The Zone of Interest – The Cinematic Banality of Evil

November 16, 2023
One of the biggest surprises at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the arrival of the new film by Jonathan Glazer.

The director of Sexy Beast and Birth hadn’t made a film since 2013’s Glasgow-set sci-fi Under the Skin, and this loose adaptation of the 2014 Martin Amis novel flew in under the radar. Ahead of time, the actors were told not to talk about it in the press, despite a shoot that spanned, on and off, for two years. “I think sometimes it’s a strategy,” suggests lead star Christian Friedel. “And sometimes, [it] allows you to create or to shoot in a very safe space.”

In this case, the strategy paid off, with Glazer’s film a simply extraordinary work. Set in a house adjacent to the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz, it tells the story of Rudolf Höss, the German commandant responsible for the design of the building where thousands upon thousands were sent to the gas chambers. Largely set in the confines of the house, where Höss, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children live a seemingly tranquil domestic existence, Glazer hauntingly uses sound design to express the horrors taking place just over the garden wall.

Initially, Friedel was told not to read the Amis novel, but concentrate on the script. “I understand that this book was an inspiration for Jonathan, because the title was ‘The Zone of Interest’. This is the area of Auschwitz. It’s the zone of interest for the system and for the industry [of mass genocide]. But in The Zone of Interest, the book of Amis, the story of the commandant is inspired by the original commandant family, but Jonathan was interested in so many other things. And then he said to me, ‘Don’t read this. This script is what we have to discuss’.”

Curiously, it brought Friedel back to his debut feature. A theatre actor and musician, born in Magdeburg in East Germany, he made his first movie aged 29: Michael Haneke’s Cannes-winning The White Ribbon. “The Zone of Interest could be a second part of The White Ribbon, because we see the children in The White Ribbon, and they could be the future perpetrators in the Second World War. And there’s a connection to these two movies and to these two filmmakers. And The White Ribbon was a door-opener for me as an actor, because many interesting filmmakers saw this movie and maybe they had the feeling, ‘okay, he worked with Haneke, then maybe you can work with me’.”

When it came to shooting the film, Friedel and his co-stars all travelled to Auschwitz in Poland, filming in a house just a hundred yards from where the real Höss family abode was. “It was an amazing set,” says Friedel. “The garden was new. We had the wall and then we had the green screen [for the Auschwitz camp backdrop]. If you see the [real] camp now it’s a historical museum [so we couldn’t use it]. Jonathan wanted that we see a new house. As it looked at this time.”

Glazer also set up a unique system for shooting, using multiple cameras that were controlled remotely. “It was to find a way not to act. And that was really interesting. We had sometimes ten cameras at the same time in the house or at the set. And sometimes, we shot scenes simultaneously. In the other room, there was my colleagues, and I heard them. We had one scene and the other scene shoot simultaneously, and we were alone in this house without technical interruptions, without technicians. The focus puller was in the basement. Jonathan was in a separate house.”

With the film shot in segments, partly to capture the story in different weather seasons, it meant that Friedel was stuck with Höss’ severe haircut for nigh-on two years. Moreover, Glazer decided additional scenes were needed. “It was really intense,” says Friedel. “I had, after the shooting, the first time in my life, some panic attacks. And I was thinking, ‘Okay, this was because of the COVID, maybe, I don’t know’. But I think the combination of the method we were shooting with, this topic, the history, historical context… and to have this in my mind, to dive into this darkness, and then not be allowed to share this. This was really, really intense.”

The remarkable sound design, of course, wasn’t created until the post-production phase, which Friedel feels was a blessing. “It was great that we didn’t hear the sounds when we shot the movie,” says the actor. “Humans are masters of self-deception, and [it allows us] to ignore what’s around us. We were alone in the house, and it was quiet. But if you watch the movie, it was really surprising. To watch and to feel that … that was so different, and it was uncomfortable to watch. And if you watch the movie, you have two movies. You watch what you see and what you hear.”

Friedel saw the film for the first time in a cinema in Leipzig, watching an unfinished cut with Sandra Hüller and her dog. Then to Cannes a few weeks later, where the film received ecstatic reviews and the second place Grand Jury Prize, beaten to the Palme d’Or by Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. According to Friedel, Glazer made some minor adjustments after Cannes. “In his opinion, it was really too early [to screen it]. But it was important because Cannes is great – you have the movie there and it’s a great ramp for the future. It’s important for such a special movie.”

Now the U.K. entry in the best international feature category for the Oscars next year (the film is entirely in German), it looks a sure-fire bet to be nominated. But as far as Friedel is concerned, there’s something more important than awards season. A story that deals with denial on a grand scale, “I think, it’s not only a movie about an incredible crime; it’s a movie about us human beings doing terrible things to other human beings,” he says. “It’s really important to never forget: this could happen again.”

The Zone of Interest screens at the Jewish International Film Festival on 19 November 2023