Cate Blanchett Is the Lead, but Nina Hoss Is the First Violin in Tár

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features


Tár tells the story of (fictional) renowned composer and conductor Lidya Tár, who, on the brink of recording the symphony of her life, has to face the consequences of her past actions. Tár is a wonderful piece of cinema, the way it is filmed, the way it takes its time to tell the story, the way it makes you part of this classical music world without demanding your speciality knowledge, the way Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s music and lack of music guide you through… Everything forms this perfect synergy. It’s probably the film of last year that made me feel the most that immersive power of cinema while watching it. This is a film that takes the audience seriously. Surprising, free in its thoughts, precise in execution. Cate Blanchett is remarkable as Tár. She is Tár. Domineering antiheroine, brilliant, intense musician, ruthless and authoritative in her pursuit of power. But the surprise came from somewhere else: Nina Hoss. Not because I was surprised by her performance – I’ve long admired her films – but because realising she was in the film, I hoped this film would surprise and take you on a ride without your knowing much what to expect.

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features


It has much to do with Nina Hoss’s screen presence. I love watching Nina Hoss on screen. Her presence is magnetic, her face a mystery. Of a scintillating quietude, of a pensive livelihood. There is always a depth you search for in her characters. You won’t get all your answers, you have to dig deeper, you have to go back and watch it again.

I first saw Nina Hoss in Homeland, and when I did, I had the same feeling I had when I watched her in Tár. Clare Danes was the lead there, and she was amazing, but it was Nina Hoss that brought something else to the plot, a little bit of the unknown. Then I discovered Christian Petzold’s films, many of them with Nina Hoss as protagonist. And what a revelation she was! Petzold both writes and directs his movies, and he is very good at creating microcosms with his films. In Barbara, she is a doctor who works in a hospital in a small provincial town, in 1980. This is her punishment for attempting to emigrate to the West. She used to work in the biggest hospital in Berlin. Now she is kept under constant surveillance, secluded in the country, with nobody to trust. She does her job systematically, patiently, and she waits. We are waiting, too, patiently, as the tension builds. You can’t see past her inscrutable face. She never shows fear, or her inner turmoil. “It was a role where I knew there would be no possibility of talking much, to explain her,” Nina Hoss revealed in an interview for Film Comment after the film’s release, in 2012. “I would have to do a different kind of work, to make it interesting, her being silent, but always being present. I had to create a backstory. It was very crucial for this part, that I knew why she tries to hide her true self. I thought she was [originally] a very lively, positive person.” You don’t see but feel the threat she faces through the subtleness of her fear. And that’s a pretty mighty feel to project on screen.

In Phoenix (2014), Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a German-Jewish cabaret singer who survives the concentration camp but her face gets disfigured and has to undergo reconstructive surgery, then tries to return to her old life in Berlin. Her husband, who is the one who might have turned her in, doesn’t recognise her and “hires” her as his wife so that he can claim her inheritance. Christian Petzold skillfully merges suspense, revenge, trauma, desperation, destruction, and, under his direction, a subject that has been (much too) often approached in cinema, upends convention, and that has much to do with the way it is told and with the way Nina Hoss carries the film, a wounded human being in the aftermath of a disaster who has the grace to pull off that sublime ending scene. And to think that a perfect ending is not that easy to come by in cinema…

Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features


In Tár, Nina Hoss plays Sharon, Lydia Tár’s partner. They share both a personal and a professional life together. Sharon is the concertmaster in the Berlin orchestra conducted by Tár. It is the most sought after position in a philharmonic (something I wasn’t aware of but subsequently found out from an interview with Nina Hoss in Vanity Fair), even more than than that of a conductor – and it’s even more unlikely to be held by a woman. The concertmaster is the true musical leader, the conductor’s translator to and liaison with the orchestra, the one with very wide responsibilities, the one who must know when to act with authority and when to act as the orchestra’s voice. Not only that, but this is a position that is constantly challenged, everyone is after it, so one must always prove one’s worth, as Nina Hoss further explained.

Sharon is the first violin. And the fact that she fills that chair says a lot about her character even if it isn’t articulated in words – and although the viewer may not be familiar with the exact workout of an orchestra, as I wasn’t, the importance of her position is obvious. And it tells just about everything about Sharon and her tenacity and skills. Restrained and calculated, she is the steely enabler. Sharon knows and understands more than she lets us see. Yet, she makes sure she is seen. She does not have much on screen time, and yet, with just a gaze or a raised eyebrow, she exerts power over everyone, including Lydia. She knows, and lets it happen. She is the key element of the film. Sharon and Lydia are not that different. Behind a powerful woman, there is a more powerful woman.

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features



Very, very natural and herself: Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby

Talking film costume: Nina Hoss in Barbara

“The process is the same. You build the character!”:
Interview with Avatar costume designer Deborah L. Scott

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