Genocide next door

We witness the myriad ways that the camp commandant’s domestic life adhered to a kind of ordered...
We witness the myriad ways that the camp commandant’s domestic life adhered to a kind of ordered normality in the literal shadow of Auschwitz’s smoking chimneys. Photos: Madman
Jonathan Glazer’s audacious new film about the family life of Auschwitz’s commandant was 10 years in the making. He tells Sean O’Hagan how it was made — and the importance of finding light in the darkness.

Jonathan Glazer grew up in Hadley Wood, close to Barnet on the northern outskirts of London, where his family were part of a thriving Jewish community.

"There were all these fantastic characters, who were in and out of my house when I was a little boy," he says. "Many of them were East End Jews who had moved to the suburbs for a better quality of life, not super-intellectual people, but incredible entertainers — vaudeville musicians, writers and the like. As a child, I loved and absorbed the richness of that culture."

The Holocaust, he says, was never openly talked about in his home, but "it was always present".

When his late father found out years ago that he was making a film about Rudolf Hoss, the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz, his reaction was anger mixed with dismay.

"He said: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing this for’," Glazer recalled."‘Why are you digging it up? Let it rot.’ Those were the three words he used. His feeling was very much that it was gone, that it was in the past. I remember saying to him: ‘I really wish I could let it rot, but, no, Dad, it’s not in the past’."

It took Glazer almost 10 years to make The Zone of Interest (the characteristically neutral term used by the Nazis to describe the immediate area around the concentration camp), which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes film festival. During that time, there must have been moments when his father’s words echoed in his head, when the subject seemed so daunting that giving up and letting it rot may have seemed like the best option.

"I had a very strange relationship with the project right from the off," he says, as we chat over coffee in a London hotel. "This was the road I was going down and I couldn’t stop myself going down it, but at the same time I was ready to pull back from it at any moment. I almost wanted to hit a brick wall so I could turn around and say: ‘You know what? I tried and I can’t do it.’ I was almost willing that to happen."

The end result is an audacious film, formally experimental and with an almost clinically detached point of view.

Mainly shot on hidden cameras, it concentrates on the domestic life of the Hoss family (Rudolf, his wife, Hedwig, and their five children), whose house stood just outside the perimeter of the concentration camp, the horror within suggested in glimpses of smoking chimneys but, more disturbingly, through an almost constant ambient soundscape of industrial noise and human shouts and cries.

It is an unsettling film: a study in extreme cognitive dissonance. It stayed with me for weeks after I watched it, so much so that I attended another screening to try to decipher its uneasy merging of almost clinical observation and moments of abrupt and jarring experimentalism — the screen turns blood red at one point. On both occasions, it fulfilled Glazer’s aim "to make it a narrative that you, the viewer, complete, that you are involved in and ask questions of".

It was shot on location at Auschwitz, where, having gained permission from the trustees of the site’s museum, Glazer’s team took over a vacant house just outside the perimeter of the camp and, using archive photographs and survivors’ testimonies, meticulously recreated the villa that the Hoss family lived in for almost four years.

Unlike other films about the Holocaust, it focuses on the perpetrators rather than the victims, the camera never straying beyond the wall that separates the commandant’s garden from the camp itself.

Sandra Huller as Hedwig Hoss, "a ruthlessly narcissistic individual entirely untroubled by...
Sandra Huller as Hedwig Hoss, "a ruthlessly narcissistic individual entirely untroubled by conscience".
Instead, under Glazer’s dispassionate directorial gaze, we witness the myriad ways that the couple’s domestic life adhered to a kind of ordered normality in the literal shadow of Auschwitz’s smoking chimneys. While he oversees the clinical business of mass extermination, she entertains friends, tends to her garden and is waited on by local women who carry out domestic chores at her bidding. In the evenings, he reads bedtime stories to his children and, before he retires to bed himself, makes sure all the house lights are turned off and the doors locked.

Together they celebrate birthdays, hold picnics by the garden pool and, across separate beds, reminisce about their past and plan for their future.

"To acknowledge the couple as human beings," says Glazer, shaking his head, "was a big part of the awfulness of this entire journey of the film, but I kept thinking that, if we could do so, we would maybe see ourselves in them. For me, this is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims."

He says it is not about examining Nazi ideology.

"You have to get to a point where you understand [the ideology] to some extent in order to be able to write it, but I was really interested in making a film that went underneath that to the primordial bottom of it all, which I felt was the thing in us that drives it all, the capacity for violence that we all have."

Since the release of his debut feature, the stylishly edgy British crime thriller Sexy Beast in 2000, Glazer has gained a reputation as the most formally ambitious and obsessively single-minded British director of his generation. He has cited Stanley Kubrick as an influence and said that he feels closer to the Russian and Italian cinema traditions than to the British one.

Having studied theatre design at college, his route into film-making came through directing a series of acclaimed advertising campaigns in the 1990s, including a Guinness surfer ad in which white horses emerge out of rolling waves, as well as ambitious pop promo videos for the likes of Radiohead and Massive Attack.

In the 23 years since Sexy Beast, he has made just three films (including this one), each more ambitious in terms of its subject matter, more formally complex, and more painfully protracted in its journey from idea to fruition. His second feature, Birth (2004), which starred Nicole Kidman as a grieving wife in thrall to a young boy who convinces her he is the reincarnation of her dead husband, took four years to make.

Another nine years passed before the release of Under the Skin (2013), a noirish sci-fi story based on a Michel Faber novel and starring Scarlett Johansson as a beautiful alien who stalks Scotland in search of impressionable men whom she seduces and then submerges in an amniotic netherworld.

For that film, Glazer hired non-actors for the supporting roles and used hidden cameras to shoot several scenes in which Johansson’s character approaches young men on the street. Its unsettling atmosphere was heightened by disorienting sound design by Johnnie Burn, and an insistently ominous score by the young experimental musician Mica Levi, both of whom have worked closely with Glazer on The Zone of Interest.

When I ask Burn about the level of sustained commitment it takes to work on a Jonathan Glazer movie, he says: "Under the Skin almost killed me. I was so sick from overwork by the end of filming from intense 10-hour shifts and lack of sleep. Once you start working with Jonathan, you begin thinking about the film the way that he does. It’s all-consuming."

In person, Glazer, who, lives in Camden, north London, with his wife and three children, comes across as both affable and quietly intense. When I ask him if, like Kubrick, he is utterly obsessive in his approach to film-making, he answers without hesitation: "Yes, I am."

He first started thinking about The Zone of Interest when he read Martin Amis’ novel of the same name not long after its publication in 2014. Having secured the rights with his producer, Jim Wilson, the pair began what would become several years of intense and meticulous pre-production preparation.

"Our reading actually took us away from the book and deep into Amis’ primary sources," he says. "The more fragments of information we uncovered about Rudolf and Hedwig Hoss in the Auschwitz archives, the more I realised that they were working-class people who were upwardly mobile. They aspired to become a bourgeois family in the way that many of us do today. That was what was so grotesque and striking about them — how familiar they were to us."

Played by German actors Christian Friedel and Sandra Huller, the couple are the embodiment of the Jewish writer Primo Levi’s insistence that it is ordinary people, rather than monsters, who are capable of committing atrocity.

At one point in the film a garden labourer spreads ashes from the camp over the soil of Hedwig...
At one point in the film a garden labourer spreads ashes from the camp over the soil of Hedwig Hoss’ lovingly tended flower beds.
"Monsters exist," wrote Levi, a Holocaust survivor, "but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions."

The couple’s ordinariness is conveyed in a series of scenes that were sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised and filmed on small, static cameras concealed throughout the house and garden. The actors were not aware of exactly where the cameras were positioned. Glazer and his crew remained off-set throughout, watching the results on a bank of screens in a separate building. The result is a cinema of ultra-naturalistic candid surveillance that Glazer jokingly describes as "Big Brother in the Nazi house".

His aim, he says, was to make the film appear "un-authored".

Given that he is the director and it is his vision that we are watching, I ask him if it is possible to achieve a detached point of view.

"Well, no. You can’t retreat to that point, although I wish you could. But the ambition is there. The reason that I was not on set was because I wanted to stand back from the characters and look at them anthropologically. I wasn’t interested in their dramas. I just wanted to watch them in as unimpeded a way as possible to see how they behaved and acted, to see who they were."

As Glazer acknowledges, the decision to take on the lead roles was a huge one for the two actors, given the subject matter and the fact that that it was shot, as he puts it, "on the soil of Auschwitz", and required them "to portray people who could have been their grandparents".

Friedel, who played the schoolteacher in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, a complex allegory about the roots of Nazi ideology, portrays Rudolf Hoss as an essentially unknowable individual given to ruminative silences and long stares off into the distance, during which you wonder what exactly he is thinking about.

Huller, who has received rave reviews for her role in Justine Triet’s complex courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Fall, inhabits the role of Hedwig so completely that it was disorienting to see her take the stage after a New York film festival screening looking glamorous in a geometric designer suit. There, she spoke frankly about her initial revulsion on discovering the film’s subject.

"I have to say, it made me feel sick. To me, it was a shock. I never planned to be involved in this kind of narrative or to portray someone like Hedwig Hoss."

It took Huller, whose background is in leftwing German theatre, a full year to commit to the film, but she is the most compelling presence in it: a ruthlessly narcissistic individual entirely untroubled by conscience and so lacking in empathy or self-awareness that she poses before her bedroom mirror in a fur coat and lipstick taken from a Jewish prisoner and boasts laughingly to her mother: "Rudi calls me the Queen of Auschwitz." When she receives the news that he is to be transferred to oversee a death factory elsewhere, she becomes frantic with anger at the thought of leaving, shouting: "You can’t do this to me! We’re living as we dreamed we would."

Hedwig is constantly busy, whether ordering her minions about or fretting about her husband’s status in the ever-shifting loyalties of the Reich’s inner circle. When writing the part, Glazer says, he was constantly thinking of the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of the Nazis as essentially non-thinking.

"There was the sense that nothing should stop and no-one should stop," he says. "Everyone had to be occupied with activity all the time, because if you stop, you think. And, if you think, you reflect. With Hedwig, there is no reflection, no consideration at all for anything or anyone except herself. She is constantly, relentlessly busy in order not to think."

The horror that exists beyond her garden wall is suggested though myriad small, but telling visual details: a Polish worker washes Rudolf Hoss’ leather boots under a tap and the water runs red; a garden labourer spreads ashes from the camp over the soil of Hedwig Hoss’ lovingly tended flower beds; the couple’s daughter sleepwalks. At one point, their eldest son bullies his younger brother, locking him in the greenhouse and mimicking the hiss of gas. Even the family dog seems on high alert at all times, racing through the garden and sniffing at the earth beneath the wall.

When he first visited Auschwitz, Glazer went to Hoss’ house and, to his surprise, found it inhabited by a Polish family who had lived there since the end of the war.

"I saw the remnants of the garden, and its proximity to the camp, and the wall, and it was chilling," he says quietly. "Afterwards I entered the camp and looked at the wall from the other side, trying to imagine what the prisoners must have heard. There is no doubt that they would have heard happiness and gaiety as the Hoss children laughed and splashed around in the pool. The film became about the proximity of the horror and the happiness, how one person’s paradise is another’s hell."

Christian Friedel as Rudolf Hoss, "an essentially unknowable individual given to ruminative...
Christian Friedel as Rudolf Hoss, "an essentially unknowable individual given to ruminative silences".
In a film haunted by absences, the suffering of the victims is powerfully evoked by Burn’s soundscape: the constant hum of machinery, the barked orders of SS guards and the cries and screams of prisoners herded towards the gas chambers. "There are, in effect, two films," elaborates Glazer. "The one you see, and the one you hear, and the second is just as important as the first, arguably more so. We already know the imagery of the camps from actual archive footage. There is no need to attempt to recreate it, but I felt that if we could hear it, we could somehow see it in our heads."

To this end, Burn spent a year researching and amassing a vast sound archive.

"It was essentially a document of every single sound that would have emanated from the camp," which, he says "was a place of heavy industry as well as human suffering." The task was "incredibly difficult".

"I remember saying to my wife after just a few weeks that it was starting to get to me. And, even though you don’t ever see the horror, it is by far the most violent film I have ever worked on."

The Zone of Interest begins disorientingly with two minutes of darkness as Levi’s ascending electronic overture fills the cinema then retreats slowly to the screen, where the sound of wild songbirds accompanies a long shot of the Hoss family picnicking in bright sunshine by the shores of a Polish lake.

"The music, like the dark screen, is a way of preparing you for what follows as you enter another reality," Levi tells me. "It slowly descends in pitch as it takes you down into the story. All through the film, the music is taking you to a place below or beyond what you are seeing, almost a nowhere place beyond logical comprehension."

The film’s release was foreshadowed by horror. The New York screening I attended was held just days after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.

One could sense a feeling of uncertain anticipation as the film began and a palpable nervousness emanating from the stage in the short Q&A hosted by the film festival curator that followed the screening. I spoke to Glazer a week later when the Israeli assault on Gaza was in its early stages. It is, I suggest, a heightened moment in which to release the film. He nods. "Yes, and it’s weighing on all of us. The sickening thing about this film is it’s timely and it’s always going to be timely until we can somehow evolve out of this cycle of violence that we perpetuate as human beings. And when will that happen? Not in our lifetime. Right now, it seems to be reversing and I’m mindful of that, too, in terms of the film and its complexity."

I ask Glazer if he is prepared for a degree of negative criticism centring on the ethics of holocaust representation?

"I am prepared, yes, but I’m also interested to hear what the arguments are. I believe you absolutely should tackle the subject, but the essential question is not should you do it, but how? Personally, I think the story has to be told and retold and, to do so, you have to find new paradigms to retell it, to restate it generation after generation particularly as the survivors diminish in numbers and it shifts from living memory and becomes history."

The Zone of Interest’s single moments of hope occur at night and were shot on a thermal imaging camera of the kind used by the conceptual photographer Richard Mosse for his ambitious refugee film, Incoming.

A young woman, rendered almost ghostlike by the camera, clandestinely moves through a construction site beneath a railway that runs into the camp. She places apples in the earth for the starving prisoners on work duty to find the following day. While doing so, she finds a scroll of music notation in a tin buried in the earth.

The scene came about as a result of Glazer meeting a 90-year-old woman called Alexandria, who had worked for the Polish resistance when she was just 12. She recounted how she had cycled to the camp to leave apples, and how she had found the mysterious piece of written music, which, it turned out, had been composed by an Auschwitz prisoner called Thomas Wolf, who survived the war.

"She lived in the house we shot in," Glazer says. "It was her bike we used, and the dress the actor wears was her dress. Sadly, she died a few weeks after we spoke."

He pauses for a long moment. "That small act of resistance, the simple, almost holy act of leaving food, is crucial because it is the one point of light. I really thought I couldn’t make the film at that point. I kept ringing my producer, Jim, and saying: ‘I’m getting out. I can’t do this. It’s just too dark.’ It felt impossible to just show the utter darkness, so I was looking for the light somewhere and I found it in her. She is the force for good."

I ask Glazer what made him persevere with the project each time he felt the urge to give up and walk away.

"I don’t know for sure. My heritage, maybe. Inter-generational trauma. Fear. Anger. All of that stuff. Most Jewish families have a history with the event because it was so enormous. Just looking through the archives of Auschwitz and going though my family names, I discovered there are a lot of them. So, I think it’s just in you."

He pauses again. "The reason I made this film is to try to restate our close proximity to this terrible event that we think of as in the past. For me, it is not ever in the past, and right now, I think something in me is aware — and fearful — that these things are on the rise again with the growth of rightwing populism everywhere. The road that so many people took is a few steps away. It is always just a few steps away." — Guardian News and Media