The Zone Of Interest – A radically open film that refuses to close the door on history

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 picturesque novel set in and around the camp.

After completing art school and a degree in Theatre Design, Jonathan Glazer landed a job making film trailers. This led to music videos, TV commercials and art projects. Glazer’s feature directing debut was Sexy Beast in 2000. He went on to co-write and direct Birth in 2004 and Under the Skin in 2014

“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.”

That gaze — static, merciless, unblinking—is the result of nearly a decade’s worth of contemplation by Glazer and his producer James Wilson, who previously worked on Under the Skin, developed for over a decade, focusing on an alien perspective on the human world.

“It was a long journey of adaptation,” says Wilson. “And similar to Under the Skin’s in that it focused in on point of view.”

The challenge was figuring out how to strip down Amis’ complex narrative, which orbits a trio of protagonists, and devise cinematic language appropriate to his troubling themes: specifically, the queasy mix of guilt, complicity, and denial felt by perpetrators stationed on the German side of Auschwitz’s forbidding partitions, both military and civilian.

“What the book really gave us was its focus on, and perspectives of, the perpetrators,” says Wilson. “It felt important that the film be about identification, instead of mystification and demonization. It opens doors to interestingly uncomfortable questions.”

Jonathan Glazer (Left) and Cinematographer Lukasz Zal filming ‘The Zone Of Interest’

Once Glazer had settled on The Zone of Interest as his new project, he immersed himself in as much archival and ground-level material as possible. 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.

Another key find was a testimony from the Höss’ former gardener, who recalled seeing Hedwig remonstrating Rudolf about the fact that he was going to be transferred. She was furious about having to leave the beautiful household she’d built, and supposedly told him she’d have to be carried out rather than leave voluntarily. “That made me realize where to start the story,” says Glazer. “At the time of this transfer, when this woman is in danger of losing everything she’s worked so hard for.”

“You have a family drama about a man and his wife, who are happy, with five kids in a beautiful home, surrounded by nature,” says Glazer. “The father gets the news that his company wants him to move to a different city, and it causes a rift in their marriage, but they do the best they can, and they don’t give up. And then there’s a happy ending: he comes back and carries on with his work, with his family. And he’s a Nazi death camp commandant. That’s where you get the idea of an ambient genocide, and also that the story is really sort of about us. The thing we’re most scared of, I think, is that we could be them. They were human beings.”

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.

Sandra Hüller in the movie “The Zone of Interest.”  (A24)

“It was a strange job directing the film, because I needed to be completely exacting and disciplined about what the camera was going to see, and also allow room in the frames for complete improvisation,” says Glazer. “Some scenes are improvised, some scenes are carefully scripted, and in both cases I knew we could always do another take, but I couldn’t just walk in and move a chair. So you get rid of continuity. You get rid of lighting. You take out all the boring aspects of filmmaking, because you know you can’t go in there the way you usually would. It was sometimes very frustrating for me. I had to let go of micromanmagement in certain ways.”

“I liked it because it reminded me very much of working in the theater,” notes Sandra Friedel. “I could feel Jonathan in the house. It was like a way for him to have power and not to have it. We sort of had to forget that we were shooting, and when we forgot we were able to find something. I think the whole movie was a search.”

Christian Friedel in the movie “The Zone of Interest.” Copyright A24

“It’s not just an aesthetic choice,” adds Christian Hüller. “It’s a psychological one. We didn’t have any control over anything. We didn’t know what they could see, but they could see everything: when we were bored or angry or confused or taking a break, they would listen. It was like complete surveillance, and a lot of trust is required to make that work.”

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.”

For Żal, who chose to camp in a caravan on the edge of the shooting location, being in such close proximity had “a big impact,” while Oddy felt “an undeniable connection by being in the actual bricks and mortar… the ghosts, if you like, are all there.”

“It was a very strange atmosphere,” says Glazer. “I remember telling people that the whole movie was about the place — about the compartmentalization of it, and the effect of location on character.”

Standing side by side by the river that rushes behind their property — the site of so many lyrical family outings — Rudolf and Hedwig could be any couple contemplating their future. When he tells her he’s being transferred to the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, the CCI, in the Berlin suburb of Oranienburg , her stubborn reluctance to leave the nest she’s tended comes from an honest place; home is where the heart is, even if it abuts an abattoir. The Höss’ belief that they’re part of something larger than themselves is similarly resonant, and even relatable; for all of us, keeping our eyes on the prize (whatever it might be)
means not looking elsewhere, even and especially when the collateral damage of our aspirations lies in plain sight. For all its shots of containment — of doors sliding shut, of things and people put in their place — The Zone of Interest is, finally, a radically open film that refuses to close the door on history; it
remains, dangerously and eternally ajar.

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.”