Sandra Hüller and Justine Triet Talk Anatomy of a Fall and Their Whirlwind Year

For W’s Directors Issue, Triet and Hüller reunited for “Baby Alone in Babylon,” a story in which Hüller portrays another complicated woman: Marilyn Monroe.

Directed by Justine Triet
Photographs by Tyler Mitchell
Written by Lynn Hirschberg

A woman in a yellow top sits at a table with a thoughtful expression, resting her chin on her hand, ...
Tyler Mitchell/W Magazine

I: “I’m So Happy”

On a sunny winter’s day in Beverly Hills, Sandra Hüller, wearing a navy Chanel swimsuit, was doing the breaststroke across an amoeba-shaped swimming pool. Hüller, who is nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Anatomy of a Fall, in which she portrays a woman who is accused of killing her husband, can be wonderfully inscrutable on-screen. In both Anatomy of a Fall and her other 2023 film, the stunning The Zone of Interest, she never relies on movie star poses or mannerisms. But for the W shoot with Justine Triet, the director of Anatomy of a Fall, Hüller would be channeling the life of perhaps the greatest screen goddess of all time: Marilyn Monroe.

It was, however, Marilyn with a twist. “Justine and I were wondering what Marilyn’s life would have been like when she was my age—in her mid-40s,” Hüller told me, before changing into a lemon yellow Louis Vuitton one-piece bathing suit. “Marilyn died before she was 40. Maybe her star would have faded, and maybe she would have become a recluse in her home. We are imagining.”

Triet, who is nominated for Best Original Screenplay (together with her partner in life and work, Arthur Harari), Best Director, and Best Picture Oscars, agreed with Hüller. “Look at this photo of Marilyn,” she said, showing me her phone. Monroe was in her kitchen, with a plate of food nearby. “She has a little sauce around her mouth,” Hüller exclaimed. “She had just eaten too much pasta!” Triet nodded—she clearly loved the small flaw behind the perfection. “Today I want to create a character that is as far away as possible from who Sandra is,” said Triet. “I am low-maintenance,” Hüller explained. “Marilyn was not.” Triet laughed. “Exactly.”

Sandra Hüller wears a Miu Miu dress and shoes.

Chanel coat.

Before becoming a filmmaker, Triet, who is tall, lanky, and naturally elegant, was an artist working in both abstraction and figuration. “But I always loved films and studied classic Hollywood movies,” she said as Hüller went to get her makeup done. Triet lives in Paris and has a fast, unhesitant manner that is instantly engaging. She easily switches between French and English, much in the same way that the characters in Anatomy of a Fall do. “When we wrote the script, we sent it to Sandra, and she had to take French lessons,” said Triet. She and Hüller had worked together on an earlier film, and Triet wrote the part in Anatomy of a Fall specifically for Hüller—even naming the character Sandra. “I thought that would be a way for her to say yes,” Triet explained. “It was a little trap!” Hüller overheard her and came back into the conversation. “But I don’t react to these kinds of traps!” she exclaimed. “I said yes immediately because it was just the greatest script.”

Hüller lives in Leipzig, Germany, with her teenage daughter and her dog, which appeared with her in The Zone of Interest. She grew up in East Germany with very little awareness of Western culture. “We had some American TV, like The A-Team and Knight Rider,” she said. She didn’t see many American movies but did manage to catch Dirty Dancing. “I was, of course, in love with Patrick Swayze,” she admitted. She began acting in theater long before films. Her first movie was Requiem, in 2006, in which she played an epileptic who believes she’s possessed by the Devil.

“Let’s go to the water,” Hüller continued as Triet followed her to the pool’s edge. Hüller began to swim, and Triet took off her sneakers and stood on the steps of the pool in her bare feet. “I love it,” she said. Tyler Mitchell, who was photographing the scene, asked Hüller to stand in the shallow end. The idea was to capture the joy Marilyn clearly felt when she was submerged in water. “I’m so happy,” said Hüller, swimming with her head above the surface, as they always do in the movies. “I don’t ever want to get out of this pool.”

Louis Vuitton swimsuit.

Bottega Veneta dress and shoes.

II: “I wanted her to be complicated”

The day after the W shoot, Triet and Harari sat down for lunch at the Four Seasons hotel. The pair wrote Anatomy of a Fall during the Covid lockdown. “We were stuck in our home with an infant and a teenager,” said Harari, referring to their children. “We had no real process.” They had an initial idea—a woman is on trial, and it’s unclear whether she’s guilty or innocent—but they worked on separate scenes individually, in separate rooms. “We had a 9-month-old baby, and we would write during her naps,” said Triet. “I wanted Sandra to be complicated, like Marlene Dietrich in the film Witness for the Prosecution. At first, Dietrich seems like a femme fatale, in total control of men. And then you see another side completely—there’s something much more complex underneath.”

“So,” Harari continued, “we were in the same house, but we would email each other scenes and then meet up in the living room and fight about the scenes we’d written.” Triet laughed. “That’s why the film is about people killing each other,” Harari joked. “But in truth, it was very intense to write.” The film was accepted by the Cannes Film Festival in 2023 and went on to win the Palme d’Or, the top prize. “At the ceremony, I wore a black pantsuit by Chloé and a T-shirt with a panther on it,” Triet recalled. “People drew some significance from the image. It was a crazy night—Sandra was there, and afterwards there were fireworks. I took the award home, and now my daughter treats it like a toy. She puts it in the center of all her dolls.” Triet laughed again. “They dance around the Palme.”

Loewe shirt; stylist’s own pants.

III: “Would Marilyn wear that?”

Back at the shoot, Hüller, with softly curled hair and long red nails, was lying on her side in the grass. She was wearing a simple white Loewe shirt and black slacks, channeling a famous Marilyn photo. Hüller’s natural severity melted as Mitchell snapped away. “I love it!” said Triet. “But maybe add some melancholy to your eyes.” In a flash, Hüller went from perfectly golden to slightly tarnished. The transformation was fascinating to watch, and true to the story Triet wanted to tell.

For the next setup, Hüller changed into a black cocktail dress from Bottega Veneta. One shoulder was exposed, and the dress looked like it might have actually been borrowed from Marilyn’s closet. “If you ask, ‘Would Marilyn wear that?’ ” Hüller said, “it would have to be yes!” Back on the lawn, next to a pergola covered in vines, Hüller struck another Monroe-esque pose. “I knew that Sandra could do anything, but this is coming faster to her than I thought it would,” Triet marveled.

After that, Hüller and Triet shared a cigarette and chatted in French. Even for a director and her star, they are remarkably close, almost like sisters. They have been promoting Anatomy of a Fall since the Cannes festival last May—almost a year—and yet neither woman shows any sign of exhaustion or irritation with the process. “Awards season is very interesting,” Hüller said. “When I heard the Oscar nominations,” Triet continued, “it was one of the first times in my life that I cried. I’m not a crier. But it was so huge—it really meant a lot.”

Balenciaga dress; Prada shoes.

Chanel cape and swimsuit.

IV: The Truth and the Fight

The climactic scene in Anatomy of a Fall is a fight between Sandra Voyter and her husband. It is told as a flashback, as part of the murder trial. Sandra is a successful writer, more famous and prolific than her husband, who is also a writer. Their struggle is over his feelings of failure and his envy of his wife’s success. Their clash could reinforce the idea that Sandra had reason to murder him. “There was a moment in preparation where I had to find out if Sandra killed her husband or not,” Hüller told me. “But I realized that this is not really what the film is about. So I let the question go. And I just played the question.”

Not surprisingly, this was the only scene that Harari and Triet had difficulty writing together. “We didn’t want to show only the ugliness,” Triet explained. Just then, she was called into the house—a sparsely decorated midcentury ranch. Hüller was in the yellow kitchen, wearing a brightly patterned Balenciaga gown that seemed to be made from a plastic floral tablecloth. Hüller, as Marilyn, was holding a period-correct telephone, the cord wrapping around her. “I love it!” said Triet. “But let’s not make it too happy.”

In Anatomy of a Fall, Hüller displayed a remarkable range of emotions. As an actor, she is a slippery mix of elusive and entirely present. “I like when everything stays in the imagination,” said Hüller. Triet nodded. “I agree. Sandra owns the character in Anatomy. When I sent the script to her, Arthur asked me, ‘If Sandra refuses, then who?’ But I had no second choice. I’m not sure we would have gone forward without her.”

Miu Miu dress.

For the final Marilyn moment, Hüller changed yet again. She had just taken a photo on a towering pile of mattresses, and the last shot would be in the bathroom. The idea was a wistful Marilyn contemplating her uncertain future in the mirror. “More sadness,” Triet said to Hüller. “We need to have an impulse other than just telling a story about Marilyn or anything else,” Triet explained. “I’m interested in texture, about finding a way to be very personal.”

Hüller’s eyes immediately clouded over: The contemplative mood was set. And then, just as quickly, it was over. Hüller changed into her street clothes, removed the red nails, and un-bounced her hair. Arm in arm, Triet and Hüller left the house. And Marilyn was gone.

Hair by Mara Roszak for RŌZ at Forward Artists; makeup by Ana Takahashi for Dr. Barbara Sturm at Art Partner; manicure by Emi Kudo for Chanel at A-Frame Agency. Set design by Colin Donahue at Owl and the Elephant.

Produced by Connect the Dots; producer: Zachary Higginbottom; production coordinator: Nicole Morra; photo assistants: Zack Forsyth, Milan Aguirre, Brandon Yee; lab: Picturehouse + TheSmallDarkroom; retouching: May Six Studio; fashion assistants: Tori López, John Celaya, Markus Claggett; production assistants: Mateo Calvo, Danielle Rouleau, Tchad Cousins, Khari Cousins; hair assistant: Bella Sementilli; makeup assistant: Alisa Yasuda; set design assistants: Ronnie Burress, Robert Mason; tailor: Irina Tshartaryan at Susie’s Custom Designs.