Nina Hoss is the eyes and ears of “TÁR,” Todd Field’s new movie about a decorated Berlin Symphony conductor’s cosmic undoing. Her character, Sharon, is the wife of Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett, but she’s hardly second fiddle to her spouse: Sharon is concertmaster and First Violin, meaning she knows the score. As Lydia’s longstanding abuse of power over her young and hungry protégés finally begins to detonate her life, there are revelations for Sharon.
But Hoss’ character is largely unfazed by Lydia’s behavior — long, late hours, barely-there parenting of their small adopted daughter, a detachment from tenderness that at one point finds Lydia wincing “it burns” when Sharon tries to comfort her after a fall. That’s because she’s as much the keyholder to their transactional relationship as Lydia. In the movie’s opening, as Lydia flings vinyls around her apartment deciding which symphony to record, her foot lands on the sleeve of Mahler’s fifth, as if to say, “This is the one.” But there’s another foot, also: Sharon’s.
German actress Hoss has long been known as a veteran of the films of Christian Petzold, from playing a stressed-out, exiled East German doctor in 2012’s “Barbara” to slipping into “Vertigo” guise as a club singer and Holocaust survivor with plastic surgery in 2014’s “Phoenix.” But Hoss’ career is more than the sum of Petzold’s, for whom she’s made six films. Right now, the two remain on a creative hiatus. (When she last spoke with IndieWire, about Switzerland’s 2021 International Feature Oscar entry “My Little Sister,” Hoss said, “We needed to let some air in. It made sense to give it a little break… It doesn’t mean we’ll never work again.”) She also starred in three seasons of Showtime’s “Homeland” as a German agent, and recently had a small role in Tarik Saleh’s actioner “The Contractor.”
She brings a kind of knowingness to all of her roles, and that’s exactly at play in her take on Sharon, who’s often seen at home in her and Lydia’s coldly brutalist Berlin apartment — but she’s hardly just waiting up at home. Take a scene where Lydia comes home from New York following a New Yorker Q&A for her new autobiography and a masterclass at Juilliard. Sharon informs Lydia that their daughter Petra is having a hard time at school because of a bullying classmate. The next day, Lydia admonishes the child in perfect German: “I’ll get you.” Later, Sharon casually remarks how Petra seems to be doing much better at school. A coincidence? Hardly. While “TÁR” is a movie of constantly moving and mutable, unanswered questions and ambiguities, it’s easy to see how Sharon may have telepathically dispatched Lydia to do her bidding. Elsewhere, Lydia gets to flirt with her students.
IndieWire discussed this scene and others with Hoss at the Whitby Hotel in New York over a relaxed, in-person chat.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: Does the finished movie, which you’ve seen three times, resemble the one you envisioned when you first got the script?
Nina Hoss: Yes, with pieces missing, and pieces put together in a different way. Todd said something like that: The film showed him what it wants to be.
Even the trailers have footage you don’t see in the movie.
Fantastic stuff is around it that we shot, which didn’t make it into the film for a very good reason, because this is the way it’s supposed to be. It was a different thing. It’s more open than I thought.
You have an affinity for playing violinists. There’s this film, plus “The Audition” from 2020 where you play a music teacher, and another one for a TV show in 2004.
It was funny enough one of the earlier things from Edward Berger. We worked together on one of these TV shows that you have in every country. I played a violinist on drugs.
You’ve used the same music teacher across all your work.
We can start now on another level. I can really say that at the end of the whole process, I was playing that piece of Mahler, where even the fingering is correct. I could achieve that because I worked with her before, and somehow I have this love relationship with the violin. I can’t pick it up and start playing, but I at least got there to be able to sit in this orchestra and not feel like a complete idiot. I could chime in and play with them, which was great.
It gave me so much insight for Sharon and Lydia, because I then started to learn about Mahler and about his relationship with Alma Mahler, who was not an innocent little housewife. The contrary. And that gave me so many ideas for Sharon of thinking about this relationship between Lydia and her. The strongest point, of course, is that they are both accomplished musicians who meet in this love for music. Sharon is not the genius that Lydia is, but she knows she can come to heights in the music that she can only get with Lydia, and she’s the one who then keeps the sea calm. But there’s another thing, which is when this word “transactional” comes up in [their] last scene. It only goes that far once Sharon’s career is in danger. Then she has to take care of herself because the trust is gone. She worked too hard to be in this position. I had no idea how hard it is. There isn’t even a female first violin in any of the big orchestras, so she was a hard worker, Sharon.
In building a backstory for Sharon, I doubt you cast her as a Francesca (Noémie Merlant, who plays Lydia’s assistant) type, an ingénue who ingratiates herself with Lydia to move upward in the orchestra. Sharon probably started out as Lydia’s equal in some respects, and equally ambitious.
That’s what she said in the last scene, where she says, “I was the one who got you this position.” You used me, and I use you, and we work together. The moment you don’t involve me in decisions, I have to end this, because this is not working anymore. I always thought about it: Who are the people around powerful light figures, and why are they around them, and what do they want, and are they the ones who enforce or enhance or keep the system we are all living in? That goes in the classical music world, filmmaking, in a company, everywhere. The people around are never innocent if there’s abuse. There’s always a point where you don’t act or don’t want to see. (And by the way, this doesn’t take away responsibility from the actual person who does the abuse.) The scene where Sharon says, “Our daughter is slipping away, she has problems in school,” and then Lydia goes and does what she does. You can read it that this is very innocent, but I thought, hm, she knows exactly why she’s saying it because she doesn’t want to deal with that, but that’s what needs to be done if you want to put an end to things. People also push others to do the dirty work.
You really are like the eyes and ears of the movie, taking the place of the audience, but Sharon is still hard to read. Did you play her as somehow all-knowing of Lydia’s misdeeds?
She doesn’t know everything. She doesn’t know what’s going on in New York. That’s why she has a heart problem. There are certain mechanics in the relationship that were already in the script, clearly there, and you can decide what to enhance or not. Is it innocent? I don’t think what Sharon does is innocent, but I don’t think she knows everything because it’s also unimaginable what’s happening.
For example, concerning Olga, Sharon gets what the fascination is. Sharon understands. She’s a grown-up. To me, it was more the thing of: What is the point to take always, and what is the point where you go, “No, not anymore”? In that way, she’s healthy. Sharon calms Lydia down, and she is in a very powerful position in this orchestra, and Lydia is in a very powerful position, but they navigate it in a very different way. Sharon doesn’t have to do the things Lydia does, because she doesn’t need it. It’s two concepts of leadership. But Sharon is not a genius.
The movie emphasizes the split between Lydia and Sharon in public versus Lydia and Sharon in private. Neither shows tremendous affection toward the other in any place, but they’re operating on similar telepathic lines of understanding regardless of where they are.
That’s exactly it, and why Sharon says at a certain point, “Do you know what it feels like when I go in front of my gang, my fellow musicians, how I look when I don’t know what’s going on? This is so embarrassing.”
Cate and I started with two weeks only with the orchestra. Cate even more than me, but it was like wow, really? We have no scenes, and then we have all these little scenes in the orchestra room without knowing who we are as a couple? I felt what it’s like sitting in the orchestra for days where they start to forget that you’re the foreigner, in a way, and you see the whole dynamic, who likes whom, who dislikes whom.
Did you have any relationship with Cate prior to the movie?
I know every film she was in, but I never assumed that she [knew mine]. That’s just how it is. You’re in Europe, you do another body of work. Maybe she had seen one film or whatever. I met her because we were both working in Budapest at the same time on different projects, beginning spring 2021. We knew that in autumn, we were going to work together. I thought she might not even know what I look like. And then she comes down the aisle, and I’m like, uh, should I say hello? Then she goes, “Nina!” And I’m like, oh, OK, she knows me. So that was the initial thing. We had dinners, which was really nice, to be in this exile we were all in, in this hotel where we were all in quarantine, really, to get to know each other on a personal level without any workaround. Then we had an opportunity to rehearse quite a bit with the orchestra and in Berlin, where we went through all the scenes in our house, so that we really knew who these two are and how they interact and what they are about.
When you last spoke with IndieWire, you told my colleague that you were on pause with Christian Petzold, that you wanted to let the collaboration “breathe” a bit. Is this still the case?
“TÁR” is now in select theaters.