- Director Jonathan Glazer went to great lengths to pursue an immersive naturalism in his screen depiction of the holocaust, “The Zone of Interest,” removing the artifice and conventions of filmmaking.
- The filmmakers gave their actors freedom to improvise by rigging multiple cameras for long takes with the actors often unaware if the cameras were even rolling.
- Cinematographer Łukasz Żal also deployed a thermal imaging camera to juxtapose black and white scenes of energy and hope with the bleak world of color.
Writer-director Jonathan Glazer refuses to be drawn into making comparisons with other Holocaust screen depictions and his new film The Zone of Interest.
“I don’t like getting involved in a genocide-off,” he told Giles Harvey of The New York Times, commenting on repeated attempts by the press to get him to talk about why he felt his approach differs from the likes of Schindler’s List, Son of Saul or the documentary Shoah.
He went on to clarify that his decision to tackle this highly sensitive subject was rooted in his family history. Glazer’s grandparents were Eastern European Jews who fled the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. He also went to a Jewish state school in London.
The British director had not yet finished Under the Skin in 2013 when he told his longtime producer, James Wilson, about his idea for the next project.
“He did not want to do another, quote-unquote, ‘Holocaust movie.’ Jon has a very small filter when it comes to doing something that’s never been done before,” Wilson told Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “But neither of us knew what that something would be.”
Glazer’s idea was galvanized in 2014 by reading about the latest novel by the late Martin Amis, a story told from the viewpoint of a fictional Nazi commandant who ran and lived next door to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
In Amis’ book, the Dolls were loosely based on Rudolf Höss, the real-life commandant of Auschwitz, and his family. Glazer’s first big call was to revert to the originals. Before starting work on the script, he spent two years researching the Hösses, during which he came across a staggering data point: The garden of their villa shared a wall with the camp. What feats of denial, he wondered, would it have taken to live in such proximity to the damned?
“I wanted to dismantle the idea of them as anomalies, as almost supernatural. I wanted to show that these were crimes committed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith at No. 26,” he told the NYT.
“I looked at the darkening world around us, and had a feeling I had to do something about our similarities to the perpetrators rather than the victims,” Glazer elaborated to Rolling Stone. “When you say, ‘They were monsters,’ you’re also saying: ‘That could never be us.’ Which is a very dangerous mindset.”
Instead, he began to see the Hösses as “non-thinking, bourgeois, aspirational-careerist horrors” who’d simply normalized evil.
READ MORE: ‘It’s Not a History Lesson, It’s a Warning’: Inside the Making of ‘The Zone of Interest’ (Rolling Stone)
‟There were two givens on the film. … That it would be in its native languages — German and some Polish, obviously — and that we would film it in Poland. And Jon really wanted to film it in the real house,” Producer James ‟Jim” Wilson told Gold Derby’s Charles Bright.
Wilson describes visiting the Höss family home and experiencing its proximity to Auschwitz (which he says is ‟kind of holy”) as generating ‟one of the lightbulb moments.”
“The Höss house is still there, and the proximity to the camp is striking,” Glazer told The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough. “I imagined myself at one point as a prisoner, imagining hearing the sounds of the Höss children splashing and laughing in their swimming pool on the other side of the wall. The idea of the film became about that wall, about how that wall is a direct manifestation of how we ourselves as human beings compartmentalize the things we were happy to indulge in and surround ourselves with and the things — sometimes horrible things — we want to disassociate ourselves from. That became the axiom of the whole endeavor.”
Because the Höss home is the heart of the film, Glazer tasked Production Designer Chris Oddy with building a fully functional set. Oddy deemed the actual building’s “80 years of decrepitude” insurmountable and instead opted to renovate a nearby building crafted in a similar style, according to Roxborough’s reporting. Glazer mandated that the end result should be as if it had been built yesterday.”
In fact, Oddy says, “The only scene shot in the original house comes late in the film, where Rudolf walks from his office through the real underground tunnel that connects the camp with his home.”
Another key set piece, the family garden, required a full-year head start to adequately mature before filming began, Oddy says.
READ MORE: Framing the Horrors of the Holocaust Through a 21st Century Lens: Making of ‘The Zone of Interest’ (The Hollywood Reporter)
The production goal was an immersive naturalism, and Glazer went to great lengths pursuing it, telling Vanity Fair’s David Canfield that he sought to “remove the artifice and conventions of filmmaking that lead you down a road which didn’t feel relevant here: screen psychology. The way that cinema fetishizes, glamorizes, empowers—in this context, none of those were appropriate.”
Instead, as Fear notes in Rolling Stone, The Zone of Interest uses suggestion and sound — what Glazer refers to as “ambient evil” — to conjure up how human beings could look upon the methodical killing of other human beings as background noise in their lives rather than a profound tragedy.
Oddy’s recreation of the Höss home at Auschwitz was rigged with 10 hidden cameras that would roll simultaneously.
“Cinema is at odds with atrocity,” he explained to the NYT. “As soon as you put a camera on someone, as soon as you light them, or make a decision about what lens to use, you’re glamorizing them.”
Cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Ida and Cold War) made some initial studies of the house. Glazer told him they were “too beautiful.” He wanted the images to seem “authorless.”
The two-time Oscar-nominated Polish DP explained to John Boone at Aframe, “You have to forget completely all the tricks you’re carrying with you as a cinematographer and all your knowledge and everything you were taught in your career. The whole idea of this film was just to put the cameras in the places where you can see what is happening in the most objective way, and that’s it. Very simple.”
This method gave the actors — principally Christian Friedel (Babylon Berlin) as Rudolf and Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a Fall) as his wife, Hedwig — the freedom to improvise; they were often unaware if the cameras were even rolling.
“There was nobody on set [except] the actors,” Żal informed Aframe. He remotely monitored from a shipping container outside the house. “The actors were just living their lives, and because we had 10 setups at the same time and were shooting everything, after one or two hours we had all the setups we needed. We had continuous action, and the sun was changing, the light was changing, the clouds were coming and going, the dog was running through the house, and everything was captured on the 10 cameras.”
Sony VENICE cameras were partly chosen because they could have their lenses detached from the camera body in order to be able to hide them all over the set, including in the garden, which is the Hösses’ pride and joy.
“The whole idea was to create a space for actors to just be there, be in the situation and for us to witness with no interruption,” Żal told fellow DP Mandy Walker in an interview for the ASC. “We were able to attach those cameras to the walls, hide them in cardboard, in the bushes, try and cover them with fabric. We’re just placing them in a different spaces in the garden, in the house. Everything was hardwired. The five focus pullers were in the basement of house, and we were in the shipping container behind the wall. That was our mission control and we were just shooting the whole scene without interruption, continuously.”
The film intersperses the desaturated color of the Höss family life with stark black and white footage of a girl leaving apples in a work camp for the Jewish prisoners. This effect was captured at night using a special thermal imaging camera, as Żal explained to Vanity Fair.
“We spent a lot of time adjusting this for filming in terms of focus and image and also software, because It’s not so easy to use this camera and get the image we would like to have.”
Glazer explains that the camera is recording heat, not light, adding, “there’s something very beautiful and poetic about the fact that it is heat, and she does glow. It reinforces the idea of her as an energy.”
In post, they used an algorithm to upgrade the resolution from lowly 1K to 4K and to match as well as they could with the 6K resolution footage from the VENICE.
The Sound of Murder
While the visuals deliberately refrain from showing the inside of the extermination camp, the audience is not spared the harrowing sounds emanating from behind the wall. Neither are the Hösses, even though for them life seems to continue as normal.
Sound designer Johnnie Burn recalls to Aframe the original directive from Glazer. “He said, ‘It is going to be mandatory that we don’t go in the camp, and we don’t see the atrocities. We’re going to just hear them. It will all be sound.’ I panicked. I started reeling, because I realized that would be a leap of faith. And also, where are we going to get the sounds from? Jon said, ‘Well, that’s what you’re going to figure out.’”
Burn compiled a 600-page research document and spent the year before filming began and throughout the shoot and into post-production building the sound library with his team. According to Aframe, he recorded the industrial rumble of textile workshops and incinerators, boots marching on gravel, period-accurate gunfire, and death itself.
“It’s the sound of murder, and it has to be credible but we didn’t want to be sensational,” Burn said. “Anything sensationalized in the sound wouldn’t work, so understanding the difference between someone acting pain and actually being in pain at point of death, that’s to do with literally the cadence of the way people scream.”
READ MORE: ‘The Context Is Everything’: Behind the Sights and Sound of ‘The Zone of Interest’ (Aframe)
The idea was to create an immersive experience where performances were able to transform into people going about their daily routines, and the cast was free not only to explore the environments but lean into boring, mundane everyday life — a contrast to the horror literally happening outside their backyard.
“Some takes were up to 45 minutes,” Sandra Hüller told Rolling Stone. “You didn’t know what was being filmed from what angle, or from where. The crew and monitors were in a separate building, so if they didn’t tell us to cut, we’d just restart a scene and it would end up being completely different.”
It was a concept that Glazer hoped to make explicit with the film’s ending, in which viewers are momentarily dropped into Auschwitz in the 21st century — a flash-forward that the director says came from his experience wandering around the grounds one morning and noticing the cleaning crew picking up litter and vacuuming in front of the exhibits.
“It was like they were tending graves,” Glazer says. “You know, Höss is long gone. He is ash. But the museum, and the importance of such museums, they are still there.”