German actress Nina Hoss’ lengthy collaboration with German director Christian Petzold, from Wolfsburg (2003) to Phoenix (2014), saw the pair become inseparable. The characters she played showed the diversity of her onscreen presence, with her talent for conveying nuance in emotional expression. She’s blessed with an ability to not only change her look, but in the eyes of these characters, make us believe we are looking into the soul of someone we have never met. Her other credits include the American series Homeland (Gansa and Gordon, 2014) and A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn, 2014).
Her new film,
My Little Sister (Schwesterlein, 2020), directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, is Switzerland’s official entry for the Oscars. Hoss plays Lisa, a playwright who devotes herself entirely to her brother Sven (Lare Eidinger), a famous actor who has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. As her marriage falls apart, her efforts to help Sven return to the stage rekindles her creative spirit.
In conversation with
PopMatters, Hoss discusses the craft of acting, the intimate relationship she shares with the camera, and how it creates a space in which anything is possible. She also reflects on the transformative power of cinema for the audience in the intimacy of entering the life of a character.
Why acting as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
… I remember as a five-year-old my father’s birthday party. There was a stage and a band, and I went up and sang, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” [Laughs] Everybody thinks my parents pushed me up there, but no, I just went up and did it. This was maybe the defining moment for me, of not being afraid of being in front of people. From that moment on it was straightforward, and I was just following my passion.
I was always acting, being it in radio, plays, or in school theatre class, and because my mother was an actress, I had the opportunity to be on stage early on. It was natural for me because acting has always been my passion.
Filmmakers often remark to me that filmmaking is a constant learning curve, and each film has the capacity to teach you something individual and specific to that experience. Would you agree that it’s the same for actors, and can this deepen your passion for the craft?
It’s why you’re nervous before each film. You hope you hit the points that you want to give the character, and you’re able to make it as rich as possible. I never want to betray my character, and so I can only say this passion has deepened. It goes in waves, and of course, it has a lot to do with the past that you’re given. I’ve been blessed to play so many diverse and complicated characters, and I learned so much with every single one of them.
When you start off, maybe you try to control things more, so that you feel safe. The beauty for me is that I don’t feel I have to do that now. If you go into a scene prepared, then the moment will give you something that you didn’t expect. To be open and free enough to let that happen, and to act out of the moment with the character, is something that comes with experience, and that’s beautiful. I love my job even more because of that.
Every role is different because you’re with other people, experiences, life stories, and visions. It’s an amazing job because you are collaborating, and we all need each other to create a film. The most beautiful thing is when it flows, and last year, for example, I had someone in a scene reject something for the two characters that we might not have known going into it. [This process] is still such a wonder, and I find it’s a magical thing in the filming.
I recall speaking with an actress who explained to me that the way into a character can be something as simple as how they walk, or a specific gesture. How do you go about finding the connection that unlocks a character for you?
… Often the most complicated scenes are the ones that you read through the script and think, ‘Okay, that’s clear.’ These little, silliest moves that are very necessary for the storyline are the hardest things to do as an actor, and they’re the ones that you work for hours on. Whereas, those that are very emotional and might seem to someone watching that they must have been tough, they’re really not because they’re so clear, and you know what it’s about.
These little ones where you have to give information to another character, well, who is the character in that moment? This is when you either nail a character or you don’t, and sometimes that’s why it’s very frustrating that these little scenes take so long. You have to nail them, otherwise, everything else falls apart.
… Every single work is a new beginning and I have always had this image of having my suitcase with me packed full of previous experiences. I can always go in there and take out what I need, but I also put a lot in there from every job. So that’s maybe what it is, a journey, and on the route, you have your suitcase [laughs].
As much as the camera is controlled by the filmmaker, do you treat it as your own tool, with an awareness of how you occupy the film frame?
It’s a very intimate relationship with the camera, and it’s the one I have to trust the most because it’s the one eye that sees what I’m doing. If you can’t dance together, then I can’t convey what I think is necessary for this character, so that the audience feels what I want them to feel. I always know where the camera is and how to work with it, even if it’s on my back. I need to know how to work that, so even the back is “talking” [laughs].
… In the moment of acting, I forget about it, choosing to trust that the camera will look for what it needs. In that moment I’m not interested in it [laughs], but I can always feel it. You have to because why would you want to run away from the one thing that you need to collaborate with the most?
… The camera is the one object that creates this room that you act in. Behind the camera is the world and everything you have to shut out, and that’s the weird thing because the camera is in the room with you. I don’t block the camera out of my feelings let’s say, but everything past the camera is gone, and so it’s another actor.
… It makes everything possible and it’s very thrilling because the camera defines the space we’re in. It’s the space where anything can happen.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience, by bringing themselves — their experiences, opinions, and everything else to a film — is what completes it.” If the audience is the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership? (“Carol Morley | THE FALLING“. Starburst. 24 April 2015)
… I’ve experienced this so many times. You leave the same film, it’s the same morning and you’ve had the same coffee. It’s all the same, but everyone has seen a different movie. … It’s clear to me when I present films and do Q&As with the audience because they describe completely different things from each other.
You put yourselves into a non-specific position with you and the character you’re watching. You remember something from your life, or it picks you up at the moment where you have to reject a character, but others will love them. Some people will think this woman is horrible, and others will want to embrace her, to hold and comfort her, and that’s where the movie happens. This experience of being in a room with a lot of people, of feeling this atmosphere while watching a film, and then having an exchange about it, is everything [laughs].
I believe that after each movie we’re changed because we understood something about life. Your own life is only so big and you’re able to live with characters for two hours. You’re more intimate with them than you might ever be even with a friend. We come to their lives and you understand why people react a certain way, where it comes from, and how being an evil person, something probably happened to them. Or you suddenly understand different cultures, and this is everything.
We make films to get into an exchange with the audience. We present something and then it gets to take flight.