While less infamous than “the final solution,” the chilling designation “the zone of interest” — interessengebiet in German — used by the Nazi SS to describe the 40-square-kilometer area immediately surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland—speaks to the same determinedly precise and disquieting sense of obfuscation. It’s a euphemism applied with lethal intent. In 2014, the late Martin Amis used the phrase as the title for a grimly picaresque novel set in and around the camp. In his long-gestating cinematic adaptation, writer-director Jonathan Glazer maps the geographical and psychic terrain of the zone and its inhabitants with chilling precision.
“It was about creating an arena,” says Glazer, whose rigorous and intensely physical production process involved building and shooting on location in Poland and utilizing a network of surveillance-style cameras to capture multiple sequences being staged simultaneously in the same building. “The phrase I kept using was ‘Big Brother in the Nazi house,’” says the 58-year-old filmmaker, who was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier this year for his fourth feature.
The highly unorthodox style in which The Zone of Interest was made was a byproduct of the director’s anxieties about working with such charged material. “I didn’t want to feel like I was making a movie about this other period [of time] and putting it in a museum,” says Glazer. “We’re talking about arguably one of the worst periods of human history, but we can’t say ‘let’s put it away;’ or ‘it’s not us, we’re safe, it was eighty years ago.’ We can’t think that it doesn’t relate to us anymore. It clearly does, and, troublingly, it may always. So I wanted to be looking at it with modern eyes.”
In the novel, Martin Amis had based the villainous character of Paul Doll — a camp commandant stationed at a fictional version of Auschwitz — on Rudolf Höss, a long-serving Nazi officer widely acknowledged as one of the architects of mass extermination. (He was even credited with pioneering the use of Zyklon B gas.) From there, Glazer seized on the idea of integrating biographical reality into the screenplay. “I started reading about Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig and how they lived at Auschwitz, right on the corner of the plot, as it were,” he says. “It became about the wall for me on some level, really. The compartmentalization of their lives, and the horror that they lived next door.”
Given Glazer’s reputation for stark, terrifying visuals, it would be reasonable to imagine his version of The Zone of Interest being unbearably pressurized; it is, but not in the way one might expect. The representation of historical atrocity is a complex proposition tackled by filmmakers from Resnais to Spielberg to Tarantino, and Glazer opts for a daring form of inversion; the film’s horrors remain ephemeral, without trivializing their severity or diluting their power to disturb. “I was thinking about horror and genre and all the awful things this movie could become if I backed off of my commitment,” Glazer explains. “I didn’t want to be a part of that. A good example would be a movie like Salo; I couldn’t make a film like that. I don’t have the stomach to make a movie like that. So we stayed on one side of the wall.”
For three years, the director and his team poured through various resources in the Auschwitz and Birkenau State Museum and Memorial. “The brief was to go through all the ‘black books,’ the thousands and thousands of testimonies of victims and survivors,” Glazer says. “I was looking for anything to do with Rudolf Höss, or his wife Hedwig, or their children.” Crucial were photographs of the Höss’ homestead, including a shot of Hedwig and her children standing together beside a wooden slide: materials that would prove invaluable to production designer Chris Oddy as he embarked on re-creating their villa and extensive garden. “When we were first getting the financing together,” recalls Wilson, “we just showed our partners that picture, and said: ‘that’s the film.’”
The decision to shoot The Zone of Interest on location was fraught with logistical complications as well as psychological ones. “You know, we were on the soil of Auschwitz,” says Glazer. “These German actors were coming to portray people who could have been their grandparents.” For Friedel and Hüller — both among the leading German actors of their generation — the question of how to embody the Höss’ humanity (or lack thereof) loomed over their performances.
Beyond the implicit challenges of their roles, the actors in The Zone of Interest were up against the complexity of Glazer’s directorial methodology, which required them to perform in long, unbroken takes in front of fixed and partially hidden cameras. For the majority of the production, Glazer and his cinematographer Łukasz Żal were situated in a separate concrete bunker with a team of focus pullers working via a system of remote cables, resulting in a uniquely disembodied form of authorship
In order to achieve the right detached quality for the cinematography in The Zone of Interest, the filmmakers experimented with wide lenses and geometrically centered frames, all in the hope of removing anything like beauty from the equation. “We wanted the camera to be like an eye,” explains Żal, who worked almost entirely with natural or diegetic light sources. “The most important thing was not to aestheticize. You’re not allowed to do that. Even in the color correction, we graded it to be flat. We tried not to manipulate the image.”
Even if Glazer’s choices added up on a conceptual level, the sheer labor involved in making the plan work — the physically taxing set-ups; the constant, spontaneous re-framing; the distraction of watching multiple monitors at once — pushed the director and his crew to their limits. “It was sometimes very frustrating for me,” admits Glazer. “I’m sitting there looking at ten monitors! There’s a scene where Hedwig is having coffee with her friends, and Rudolf is in his office with the civilian crematorium engineers from Topf & Sons who are selling him their new design, and the camp’s SS officers are arriving in the garden for a birthday toast, and the maids are going back and forth, and it’s all happening and being filmed simultaneously, in a language that I don’t speak. There was madness in that, but at the same time, I knew that there would be an evenness of tone across all those scenes that we couldn’t have gotten in any other way.”
Eventually, Glazer and Oddy decided on a derelict building 200 yards from the real Höss home and garden, at the edge of an overgrown field which Auschwitz abutted: an old officers’ barracks that could be rebuilt, inch-by-inch according to old photographs and blueprints. And in which a recreation of Hedwig’s beloved garden could be painstakingly and fully built, planted and grown from scratch – recalling Hedwig’s line “this was a field three years ago” — except Oddy and his team had 4 months. With the house, this meant adding windows, stairwells and porches; an eerie process of recreating something like a primal scene, beginning with the trees. Oddy explains: “The first thing we did, in February (of 2021) was to plant the trees, to give them time, and to make sure that they lived because they had to be transported. There’s a lot of stress in moving a tree, including the roots; it can fail.”
In terms of construction, replicating the Höss’ abode was a massive undertaking, requiring a complete overhaul of both the interior and exterior spaces. “We re-polished and sanded the floors, re-plastered the walls, and refurbished the windows,” says Oddy. The additional challenge was to embed spaces within the sets to accommodate the cameras. “I just counted how many holes I had to make in the house,” he laughs.
If there was one common feeling that shadowed the production of The Zone of Interest, it was a profound sense of being haunted by the location itself. “I wanted to take a tour of the camp,” remembers Friedel. “I decided to do it before the shoot, to visit as a human being, as a normal person, as myself, and then as this character. When I was there, I felt like the character was in charge, had this power. It was a very bad feeling: ‘this is my castle, this is my work.’ It was strange to do this, but very important.”
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