In a way, The Zone of Interest has been a lifetime in the making for Jonathan Glazer. Descended from Bessarabia Jews who fled the Kishinev pogrom and settled in the U.K., the filmmaker has said the subject matter was "something that I was always going to take on at some point in my life."
His journey on The Zone of Interest began in earnest a decade ago, once Glazer had completed Under the Skin in 2013. At the time, a preview of Martin Amis' novel of the same name, about a Nazi officer who falls in love with the Auschwitz commandant's wife, was published in a magazine, and the unconventional perspective on the Holocaust spoke to Glazer. The British filmmaker shared the book with his producer, James Wilson, and they optioned it that same year.
"He's always trying to be in a place that feels unprecedented, a place that feels fresh and not like it's repeating something that's been done," Wilson illuminates. "With this one in particular, you're talking about a subject matter where there is a pantheon of films and books, art of all sorts. But certainly films, from Schindler's List to Son of Saul to Night and Fog and The Pianist and Sophie's Choice — all shades of Holocaust films that have cast a giant shadow. And so, what to do in that? We didn't want to restage things that had been done in other films, so there was a very strong filter of what it could be."
Glazer is a notoriously exacting filmmaker — The Zone of Interest is only his fourth feature film in more than 20 years — so the adaptation process was not a simple case of translating Amis' novel into a screenplay. In fact, Glazer's film bares little resemblance to the author's fictionalized account of the Shoah; the most obvious connection is that both tell their story from the point of view of the perpetrators, not the victims.
The Zone of Interest, as adapted by Glazer, forgoes the fictionalization and centers the story on Rudolph Höss, the real-life commandant at Auschwitz, and his wife, Hedwig — played by Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller — as they build a life for their family at a home next to the camp, at willful odds with the genocide occurring just over the garden wall. The film is a portrait of the banality of evil, and the audience is made to pay witness.
At the 96th Oscars, The Zone of Interest is nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best International Feature Film, Best Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay for Glazer, and Best Sound for Johnnie Burn and Tarn Willers. In conversation with A.frame, newly-Oscar nominated producer James Wilson reflects on the making of The Zone of Interest.
A.frame: Do you remember the first time that Jonathan mentioned The Zone of Interest to you, or his interest in making a film about the Holocaust?
I remember when he mentioned The Zone of Interest very clearly. We'd been talking for a while about making a film with the subject of, I suppose you might say, the Holocaust. You might say the Nazi project. It was something we were both interested in in our lives, before even we met and before we were working in film. It had always been a big thing for the both of us, especially for Jon, of what to say, of what to do that was singular. What jumped out to him from this preview was the idea of a Nazi death camp, but you are looking at it through the point of view of the commandant. There was a light bulb with that. That point of view was the spark. It was the doorway that Jon pushed through, and it became the film. I do remember that point very well, and then there was this huge journey.
Jon decided what was in the story — what was in the Amis novel — was not what he wanted to adapt, almost fundamentally. Because the story is like a marital triangle and Auschwitz is a backdrop for that, and almost immediately, Jon was like, 'I don't want to do a film in which the conceit of the film is an A story, but we're in Auschwitz.' So, we started researching what Amis' novel was based on, because it's fictional. It's not named as Auschwitz. It's not Rudolf Höss. Nothing that happens in the book is in the film. There's the title and one line in the book is transformed into a line in the film. But in researching Auschwitz, we discovered the Hösses, the real family. We saw pictures of the Höss garden: The kids in the paddling pool and playing with toys on the lawn, Hedwig standing with them by a water slide, and the greenhouse in the background. That was the epiphany. Over that wall that the pool and the water slide is in front of is the first gas chamber at Auschwitz, 100 meters away. Jon was like, 'I want to do that. I don't know what that is. I don't know what the story is. I don't know what that is at all, but I want to do a film about them and that idea.' At that point, we put the book in a drawer and then we were into this world of research to create that world.
What is the one line that remained from the book?
It's repurposed but the line is in the last part of the film, when Rudolf moves from Auschwitz to Oranienburg, where the concentration camp headquarters was. He gets the call that they want him back to supervise the extermination of the Hungarian Jews, because he is the only man for the job who knows how to do that. He calls Hedwig and says, 'Good news, I'm coming back,' and then he goes to a party. He calls Hedwig late that night to excitedly say that he's found out they're naming the operation after him, which is true. They called it Action Höss. It ended up being the murder of about 450,000 people in three months. It was Auschwitz at its most obscenely, violently horrific. And it was called Action Höss.
He says, 'They're naming it after me,' they have a little chat, and she says, 'Who was at the party?' He says, 'To tell you the truth, I can't remember. I was too busy thinking how I'd gas everyone in the room. It would be pretty difficult because of the high ceilings.' That's a line from Amis' novel, where the commandant character, Paul Doll, has gone to an opera in Kraków. He's bored in the opera, and Amis writes that he distracts himself by thinking about how much Zyklon B it would take to gas everyone in the theater. That's the line. I genuinely don't want to downgrade the importance of the book, because the book was the spark. The book was the doorway. The core was this point of view, and all the questions the film is trying to pose, we think, are about that point of view. To put you in that perspective and ask the viewer, ask us — including me — are we closer to that perpetrator perspective? To look for the similarities rather than the differences in that perpetrator, rather than the perspective of the victim. Which, of course, should be an uncomfortable and a dangerous question.
Was Jon's vision for how he wanted to shoot it based on how the sound design would work in the film? Was that there from early on? Or was that something that was discovered in the adaptation process?
Visually, it wasn't fully formed, no. The way that it was made, which was quite an unusual shooting method, we arrived there after Jon had written the script. In fact, I remember, as a producer, I got the first draft budgeted, and Jon budgeted for a conventional shoot, which is one or two cameras. It definitely wasn't budgeted for a 10-camera multi-camera thing; that was an experiment that he'd started in Under the Skin — we used eight cameras in the van with Scarlett Johansson, to shoot her continually in perfect continuity. No, there were visual ideas early on that were completely different from this kind of 'Big Brother in the Nazi house' idea. Some of them were actually really heightened and expressionistic and you'd be quite surprised, because it was not this hyper present-tense realism. They were quite theatrical. But in a way, that is a snapshot Jon's process, which is that everything is always open.
With the sound design, I would say it was always a given that the sound would be the core part of the DNA of the film. There was always this idea that you were staying on this side of the wall. Earlier versions of the script actually did go into the camp a bit, and then, there was a real decision to make it all be in the house, in the garden. Therefore, by definition, you were not seeing the crime. There is no act of violence depicted visually in the film. But you hear it. As Jon has said many times, there is the film you see, and the film you hear. And the film you hear is the crime, is the horror, is the systematic violence, is at the core of the film. Which is, what do we tune out? What do we occlude? What do we turn a blind eye to? The prominence of the sound design was always there, because without the film that you hear that dramatizes the gargantuan crime, The Zone of Interest doesn't work.
From a production point of view, when you think back on making The Zone of Interest, what was the biggest challenge that you overcame?
Wow. The biggest single challenge? I feel like I'm breaking the rules, because I've got to break it into two. Number one would be how to make the physical place — how and where to make that house and make that garden — to film what Jon had written. We started by thinking we would do it in the real Höss house, and I don't know if people know this, there is one scene in the film where you are in the actual house of the Hösses, which is a private house next to Auschwitz. It's still there. People are sometimes shocked that it's not part of the museum. But the scene in the basement, where he scrubs his genitals after he had this assignation with this woman in the camp, you're in the basement of the real Höss house. The tunnels he walks through are real tunnels that Rudolph had built so he could go into and out of the camp. Then we thought about completely building the house somewhere else in Poland, but we realized that we had to be next to Auschwitz. We had to make it where it happened. We found this derelict house right next to Auschwitz, there was no garden, and I sometimes think the production design in The Zone of Interest is almost too good, especially for an independent film. I've never seen a set like it. The entire garden was built and grown out of nothing; trees, plants, beehives. That was extraordinarily challenging, navigating all the complexities of doing that in Poland. We were extraordinarily helped and backed, and the Auschwitz Museum allowed us to be there, but I would say that was the single most difficult physical production challenge.
The biggest creative challenge, but it was a good one, was that long period I described from 2014, from reading the book and optioning it on our own, to having a script that we thought was worth making, and then our amazing partners, Film4 and A24 and Access saying, 'We'd like to make this film,' which was in 2019. And actually, I realize I'm editing out the scary parts of it. Because there were times in that where it was like, 'Are we going to do it?' Jon was in and out of faith, losing his religion on it sometimes and getting back into it. As a producer, because I'd invested a lot of time in it and my own money, to put it bluntly, that was very challenging, too. I think I've forgotten that actually. You've made me remember it.
The film received five Oscar nominations, including your first nomination for Best Picture. What has it meant for you, personally, and for the film?
I hope it doesn't sound too cute, but what it means to me personally is what it means for the film — I think Jon and I both feel that — which is this attention and visibility and recognition that is, again, without sounding clichéd, beyond what we ever would've thought of for the kind of films we have worked on. The part of the ecosystem that we are in of cinema, and this film particularly, in terms of what type of film it is — formally, the feeling of it, the idea of it — in some ways, we probably didn't think it was the type of film that normally would be recognized by the Academy. Credit to them. So, it was a real sense of both huge surprise and a thrill, and a slightly, almost thrilling bewilderment at this recognition. But certainly, we're experiencing what that does for the film in terms of that awareness of it. Because it's a film not in English.
It hasn't got famous people in it, although Sandra Hüller is now famous for being in these all-extraordinary films through this year. It hasn't really got a story. It hasn't really got characters in a traditional sense. It's not a biopic. It's a film about an idea and a set of questions. It's not emotionally, cathartically pleasing, and structurally, it's odd in terms of what happens. It ends in a series of documentary shots about workers in the Auschwitz Museum. So, we're just blown away by the recognition.
Personally, I can't pretend I'm not tickled. I'm absolutely thrilled and tickled to be the producer of a nominated Best Picture. I want to mention that I have a producing partner in Poland, Ewa Puszczyńska, whom I produced the film with, and I couldn't have done it without her there. It was a really hard and long and challenging process for all of us. On a personal level, it feels like an amazing validation of all of our work, after spending nine years on a film.
As you mentioned, this is a film by an English filmmaker, produced by an English and a Polish producer, and shot in Poland with a German cast. It is multinational. What does it mean for The Zone of Interest to be representing the U.K. for Best International Feature Film?
You're right, it was British and Germans and Poles, those were the nationalities coming together in a collaboration. We brought our work and our ideas across borders and across languages and came together. There was a real spirit and esprit de corps there. I felt that in Poland. Sometimes I've thought, 'Will it count against the film that it's in German, but we're British?' Jon and I talked a lot early on, actually, about when the film came out, would there be any effrontery at the idea of a British writer-director making a film in German, but not being a German speaker — which neither of us are. We were actually dreading that, always thinking that would be the first question at the first press conference. Like, 'Who do you think you are?' But actually, it hasn't come up, and I don't know if it's a testament to the quality of the film, but it feels like there's something in it that transcends the idea of foreign language. It sounds too corny, but the common language was cinema and the idea of this film.
By John Boone
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best International Feature Film category for an interview.