The Zone of Interest: New film evokes horror of living on the borders of Auschwitz

A German-language film with an English director hopes to be the first British production to be named best international film at the Oscars, ITV News Arts Editor Nina Nannar reports

It is the most extraordinary film, courtesy of one of Britain’s leading directors Jonathan Glazer.

In a highly stylised and devastating film, The Zone of Interest tells the story of the commander of Auschwitz - Rudolph Höss - his wife Hedwig, and their five children.

They live in an elegant house with a delightful garden right on the borders of Auschwitz. It is just a wall that separates them from the concentration camp.

While the prisoners on one side of the wall must have heard the families festivities - their parties and dinners and get togethers - what we the viewers can hear is the terrible noise of shouts, screams, dogs barking and the industrial sounds of mass murder.

We never see what goes on inside the camp, but our brains are left to fill in the gaps of what we know was happening in Auschwitz.

It is chilling.

The film is based on a 2014 novel of the same name, by Martin Amis.

It has taken Mr Glazer and his team, which includes his British co-producer Jim Wilson, almost 10 years to bring this film to the screen.

To do it, the team returned to the site of Auschwitz in Poland.

British director Jonathan Glazer on The Zone of Interest set. Credit: ITV News

They gained permission to convert a building near the site so it is a replica of the Höss family home.

Mr Glazer put up cameras in different locations on the site, sometimes shooting simultaneously but controlling everything remotely so the actors were left alone.

It was part of Mr Glazer’s vision to get the cast not to act, but to be, said Christian Friedl, the German actor who plays the lead.

Sandra Huller, the German actress who plays Hedwig. Credit: ITV News

Sandra Huller, the German actress who plays Hedwig, said the fact that they were around Auschwitz added an extra layer of responsibility, pressure, and presence.

The two have been asked to play Nazi roles before, and it took both of them some time to agree to this film.

But it was Mr Glazer’s approach to the project which swayed them. 

"We were the only Germans on site," said Huller.

"We were all aware that we were filming in a place and about an event which our country was responsible for," she added.

She loathed the character she played as she knew exactly what her husband was overseeing but chose to ignore it. 

We instead see her showing off her carefully cultivated garden and telling her mother she had carefully planted vines to cover the wall separating them from the concentration camp.

Juxtaposing this seemingly ordinary life of domestic bliss with our knowledge of the unseen atrocities happening on the site packs a very powerful punch.

The two German actors point out its resonance with today - with the far-right rising across Europe and conflict dominating the headlines.

Christian Friedl, the German actor who plays the lead. Credit: AP

It is a timely reminder of the dangers of complicity through inaction.

The Zone of Interest is the favourite to pick up Britain’s first ever Oscar for international feature, one we’ve only been nominated twice before.

But whatever the outcome, Mr Glazer has delivered one of the most talked about and haunting films of recent years. 

The film is scheduled to be released in the UK on February 2.

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