The real winner at Cannes was actress Sandra Hueller

Sandra Huller poses on the red carpet to attend the closing ceremony and the screening of the animated film "Elemental" Out of competition, during the 76th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, 27 May, 2023.Reuters

She may not have won an award, but many will agree that the big winner at Cannes this year was German actress Sandra Hueller, who starred in the festival's top two films.

Hueller confirmed her reputation as one of Europe's most versatile and fearless actresses as she gave a gripping performance in courtroom drama ‘Anatomy of a Fall’, which won the top prize Palme d'Or for French director Justine Triet on Saturday.

She also starred in Holocaust drama ‘The Zone of Interest’ by Britain's Jonathan Glazer, which won the runner-up Grand Prix.

Director Justine Triet, Palme d'Or award winner for the film "Anatomie d'une chute" (Anatomy of a Fall), poses with Sandra Huller, Milo Machado Graner and Antoine Reinartz during the photocall after the closing ceremony of the 76th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, 27 May, 2023.

"I think about human beings as vessels for all sorts of feelings and emotions... it's just a question of how to channel that and show that," Hueller told reporters.

Triet praised Hueller, telling AFP: “Everything that comes out of her is 100 percent strong.”

"Due to her theatre training, she has a completely different way of working. When she arrives, she has already been working for months on the film so her first takes are very strong," she said.

"She is an actress who has a real point of view on her character, there is a real exchange."

'A responsibility'

Born on 30 April, 1978, in East Germany, Hueller trained in theatre in Berlin after the end of the Cold War.

She gained international acclaim for ‘Requiem’ (2006), playing a woman with epilepsy in a religious community that believes she is possessed, which won her the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Her lead role in black comedy ‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016) confirmed her status as a star of the festival circuit, showing she had comic timing to match her dramatic chops.

Many felt ‘Toni Erdmann’ was robbed of the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, but that was more than compensated in 2023.

Her performance in ‘The Zone of Interest’ was particularly disturbing as she took on the role of Hedwig Hoess, wife of Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Hoess.

She told reporters in Cannes that she "felt a responsibility as a German" to play the role.

"There was no real way to do it right," she said. "It was never about being good at something or doing something extraordinary. It was so little to do with acting, but with presence, with listening, being respectful for those around us."

Both films at the festival showcase Hueller's "flinty intelligence, her emotional ferocity and her utter fearlessness," wrote the Los Angeles Times, calling her the "queen of Cannes".

Hueller said the two directors were "completely different" in their approach.

"But both are so focused on what they do," she added. "Some directors are a bit manipulative... don't give you all the information you need for a character, but with these two everything was on the table -- what they wanted to achieve, what they wanted to tell."

Also known for her stage work, Hueller has collaborated frequently with renowned theatre director Thomas Ostermeier, trying her hand at everything from Shakespeare to avant-garde experimentalism.