A distant, dull roar accompanies a family as they go to sleep. It booms, hisses, fizzles and bangs: the sounds of a factory running day and night. Only this factory doesn’t produce goods — it produces corpses. The family whose life these noises accompany is that of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp complex.

The family’s house is directly next to the walls of the camp. The idyllic garden is flanked by chimneys spewing thick smoke. Flames rise into the sky at night. As the children play in the garden, the sounds of barking dogs, shouting guards, the cries of tortured prisoners, gunshots come from beyond the walls. It’s the summer of 1943. The crematoria of Auschwitz started operating a few weeks earlier and now run around the clock.

The horror remains beyond the wall

On the other side of the wall, Hedwig Höss — played by Oscar-nominated German actress Sandra Hüller— tends to her flourishing garden, showing her baby the flowers.

Film still from THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing Sandra Hüller as Hedwig Höss holding her baby in front of flowers in a garden.
Her garden is the pride and joy of Hedwig Höss (played by Sandra Hüller)Image: Leonine Studios

During a visit from her mother, Hedwig says she wants to plant vines along the wall to the camp, in order to obscure it. It’s one of very few scenes in which what lies beyond those walls is addressed or commented on. The rest of the time, what happens there is simply ignored or dismissed. Only once does the horror intrude upon the family: While swimming in the river, “Papa” Höss and his children are surprised by a flood of ash from the crematoria. The children are then almost desperately cleaned and scrubbed in the bathtub.

This idyll next to the death camp threatens to come crashing down when Höss is slated to be transferred to Berlin. Hedwig wants to stay with her children in the paradise she has created for herself.

Film still THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss (left) and Sandra Hüller as Hedwig Höss standing on a riverbank and talking.
In a longer dialogue scene, Hedwig (Hüller) tells her husband Rudolf (Christian Friedel) she wants to stay in AuschwitzImage: Leonine Studios

Merciless efficency

Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is a quiet and dutiful man who keeps his feelings perfectly in check. He lovingly cares for his picture-perfect family, carrying his sleepwalking daughter back to bed, reading fairy tales to the children, patting his horse, and going out riding with his eldest son.

Then he takes up his duties at the camp, where he continues carrying out the extermination of the Jews: tough, inhumane, and mercilessly efficient.

Film still from THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss (center), wearing a Nazi uniform and sitting at a table in his living room, surrounded by other men.
Höss (Friedel) is shown the plans for an even more efficient crematoriumImage: Leonine Studios

That efficiency is one of the main themes in the memoirs that Höss wrote before he was executed for war crimes in 1947. He wrote that he had learned early on not to display any emotion, and he was proud of his icy gaze while killing: “I had to appear cold and heartless during events that would have turned the heart of anyone still feeling human (…) I had to look on coldly as mothers went into the gas chambers with their laughing or crying children.”

A dutiful mass murderer

He expressed that he was always thinking of his own family in such situations. Writing about his hidden emotional world, he said that when watching corpses being burned, teeth being pulled out and the deaths in the gas chambers — all among his duties — some things disturbed him so much that he could not go home to his family. Still, he added, he never felt any remorse.

Film still from THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss, standing in his garden at twilight, smoking in his shirtsleeves, seen through the bars of a gate.
Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss: Mass murder was just ‘work’ for the Auschwitz commandantImage: Leonine Studios

For Höss, fulfilling his duty in the name of his commanders came before anything else. And so the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people was an unavoidable activity that could not be questioned.

A murdered Jewish woman’s lipstick

The film “The Zone of Interest” does not pose questions about Höss’ character. Instead, it asks how it is possible for people to live as close neighbors to a death factory and block any sense of what is happening behind those walls.

When asked about that very topic, lead actor Christian Friedel told the online magazine Filmstarts, “It’s a fact that people lived that way. I think these dimensions of repression that are possible in all of us — for whatever reason — is exactly the mirror that is held up to us in the movie.”

Film still from THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing Sandra Hüller as Hedwig Höss, in the bedroom and trying on the fur coat of a Jewish woman murdered in Auschwitz.
Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) has no qualms trying on the clothes of women murdered by her husband Image: Leonine Studios

Certain scenes starkly underscore that mechanism of repression: One of the children plays with gold teeth pulled from prisoners’ mouths; a prisoner fertilizes the flowers in the Höss Family garden with the ashes of the cremated; Hedwig Höss tries on a fur coat that belonged to a Jewish woman who was killed. She finds a lipstick in the pocket and puts it on. She doesn’t care that the last person to apply it to her lips was one of her husband’s murder victims.

All alone with the cameras

This extraordinary film was made via unusual means. The sets of the house and garden (built not far from the original location of the real Höss family home) were equipped with remote-controlled cameras that the director and crew observed and operated from a trailer set up nearby. The actors were alone on set and never knew which camera was recording or from which angle. In addition, there are hardly any close-ups of the actors, and that distance lends the film an almost documentary-like feel.

Film still from THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing a group of people sitting on böankets on the shore of a lake on a sunny summer day.
An idyllic day at the lake, documented from a distance by the cameraImage: A24/Everett Collection/picture alliance

The dialogue often seems improvised; some conversations are difficult to understand, which isn’t a great loss, as it’s mostly harmless chatter — except when Hedwig Höss remarks that the clothes of the murdered prisoners, which the family appropriates as a matter of course, need to be altered, since they are all far too tight.

The sound design conveys the horror

With this film, British director Jonathan Glazer has succeeded in depicting the Holocaust in a different way. He deliberately refrains from visually depicting the atrocities taking place beyond the walls. He leaves that task to the sound design. The ever-present sounds of the extermination camp do not need accompanying images to convey the horror. The soundtrack consists of electronic music, used very sparingly and to brutal effect.

Film still from THE ZONE OF INTEREST showing two women and two children in the garden of a house, with a watchtower and barracks in the background, behind a gray wall topped with barbed wire.
Omnipresent sound: cheerful chatter mixes with the noises of the extermination machinery in the backgroundImage: Leonine Studios

The director also made the artistic choice to not use the standard, and pleasant, stereo sound. Stereo creates a feeling of closeness, and he wanted to avoid that at all costs. The result is that both the horrible and the banal wash over the audience as an undifferentiated carpet of sound.

A kind of chorus is heard at the end as the screen fades to black: agonizingly loud, discordant, destructive, brutal — pure terror, and yet made by people.

“The Zone of Interest” has already won numerous awards, including the Grand Jury Prize of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It’s been nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Best International Feature Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound), which are set to be awarded in Los Angeles on March 10, 2024.

“The Zone of Interest” is a film for today: As its male lead, Christian Friedel has said: “When I see the times we’re living in, and how relevant the film is now, then I’m happy that we made it.”

This article was originally written in German.


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