Find Us

Nazism seen from the inside by Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer Copyright Frédéric Ponsard, euronews
Copyright Frédéric Ponsard, euronews
By Frédéric Ponsard
Published on Updated
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

Auschwitz, 1944. In "The Zone of Interest", Jonathan Glazer takes us into the heart of the family life of the camp commandant at Auschwitz. A chilling, contemporary look at the banality of horror. The film is out now. A shock. Review and interview with director Jonathan Glazer.


There are films that leave an indelible mark. There is a before and after the vision of this type of unique work which changes your perspective on a near or distant era, a political or religious ideology, an idea of humanity, of its grandeur as well as its horror. And “The Zone of Interest” is definitely one of them.

The film, in the official selection at Cannes, only won, if I dare say, the Grand Jury Prize (i.e. the Silver Palm), but also the FIPRESCI Press Prize, a guarantee of excellence and of an author's innovative vision.

Jonathan Glazer is of course not unknown, but the general public only discovered him for his previous film, his fourth feature film, "Under the Skin", an ultra-brilliant fiction which sends the alien Scarlett Johansson to earth beneath human form in order to feast on human energy and warmth, particularly sexual. Between a fantasy film on acid and an existential road movie, hieratic images and documentary reality, it is one of the most intriguing films ever seen on otherness and also, ultimately, on the mystery of creation. He also signed the videos for Radiohead, Jamiroquai, Massive Attack and Blur, among others, but "The Zone of Interest" will remain as the first film that he directed and that he also wrote alone, even if the screenplay is an adaptation from the eponymous book by Martin Amis, who died on the very day of its world premiere in Cannes.

Palme or not, "The Zone of Interest" will go down in the history of cinema as one of the major films on the Holocaust, reversing representations and points of view, delivering a vision of hell that is implacable in both form and content.

By placing the viewer in the role of entomologist - the film is made up entirely of still shots, an aesthetic and narrative feat - of the family life of Rudolf Höss, the head of the SS camp at Auschwitz in 1944, we see the horror at work, in the shoes of the Nazis who are on the right side of the wall, reminding us of all the compromises, blindness and fanaticism of which human beings are capable.

Sandra Hüller's performance as an accomplished bourgeois mother is, in this sense, shockingly abhorrent. The scene where she tries on the coats of the Jewish women being gassed on the other side of the garden is perhaps the film's climax. Glazer's camera takes the place of the mirror in which she looks at herself and, admiring herself as a lady of the world in mink, she looks directly at the camera; in fact, it is her putrid soul that she is showing the viewer. The ambient soundtrack is the industrial noise of the factory burning the Jews.

The film is punctuated by a contemporary score by Mica Levi (who also wrote the soundtrack for Under the Skin) which, like the film itself, chisels out and echoes the dark desires of humanity through a score that plays on dissonances like so many cracks in the apparent harmony Glazer portrays through the bourgeois, off-the-ground life of the Nazi family.

The film has just been nominated for 5 Oscars, including two nominations in the most prestigious Best Picture and Best Director categories, as well as Sandra Hüller's nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.

We met the director at Cannes, shortly after he received the Grand Prix du Jury. A rare and lucid interview.

Euronews: It's such a coincidence that Martin Amis died on the very day of the first screening at Cannes. Doesn't his death symbolise a new life for his book?

Jonathan Glazer: It's like a second life, yes. It's interesting what you say. That's how I felt myself when I heard the news. We learned that Martin Amis was very ill a few weeks before Cannes, and we've been in contact with his wife ever since. We managed to get Martin Amis a copy of the film so that he could see it. But yes, it's a very strange coincidence.

Euronews: This is your first film in 10 years (Under the Skin). I suppose it took that long to embrace a story like this...

Jonathan Glazer: That's true. That's certainly what happened to me with this project, I had to take the time I needed. You can't take something like this lightly. I think I spent the first two years reading, really, before I even knew what I was going to do or anything else. I just read and imagined. It's such a vast subject, and I also needed to understand why or what it was about the subject that drew me to it, because that's what happened. The subject and the heart of the story comes to you, you don't come to it. Then I tried to understand what I felt I could do. To see what I hadn't seen before, with a different point of view, a different perspective. Because it's so important that this story is told again and again by and for every generation. I hope that one day we won't have to tell it again, but unfortunately that day hasn't come yet. Then, when I read Martin's book, I saw that he had written a book from the point of view of the protagonists. For me, that was the key to my own point of view and my own direction.

Euronews: "The Zone of Interest" is a film that dares to make aesthetic and narrative choices, in its music, photography and editing. Did you want to make a resolutely contemporary film?

Jonathan Glazer: Yes, exactly. I wanted to make a film about now. I had no interest in making a film about this subject that you could safely leave, saying to yourself: "It happened a long time ago. It no longer has anything to do with us". But it doesn't. The story is set in the final years of the war, but the Auschwitz camp, and the house and garden in which the film takes place, were still very new, a few years at most. The camp was five years old and I mean everything was new. These were new buildings that had just been constructed. I wanted to sort of match that, recreate that, and then find a way to film it with a 21st century lens, really. To portray this history as something current, something recent.


Euronews: With this setting and this model family, you basically show the banality of evil as conceptualised by Hannah Arendt. And this evil, in your film, is entirely off-screen after all?

Jonathan Glazer: Exactly. Horror is off-screen. I think people are less affected, or perhaps desensitised to certain images that we've all seen. I certainly didn't want to recreate that imagery. I didn't want to reproduce them in any way. It wasn't the right thing for me to do. And I don't think it's the right thing to do in this context. But I knew that sound was going to bring that dimension. When I started to work further, from an evocative perspective, I realised that sound was essential and that it was going to cement the film, and make us aware throughout of the horror that is being perpetrated. Sound has the power to do that.

Euronews: There's also the central couple in the Nazi family, played by Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel, two German actors. What were your instructions for them to play such despicable characters?

Jonathan Glazer: It was very interesting. Sandra is obviously a fantastic actress and she completely inhabited the role of Hedwig Höss. And physically too, to the point of resembling her. Christian Friedel too, with a more interior, quieter performance, but very sensitive nonetheless. It's very strange, but I chose them based on what I understood about the characters they were portraying, the people they represented. Then my job was to take a back seat and make them forget that we were there with all the technical crew. So the house became theirs, it was big and we were able to let them evolve without us physically being there. We filmed, of course, and saw on the monitor how things were going, but above all I wanted them to sink into their role and their environment, to live like their characters in the end, in the present tense, without having to worry about all the cinema paraphernalia, and to evolve in their house before our very eyes. We didn't use any extra lights or other tricks. Above all, we wanted this film to be as authorless as possible.


Interview by Frédéric Ponsard.

Share this articleComments

You might also like