginning in January. That is my kind of glimmer of hope, if everything goes well. I think it will because they’ve already started shooting, so I can continue. Life has been okay, you know? I’m the last one to complain about anything because I’m okay. But actually, for the creative part of you, it’s very depressing I would say. The hard part of this is in realizing how necessary social closeness is and how much we really want to be with others. When I was at a restaurant, this couple came in and they could’ve sat anywhere. But they chose to sit nearby, at a distance. It’s like, “Why? You can go sit anywhere in this place.” Then you think, well, of course. You want to be with others. It creates the whole atmosphere. I hope we all realize that, internalize that, deal with it accordingly, and know how precious all of this is—to be with your loved ones when they’re sick. That’s the horror. I know people in hospitals who are dying and suffering, and they’re on their own. What does that do to all of us? Let’s see. It’s a very tough year I would say on all levels. I attended a beautiful concert yesterday, and today is the first day of lockdown in Germany. It was such a joyous celebration and there was such a longing for art. I know there are jobs that are essential to the system, but yesterday I was thinking how much art really matters also because it feeds the soul. It was like a breather! Beautiful! That is also something that makes you go, oh man, I hope this doesn’t continue for all of next year. We will really suffer if we can’t share anything anymore.
There’s this line in the movie: “The more burnt the cake, the thicker the icing.”
To hide something!
Oh… See, I misinterpreted that as something more uplifting—that when things get really bad, the rewards are even greater. Now it feels totally inappropriate to even bring that up.
[laughs] You can hide a lot with a lot of coping. I’m hopeful, to be honest. I’m optimistic that something will change. So be great tomorrow! Let’s learn our lessons!