Roger Ebert Home

A Human Face: Christian Friedel on The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” divorces the audience from any sense that the most evil people in the world are subhuman. Based on the novel by Martin Amis, the movie doesn’t follow so much as simply watch a commandant and his family as they live next to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Sounds of unimaginable horror casually peek in through their mundane lives, which includes taking care of their children, ordering around servants, and dreaming of what prosperity awaits them for doing a good job. “The Zone of Interest” can be revolting with such a stark depiction, as Glazer pushes discomfort to spark an existential crisis a la his previous film, "Under the Skin." 

Christian Friedel plays the commandant, the real-life Rudolph Höss, the longest-serving person in that position at Auschwitz. Sandra Hüller, following her acclaimed work in Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” shares the screen with Friedel in passages that depict a marriage that’s more like an amicable business transaction. In two excellent but nauseating performances, Friedel and Hüller maintain the humanity of these real-life people, as much as we may yearn for some type of justice to be brought against them. spoke with Friedel about the making of “The Zone of Interest,” collaborating with Sandra Hüller, applying his emotional archive to such a role, and more. 

When you signed on to this film, was the responsibility of having to promote it something you were thinking about? That you'd have to talk about it and handle the weight of the story? 

Yeah, that was clear. And for me, it’s a gift to have this movie in my pocket. Sometimes you travel with a movie you don’t like, or you have to lie about what an amazing project. But I think with this movie … it was and it is an amazing project. It’s so great to look into the faces of the audience, and sometimes you see questions, sometimes you see emotions. That’s the importance of art; it inspires the people to talk about it. I have had a great time in the US, through many different areas and cities. It’s my first time in Chicago, I had a great walk with my publicist through the city. We had popcorn. Garrett’s. 

What did you think of the popcorn? 

It was really interesting for me. Sometimes I think, “Wow, Americans, I don’t know if it’s a good or bad taste.” 

How did this set feel different than any others you had been on? 

It’s different because we shot the movie with the multi-camera system. Sometimes, ten cameras at the same time, scenes simultaneously inside and outside from the set. Sometimes, when we shot in an area in a landscape, we had ten cameras too, and I had two beautiful shooting days with my son in the movie and the horseback riding through landscapes. And that was really different because I would like to describe the shoot as a search. 

We were searching for situations for normality, for the banality of these persons. We had a lot of time in the morning. We’d come to the set and started immediately, and we had the possibility and opportunity to do variations. There were no technical interruptions, no thinking of continuity things. It was not so technical in a way, we were there in this house, alone, without technicians. The technicians were in the basement, and Jonathan was next to the set in a trailer with ten monitors. It was amazing, and that was the first time I shot a movie in this way. 

And I think when I met Jonathan for the first time in a pub in London, he was very transparent. He described his vision and said, “I want to observe these characters.” Sometimes he said, “Big Brother in a Nazi house.” And that was really interesting, and really new for me, to be more spontaneous. To improvise sometimes. Don’t know what’s going on or which angle is important. I really, really like to shoot in this way. If you ask me for future movies, it could be an inspiration. 

There wouldn’t be a big lighting rig when you were filming on set? I'm trying to visualize this. 

It’s natural light. It’s only natural light. It’s really important. When he had these night scenes, how he could shoot night, that was the idea. And because you never have the feeling of a set … OK, the green screen, yeah, that was Hollywood. But in the house, you never see a light or something. They only used natural lighting. 

Does finding this banality help you work with such a heavy role? Does presenting banality alleviate you at all from the weight of playing this Nazi? 

I was really curious to find a way to create this character. We want to see an evil person, and to be honest, I really don’t like him, and I really don’t like this family. I cannot understand how they can live next to the camps. I really like the way that we find or create … to give these perpetrators a human face. And that was the challenge for me because I had these dark pictures, maybe the historical context. All these dark things in my subconscious. I had it as a subtext inside of me. But Jonathan said to me, “Don’t share these thoughts with me. Have it, but keep it in your mind, in your body, in your soul. Let’s find out to see him as a father or as a normal human being who is interested in nature.” 

That was a real challenge, to keep it in my mind. But this was important when he was lovely with his kids. He was also thinking about his work, and the question was … when he’s speaking about love, for example. What is love in this context for this person? And to find the contrast … Jonathan said to me, maybe, "It helps you to think about, if you speak the truth, then lie with your eyes. And if your eyes speak the truth, then lie with your mouth." And have this in your mind. And there’s a tension inside of his body at the end of the movie. We see that the body tells the truth, and fights against his mind. This is all the time inside of him. This was the challenge to find this way. 

It was not so difficult to create a normal birthday party, or a dinner with the family. But there was the other thing inside of me, under the surface, that was the challenge. To be honest, I’m still processing, to shake it out of my body and my mind. Because there was something that was really intense. 

About the role itself? Or the performance? 

It’s a cocktail: it’s the role, the method, this multi-camera system. Sometimes, to forget these cameras and to think I’m alone here, and to do ordinary things and boring things, but to have these subtexts. For example, the scene where he’s walking through the different rooms at the party, and then he’s at the balcony, he’s thinking, “How can I kill all of the people in this room very effectively?” So, I know that this was the subtext, and sometimes I allowed me to have this in my subconscious. But it was really intense. I think the responsibility toward the victims in a way, sometimes Sandra and I, we had the feeling there were ghosts. The house and the sets were in Auschwitz, very close to the camp, very close to the original house, and this was a mixture of all these things. And sometimes I had nightmares because I was afraid. [As with] the scene with the canoe, it’s raining, and the river goes wild. The night before the shooting day, I had some nightmares about losing my kids. I had father feelings. That was really intense. 

Jonathan was searching for the truth. “Is there anything else? Let’s be open for that.” And that, I think this mixture, this cocktail, was really intense. And when I watched the movie for the first time, memories came back. It was uncomfortable to watch that for me. 

How different was it to you, as someone who was telling the story on set as an actor, and then seeing Glazer’s version? 

We were prepared for that because Jonathan was very transparent. Sometimes, the directors will not have told you the whole truth … and you are just a color in their painting. But here, we were invited to create this together. We had a lot of conversations about the script and the characters, and he shares with us that there will be a sound. Another movie. He called it Film A or Film B. That was really impressive because we never heard any sounds, and we never saw these camps or the effects. We had a green wall there in the garden. 

I had a lot of scenes they cut out of the movie. I really liked those scenes because there were a lot of emotion, and sometimes we saw the perpetrator. In one scene, I gave an order to kill someone, and I really, as an actor I’m sad that these scenes are cut out. But I really understand his decisions for his view and his vision, not to show this person as a perpetrator. [The audience] cannot say, “OK, it’s not me.” I really like that. And even the decision at the end of the movie, in the script, it was this throwing up, and then we go to the present day to the documentary thing, but then he comes back to him. I was sitting next to Sandra in this little cinema in Leipzig, with her dog, it’s her dog in the movie, and we said immediately, “Wow,” because this was a genius cut. To watch the movie and to realize his vision works, and that he made a lot of great decisions, was really impressive. 

That point of not allowing distance from a perpetrator rings in my ear about how an actor has to empathize with a character to almost inhabit it. Is that different when playing a character like yours? 

Absolutely it’s different, because it’s not a biopic. I had a lot of conversations together with Sandra and Jonathan, and we had different ways to our characters. For me, the challenge was, that he is the commandant and he is the perpetrator, but to create a different view to seem as a father. I need to connect him with my emotional archive, and that was sometimes hard. When I watched the movie for the first time, I realized that it could be me. I think this was important, that I realized this could—not that we are all Nazis—but that this could be us. So, the decisions we make define us, and they are human beings doing terrible things to other humans. But I had to create a human and not the original biography of Rudolph Höss. 

You did read about him? 

I read some stuff, but Jonathan said … his preparation and investigation was a lot of years, and really, really precise. But he also said, “You will play this character. Who are you?” And that was important to find a way to combine this. 

This emotional archive, you mean. 

Yes. How he is when he’s afraid or when he’s thinking about it. Or, sometimes, love with his kid or with his horse. When he said goodbye, we had a lot of variations. Three hours, a night shoot. I had to cry; I had to be tough, cool, different variations. This was me sometimes, but the clothes were different, and the situations were different. But sometimes, it’s important to protect myself from this. If I have a theater play, and now I’m playing Macbeth, it’s a murderer, it’s a perpetrator, a psycho in a way. And I had to combine my emotional archive with that character, too, so that we can believe them and we can decide as an audience, “OK, what I’m seeing now, what’s my interpretation?” I cannot say I only hate this person because then there is a distance. It was important not to have a distance but to have a big human connection. 

How does this idea about you being in there, your archive, show up in your work Sandra Hüller? I’m thinking about your scene on the dock, where there is such a lack of love. It is so tangible. 

I would describe the couple as a professional couple [laughs]. Maybe there was love in the past, but they’ve arranged it in a really professional way, and they have a good connection together. And Sandra and I have a great connection together, and it was really helpful, our energy. We were becoming friends, but sometimes, considering what we were doing here. Is there allowed to be love? Or giggling? In this scene, for example. Yeah, because this is horrible to watch, because all of these sounds, all of these atrocities around them, and they ignore that. They are masters of self-deception, and we all ignore sometimes. Maybe to survive, or maybe to protect a family. Or protect ourselves. But the ability, or the capacity, it’s important to know that and realize that. 

It was helpful. I really love Sandra because she’s an amazing actress, and she’s an inspiration for me sometimes. For example, in the scene at the river, I watched her performing, and she was really impressed by her variations. She’s brave in a way and sometimes fearless, and that was really interesting. All shooting days, we had phone calls in the evening, and we’d talk about what was our experience, how we feel, and our different ways to create these characters. Her work was really different than my work, and to find a match was really great and inspiring for me. 

At the end of a shoot like this, how do you stave off the existential dread that Glazer is creating? How do you relax? 

I watched a TV series, this Spanish series about robbery [“Money Heist”]. And I listened to music, we had some recordings of my band at the time, and I listened to the master tapes. But it was really intense, and to be in this place, and to live in this little Polish town, sometimes I was really surprised how easy it was to forget where I was. And then I realized, “Oh no, I have to have it in my mind to know where I am.” But we are humans. It was really intense. But it’s a great area there, and a little sweet marketplace, with coffee. You had the possibility to relax and come down. It’s important to have energy to do this. 

"The Zone of Interest" will be available in theaters on December 15th. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Teachers’ Lounge
All of Us Strangers
Occupied City


comments powered by Disqus