Sandra Hüller vowed to herself that she would never play a Nazi.

"I didn't want to do that," says the actress, who grew up in Friedrichroda, which was part of East Germany at the time, and studied theater in Berlin. "I found it a bit weird that some of my colleagues found a certain joy in it. I found all this behavior really strange — let alone the social media postings in uniform and stuff — and I didn't want to be part of it. It didn't make sense to me. Also, I didn't want to explore that mindset."

Until this year, Hüller was best known for her starring role in the Oscar-nominated comedy, Toni Erdmann. That all changed when Justine Triet's cerebral thriller Anatomy of a Fall and Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest premiered at Cannes and took home the festival's Palme d'Or (first place) and Grand Prix (second place), respectively. Hüller nearly didn't sign on to the latter, however.

Loosely adapted from Martin Amis' novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest observes the daily routine of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (played by German actor Christian Friedel, who made his screen debut in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon) and his wife, Hedwig (Hüller), at their home abut to Auschwitz. The atrocities committed in the camp are kept off-screen, but the horror remains present through the film's chilling soundscapes.

"I had a physical reaction to the script," Hüller tells A.frame. "It took a lot of time and conversation with Jonathan to find out about his approach, and what he would add to it, and how he would turn it into something that I would've thought of as meaningful or the right way to do it. Something that I could live with, let's say."

A.frame: How early on did Jonathan share his plans for how he wanted to shoot this film, not only that you would actually be shooting at Auschwitz but using all of these cameras rigged around the house?

Sandra Hüller: Very early.

Christian Friedel: When I first met Jon in a pub in London, he shared with me his vision, and he shared some sketches of this incredible set design from Chris Oddy. This multi-camera system was always clear from the beginning, so this vision existed when we came in.


The way the film was shot was almost closer to theater or reality television. You filmed for lengthy periods of time and captured multiple scenes simultaneously. I've also heard there were times when you didn't know whether you were on camera or not. As an actor, how do you prepare yourself to shoot that way?

Friedel: I think for both of us, the conversations we had together were the most important thing. It was not important to read biographical things, because we didn't want to make a biopic. We were searching for the truth that would make this perspective believable. We had a lot of conversations about the script, about the characters, about the couple, and I think that was the most important thing for us for preparation. It was based on really specific details, but we had the freedom to create our own interpretations of the characters based on this real existing characters. Then, we had to be spontaneous when we shoot in the shooting process, and sometimes it's good not to know so much or not to have so much in your brain. You're free to figure it out, or to improvise.

Hüller: I would also say that all the preparation happened in conversation. It was not a homework job. I had a lot of conversation with my family — if it was the right thing to do — and lots of conversation with Christian and with Jonathan, of course. Ideas and thoughts were flowing around, so it was not lonely work, no.

Christian, you mentioned improvisation. This is not a movie I would have assumed had a lot of improv, but Jonathan has said there was. What was your approach to improvising within these characters?

Friedel: From the beginning, we said that we are not authors, and it's really difficult to improvise in historical context and with such a phenomenal script. Improvisation was more of a way to dive into the situations, not to be used for the movie. For example, when the kids improvised, they improvised with their own words. We had the scene in a canoe, and I had to improvise with the two kids and to surprise them. I tried to do it in a historical way, but they answered with such modern words. I remember that one of them said, 'No, you cannot say that! We are filming a film!' [Laughs] But it helped us to find the mood, to find the right tone for the situations, and that was really great. There are not many improvisations in the movie. All of our scenes are written in the script and are the original lines of the script.

Sandra, because I saw this movie so close to when I saw Anatomy of a Fall, afterward I found myself wondering if one role was ultimately more challenging for you than the other. Because on Anatomy of a Fall, that character is so emotionally complex, and you're speaking in your second language. With this one, you are acting in German and it's focused on the minutia of her day-to-day life, but the circumstances of it are so extreme.

Hüller: I really cannot compare them. To me, they belong to a series of three films, so they connected internally in my system. I started with The Zone of Interest, and then I filmed a German film called Sisi & I from Frauke Finsterwalder, and then I came to Anatomy. It's really complicated to talk about. I had to find a connection between them in a way, but this whole time was challenging, because one thing happened after the other.

Friedel: I saw all the movies from Sandra, and I knew that after Zone, she did another movie and then a third movie. It sounds so crazy. When I saw the movies, they are so different. It's crazy, because I can imagine all these movies were really intense, different experiences she had. It's crazy to see that and to know what was going on.

Hüller: [Laughs] What was I thinking?!


I imagine filming a movie like this takes an emotional toll. How do you protect yourselves as people through the process or process this experience you're having?

Friedel: I think Sandra was smarter than I to protect herself.

Hüller: He says that for the first time! [Laughs] I never knew.

Friedel: I learned so much, because it's so important to protect yourself. After the first meeting with Jon, I wanted to be a part of this journey and I was prepared to do everything for this, not knowing what was going on with me or what are the consequences of that. I learned, especially with this subject matter, it's good to ask the right questions in the beginning. I remember that we had a very intense discussion when Sandra and I, we had a meeting with the great, unfortunately late casting director, Simone Bär, in Berlin. We had conversations about how we could play these characters. Is it allowed to give them their tears, their emotions, or is there a distance to this character?

Hüller: Is it even possible to play a character from a distance? Can you do it?

Friedel: Absolutely. For me, after the shooting process, I was still processing how to shake this character out of my body and my mind, because it was an intense cocktail for me. When I watched the movie for the first time, it was a cocktail too, because it was overwhelming in a way. It was surprising in a way. But it was uncomfortable in a way to realize that and to realize, 'Oh my God, there are so many things going on inside of myself.' That was really interesting. But personally, I had music at my side. My band [Woods of Birnam] released some EPs, so after the shooting days, I was listening to the mixtapes and to the masters, and it was great to know there was light. Coming from the darkness, to have light in the evenings was helpful to protect myself in a way.

Hüller: I don't know about the protection thing. It's more of what I wanted to give her, what she would be able to do or feel or experience. I wanted her to be as poor as possible in that sense. I asked Jonathan that question too: Is it okay to play her if she would get none of my actual feelings or my compassion? Is it okay to just show her outside, her physicality? Is that enough? And he would say yes. So, I stayed with that and really try to just sort of show this body, this movement, these actions, and not care about what was going on inside.

Christian, you mentioned seeing the film for the first time, and I think this film offers a unique experience for an actor. Because you obviously know what you shot, but the sound design by Johnnie Burn adds another layer entirely to the film. What was your reaction to seeing the complete vision for The Zone of Interest?

Friedel: Also, Mica Levi with this incredible soundtrack and the whole visual effects team. We had an amazing set designed with a garden, a house, and it felt really real, but there were green screens. We never saw the camp, or the chimneys, or anything. We know that there would be the sound design, that there will be a 'film two,' as they called it. They called it 'film one' and 'film two.' But to hear that, to hear this incredible music with this overture and this epilogue, I was surprised. When we were in Cannes, Sandra said it was overwhelming. There was a silence in the room. All these departments did an incredible job. To see that was incredible, because it's not in our hands. Not even our characters are in our hands, because we did a lot of variations of all the scenes. Then, Jonathan and Paul [Watts] decided what they used.

Both of us saw it for the first time in the little cinema in Leipzig, and the ending, when Jonathan decided to cut back to Rudolf after the documentary stuff, that was not written in the script. We immediately said, 'Wow.' It was a genius cut, because it tells you so much about what's going on — that history repeats.


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