‘The Zone of Interest’ Producer on Finding New Relevancy in a Holocaust Drama: “Our Political Culture Is Closer to That of the Perpetrator Than We Think”

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When Jonathan Glazer began developing the project that became The Zone of Interest — nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and best international feature — he and producer James Wilson began to ask a series of questions that would require them to find the rationale behind making another film that depicts the events of the Holocaust.

The subject has been well-worn cinematic territory before and after Schindler’s List took best picture three decades ago — becoming the first film about the subject to win the Academy’s top prize. Both Glazer and Wilson knew that they had to do something completely different than what came before them, and Wilson tells THR the pair were less interested in depicting the extermination of European Jews than they were focused on grappling with the culture that contributed to those atrocities.

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Using Martin Amis’ 2014 novel as their template — the book tells three interwoven stories surrounding the fictional commandant of Auschwitz, inspired by the real-life Rudolph Höss and his family who lived just outside the camp’s walls — Glazer stripped away the fictional elements and went all-in on Höss. Played by Christian Friedel in the film, Höss is never depicted as the monstrous man who oversaw the deaths of thousands at Auschwitz; rather, he’s an everyday man who attempts to provide a beautiful life for his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and children, albeit one funded by the horrors taking place right next door.

Wilson reflects on the development process with Glazer, the careful balance of depicting the events in the film without emotion and why The Zone of Interest is a relevant story for today — and, likely, the future.

I know this project was something Jonathan Glazer had been working on for a long time. When did you get on board? 

Well, not to be cute about it, but I don’t know if I was ever really off-board. It was part of an organic conversation that came out of our ongoing relationship as a producer and director. My memory is that we were talking about making a film about this subject — I don’t mean a concentration camp or Auschwitz, but the culture of Nazism. Jon starts with feelings and ideas, and they can be quite abstract and general rather than a story. We started talking and reading books, and it was always with a criteria of: What would you be trying to say as a director? What questions would you be trying to ask, and what themes would you be interested in?

There are such iconic representations of [the Holocaust] which have cast such a giant shadow across the spectrum of film culture — whether it be a big Hollywood movie like Schindler’s List or [a documentary like] Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. We wanted to do something that was different and unprecedented. It was in the summer of 2014, which is easy to date because I remember when [Martin Amis’] book came out; Jon read a little preview capsule of The Zone of Interest that described the idea of the book, and he sent it to me saying, “This sounds interesting.” What happens in the book is completely different to anything that happens in the film, but nevertheless, it was that perspective that was interesting. There was instantly something interesting in terms of a concentration camp, but from the perspective of the people who ran it and the world of the family that was domestic and private. Being in the house and the garden as much as possible was really interesting and uncomfortable and provocative.

I read the book last summer and realized very quickly that it would be different from the film. I would say that the fictional character inspired by Rudolph Höss was the most difficult to sit with, to be inside his head while reading the book. Can you tell me about pulling back from that first-person perspective and instead allowing the viewer to observe the Höss family from a critical distance? 

That balancing act was one of the many challenges in the film. The premise of the film does rely on, in my opinion, some kind of identification with the film’s subjects and their world. We had a document made during development that we called the scrapbook — it was a research packet about the Hösses we would use to explain to partners when we were putting the film together, and later with the actors. There was a quote from a historian named Fred Katz which we put on the cover, which I will mangle: “To say that a man who does monstrous things is a monster explains nothing.”

[To call Höss a monster] ironically dehumanizes him. Often the term “dehumanization” is most typically used to describe ideological processes like the Nazi project, or any various forms of supremacism. It’s normally ascribed to the victims, right? But in our film, we also didn’t want to dehumanize the perpetrator, because then you comfortably demonize [them]. It was a balancing act and sometimes a tension, a sort of healthy kind of creative fiction. One scene that I feel that really works by the river where Rudolph and Hedwig, when Hedwig says that they’re living how they dreamed. In that moment, you get under her skin. I believe her emotionally that she wants those things. I really do. I think, for a moment, there is this sort of cognitive dissonance before you that you forget where you are in the world. Yeah, that does look like a nice place to raise a family.

There’s lots of discourse around the film about the banality of evil, and I get that — Hannah Arendt was a really important philosopher and historian of Nazism and the Holocaust, but I hope the film goes a bit beyond that. These people, and people like them, did have dreams and desires and fantasies, and they also had fears and things they didn’t want, and we were trying to allude to those things in the film. But it was always a very challenging thing for Jon. How do you dramatize what they want, what they feel inside? And how do you do it in a way that fits the form of this film? Because they can’t be making speeches over dinner about exterminating the Jews of Europe or the Nazi political project, because people don’t do that. The work Hedwig is doing here is a great example for a new model community, and that is the part of this project that is actually beyond [the depiction of the Holocaust] we’re familiar with.

That scene you mention is perhaps one of the most human in the film — and it also speaks to your desire not to dehumanize the Hösses, because who wouldn’t want to live in a tranquil, beautiful house with their family? I guess the film raises the larger question: What would you do to achieve that kind of status? That’s the most human and harrowing part about that. 

There’s a key piece of writing from philosopher Gillian Rose, who wrote a brilliant essay called “The Future of Auschwitz” about what the memorial and museum could be. We actually discovered her work in post-production — it was like she was describing what we were trying to do. She wrote about what she called “Holocaust piety” in films, and I’ll pull up a quote: “Let us make a film in which the representation of fascism would engage with the fascism of representation. A film, shall we say, which follows the life story of a member of the SS in all its pathos, so that we empathize with him, identify with his hopes and fears, disappointments, and rage, so that when it comes to killing, we put our hands on the trigger with him, wanting him to get what he wants … Instead of emerging with sentimental tears, which leave us emotionally and politically intact, we emerge with the dry eyes of a deep grief which belongs to the recognition of our ineluctable grounding in the norms of the emotional and political culture represented and which leaves us with uncertainty.”

Our emotional and political culture is closer to that of the perpetrator than we think — not in terms of wanting to kill another ethnic group, but in terms of these are the aspirations for which we are prepared not to think about who is excluded from those dreams of comfort and security. In some ways, our comfort and security might be built on the exclusion of those people.

I’d love to hear about how the location — shooting on the grounds at Auschwitz — was so vital for the production. I can’t get the scene toward the end that depicts the cleaning women in the museum out of my head. Having grown up in the American South and toured former plantations as living history museums, it was very stirring to see Höss, a nearly forgotten historical figure, juxtaposed with a moment that connects the past to the present so clearly. 

I don’t know if you’re saying it’s an analogy or just the fact that it made you think of that, which is enough for me, but I’m excited by that — that’s the type of connections that we were talking about. It’s not to say that [the enslavement of people in the antebellum American South] was the same as the Nazis, but it’s interesting to think about those connections rather than not.

In terms of the place, in an obvious way it was really important to film there. There was never a thought that it wouldn’t be in German and that it would be made in Poland. I remember on Under the Skin, which was set in Scotland, a financier asked if we could [put together] a budget for Canada. Jon said, “I’m sure you’ll find a very good Canadian director to do it.” He has this almost fundamentalist belief in authenticity. The ground zero was the Höss house, and that would have been Jon’s perfect place to shoot it — in the real house. It just wasn’t practical because the house was too modernized. We came back to this abandoned house that we’d spotted a couple of hundred meters from the Höss house; we rebuilt it and grew the garden. But to answer your question, it was really important, maybe in underlying subliminal ways, to [shoot at Auschwitz] — the weight of it.

It was ironic, because we always had to sell that idea to the people who were making the film that we had to be there. But above the camp walls in the film, it’s actually CG. We photographed all of the buildings of Auschwitz, and Jon had this obsession that they had to be new. You can’t show the buildings now, because they’re 80 years old. If I showed you a picture of that garden, they’d be blue screens all around it. I remember [a financier] saying, “You can do this somewhere else for cheaper. Why does it have to be there?” I said, “Have you met Jon?” It didn’t physically require it, but it was a psychic thing we weren’t expecting. It really did have an effect on everyone in different ways.

I first saw the film in September, and a month later was Oct. 7. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war has brought a newfound relevancy and urgency to the film — so much so that I’ve seen supporters of both sides of the conflict compare who they support to the prisoners at Auschwitz and their enemies to the Hösses. When you accepted the best film award at the L.A. Film Critics Awards, you said that the film raises the question to the viewer, “Who is on the other side of our wall?” Have you heard from viewers how they have felt about the film in the context of Oct. 7? 

I sometimes see that kind of binary that you’re talking about. I don’t think it has to be seen as a binary. There are people who will have thoughts and opinions that are binary in ways that I don’t disagree with, but what seems so stark is that we have an empathy that is selective. There are groups of people, innocent people, [whom we care for their] safety and grieve and mourn when they’re killed. There are other innocent people to whom similar or the same things are happening that we seem not to care about as much. It certainly feels very stark that it is the case in Israel and Gaza right now, and that the obscene violence should be thought of as any less obscene or horrible. The killing of staggering numbers of innocent people somewhere else who aren’t directly connected to those obscene crimes [of Oct. 7] seems a very stark reminder of that selective empathy. It doesn’t seem to me that complicated to condemn both losses of innocent life — on a basic human empathetic level, there just seems to be the sort of extraordinary empathy dissonance. I think the sad fact is that the selective empathy that marks our culture is a continuum, is actually not a moment — probably for hundreds of years before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and for the 80-plus years since.

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