Director Fatih Akin first became aware of Diane Kruger like most of us: via her role as the archivist Dr. Abigail Chase in National Treasure, the 2004 Nicolas Cage film-turned-meme. Only, unlike most, he was not sold: “I was definitely not the audience for a film like that,” he told Indiewire earlier this week. Several years later, he saw her in Inglourious Basterds, the Quentin Tarantino-directed movie in which she plays Bridget von Hammersmarck, a celebrated actress in Nazi Germany. The two met a couple times at the Cannes Film Festival and got to talking. And then, last year, Akin cast her in In the Fade, his drama about a woman, played by Kruger, whose husband and son are killed by a neo-Nazi suicide bombing. It is, perhaps remarkably, Kruger’s first fully German-language role—considering she was born in West Germany in 1976—and it brought her back to Cannes earlier this year, when she claimed the festival’s Best Actress prize. She's come a long way since that Nicolas Cage movie.
Since Kruger won the top acting prize at Cannes, she’s been gradually amassing substantial Oscars buzz: “Much of Kruger’s remarkable portrait of love and grief is wordless, with the power to transcend both subtitles and national boundaries,” New York Magazine’s Vulture wrote in May, assessing her potential to earn an Academy Award nomination for the role. Variety wrote the film rested on “Kruger’s incandescence,” while Indiewire described it, in a separate story, as “the brightest point of her career.”
Frankly, the recognition is past due. Since she broke out as Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, in the 2004 Orlando Bloom-fronted epic Troy, Kruger has quietly amassed an impressive array of roles that span three languages and two continents. But she’s earned few mainstream awards for her work; in 2010, she was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actress for Inglourious Basterds and won, along with the rest of the cast, the award for best ensemble, but she has been nominated for neither a Golden Globe or nor an Academy Award. Finally, buoyed by Cannes’s stamp of approval and the accompanying swell of critical approval, 2018 could be her year.
And yet it’s in no small part due to Kruger’s performance that, for example, the much-maligned and National Treasure (which I love) worked: She plays the straight man to the straight man, the brilliant, academic foil to Nicolas Cage’s corny hero. She’s not going to steal the Declaration of Independence, but she’s certainly going to make sure they treat it with the proper care once it’s done. She has a knack for doing deadpan in a world of camp. But these films don’t work to her advantage when it comes to critical appeal; Troy landed on precisely no one’s best-of lists.
Kruger, who plausibly plays Helen of Troy simply because she is that beautiful, is frequently cast as the object of desire. Take, for example, Mr. Nobody, in which she plays the love interest to Jared Leto, or Disorder, in which she stars as the trophy wife of a Lebanese arms dealer. Yet these women, who could be just that—objects—are carved into multidimensional characters with Kruger’s treatment. Many, though not all, of the roles that fit into this category are supporting; Kruger has also demonstrated a preference for smaller, more interesting roles in larger films, which might help explain why acclaim in the form of shiny trophies has evaded her for much of her career.
But she also frequently dips out of view of American audiences, and given that the biggest awards of the season largely highlight English-language filmmaking, this could be among her biggest hindrances. In the Fade is her first role written entirely in German, but she has spent substantial time in the industry in France—2012’s Les adieux à la reine, which translates to Farewell, My Queen, in which she stars as Marie Antoinette as seen through the eyes of a lady-in-waiting, played with convincing naïveté by Léa Seydoux, is among her best work. (Again, Kruger plays the object of desire, though she herself also does the desiring: The film focuses on the rumored affair between Marie Antoinette and the Duchesse de Polignac.) It’s the rare film, though, that both successfully crosses the Atlantic and bridges the language divide to arrive with mainstream audiences—rare enough that examples like Blue Is the Warmest Color, Amour, and Elle still stand out among recent Oscar nominees.
“I didn’t have this prejudice that a lot of people in Germany had about her—that she’s not a real actress,” director Akin told Indiewire of his previous impression of Kruger, before they made In the Fade. Given the amount of time it’s taken for Kruger to get her dues—she’s been an active actor for more than 15 years now—Akin’s peers are not alone in that impression, at least until now.
Still, the Cannes Film Festival best actress prize is by no means an indicator of Academy approval: In the past five years, only Rooney Mara has graduated to an Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress in 2015’s Carol. To her advantage, though, Kruger has been candid about the emotional toll of playing the role: “I feel like I nearly died from it,” Kruger told W at Cannes. (Jennifer Lawrence, who has spoken at length about the physical costs of Mother!, has also been predicted among the nominees, and it’s been said that Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor for The Revenant in part because of the intense physical transformation wrought by the part.)
“I feel I gave everything to this film,” Kruger said.
Diane Kruger doesn't know what it means to be a muse: