Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller bravely take on the terrible challenge of being German actors playing Nazis in Jonathan Glazer‘s unsparing Holocaust film “The Zone of Interest.” It’s a task each turned over quite a lot in their minds before agreeing to play Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss and his sociopathic wife Hedwig, who lived with their children in a hardly oblivious bucolic bubble next to the Auschwitz concentration camp at the start of World War II.

“We talked about, in a very intense way, the subject matter, about the fact that, to play these two characters documentary-style, is this right? Is this good? How can you do that?,” Friedel told IndieWire in a Zoom interview from the New York offices of A24, which releases the film this week in select theaters.

Friedel, who is warm and chipper in conversation but totally devoid of emotion onscreen as Höss, is best known internationally for his starring role in the German thriller series “Babylon Berlin” as a police photographer circa the final years of the Weimar Republic. With a Nazi undercut and SS officer military uniform, Friedel’s “Zone of Interest” portrayal is chillingly recognizable, cutting a cold silhouette against the natural splendor, teeming garden, and quotidian nuclear family day-to-day of the Höss home.

Meanwhile, next door, Jews are being exterminated en masse, the sounds of screams, gunshots, and roiling furnaces fazing no one but the audience. (The film’s sound design just won a European Film Award as the film heads for more major nominations this season.)

“I had to do a self-tape without knowing the script or the potential role, only knowing it’s for a new movie by Jonathan Glazer,” Friedel said of the casting process, with no idea he’d been eyed to play the Auschwitz operator who was hanged in 1947. Friedel was long a fan of Glazer’s 1990s music video work with the likes of Radiohead and Massive Attack, and of course admired the director’s 2013 alien-as-succubus sci-fi horror film “Under the Skin.”

In that self-tape, Friedel said, “I was only describing myself and talking about why I did become an actor. Then I met him in London, and then he shared with me his vision and his thoughts. After a traditional casting process with Sandra, he asked me. It was like a marriage proposal: Do you want to be part of my movie? I said immediately yes.”

Friedel’s first screen role was as a schoolteacher in a pre-World War I German village in Michael Haneke’s black-and-white “The White Ribbon” in 2009. The moral allegory, set in a fictional Protestant town, considered how its children could turn against their elders and grow up to become the practitioners of evils haunting Europe throughout the World Wars.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Christian Friedel (center), 2023. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Zone of Interest”Courtesy Everett Collection

“There’s a connection between ‘The White Ribbon’ and this movie, because the children of ‘The White Ribbon’ could be the future perpetrators in ‘The Zone of Interest,’” Friedel said. “Michael Haneke was a door-opener for me. Jonathan really likes the movie and the work of Haneke. There’s one scene in ‘The White Ribbon’ where we only watch a door and we hear the atrocities behind the door, and I think this is the same [in ‘The Zone of Interest’]. We watch the family, the ordinary life of this family, but we hear and we feel, and sometimes we smell the truth.”

For Friedel, it was important not “to see [Höss] as the perpetrator. We watched him as an ordinary, boring person in his daily life as a father, interested in nature and so on. The work is always in his head, but we don’t see through his eyes. His eyes are cold.” The first of few emotions to ever register in Friedel’s performance is when Höss steps on a jawbone in a creekbed abutting the camp, but it’s only out of concern for his children, whom he rushes back home to wash human ash out of their clothes and hair.

“The Zone of Interest” has drawn comparisons to Michael Haneke for its austere approach to the horrors of history. Glazer’s film, though, contains more explicit poetic flourishes, like Mica Levi’s score, a macabre ride into the abyss, or cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s occasionally infrared camera. Glazer meanwhile adapts a Martin Amis novel of the same name more like a dream — or nightmare — of that book.

That applied to a more openly flowing set, as Friedel described Glazer as a more “searching” filmmaker than Haneke, who is notorious for having his entire picture mapped out in his head, Haneke’s actors as paintbrushes in his box. But “The White Ribbon” was a film he and Glazer discussed and revisited while making “Zone.”

“Sometimes I had the feeling, oh my God, there are two masters at the set, and I’m really grateful to work with both of them and to be a color in their pictures,” Friedel said.

Friedel’s co-star Hüller said she nearly turned down the script once the gravity of who she’d be playing hit her, telling Vanity Fair, “I felt sick like I had to throw up.” Hüller did not allow herself to have any “fun” in between takes while filming in Oświęcim (the city that housed the camp) in the summer of 2021, though Friedel approached the role in a way he described as perhaps more “naïve.”

“She worked with a different body language,” Friedel said. “She creates more from the outside to dive into the inside, and she said one important sentence, and I was really thinking a lot about this: ‘I don’t want to share my tears with this woman because I hate this woman.’ Yes, I hate this man, too, so I think this is a really great sentence. After the shooting, I was thinking about her thoughts, and, my God, Sandra was right at the beginning to create borders, to protect herself. I was not protecting myself. I was sometimes naïve and following Jonathan’s decisions.”

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Christian Friedel (center), 2023. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Zone of Interest”Courtesy Everett Collection

Friedel added, “After the shooting, I was really surprised at the dimension of this huge intense cocktail inside of me.” In between filming, he said he’d watch the Spanish series “Money Heist” to unwind or listen to music at night while they lived in Oświęcim for almost three months. “It was difficult to find a way, ‘How is there fun?’ What’s a normal life? What’s between the takes? I had a lot of fun with the team, with the kids at the set, but like normal human beings. It’s not good if you’re thinking in every take of the dimension of [who you’re playing]. Sometimes it’s important not knowing what’s going on, to be spontaneous, to create a party in a garden, or a birthday party, or a dinner, or just a conversation, or just to lock up the house.”

In Friedel’s words, that “dimension” is that Rudolf Höss “is not only a father, he is a commandant, and he created and organized a huge, incredible crime. That’s a dimension for the audience and not for me as an actor.”

But the line between performer and role eventually did collapse in the most physically draining sequence for Friedel: There’s a scene near the end of “The Zone of Interest” in which Friedel’s otherwise coolly drawn performance unravels into a more physical dimension. It recalls the ending of Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing,” about the Indonesian genocides of the 1960s in which executioner Anwar Congo has a panic attack and violently retches at the memory of all those who died at his hands.

Rudolf Höss, reduced to an administrative cog as he’s shuffled onto the next assignment after Auschwitz, never feels guilt, but for a moment here, stops in his own tracks and dry-heaves uncontrollably, his body rebelling against his actions.

It was a scene that took Friedel many hours and 30 takes. “It’s a battle between his body and his soul. It’s a fight, and the body tells the truth,” Friedel said, nodding to “The Act of Killing” as a reference. “This was an inspiration for me to create this inner fight because he’s not realizing what’s going on. He’s thinking he’s sick in a way, or I don’t know, but here the body may be trying to reject this man out of this body. The body tells the truth, and he’s fighting his mind, against his darkness. Maybe he realized his guilt, maybe he realized the dimension of what he’s doing, but he’s not feeling guilty. He’s going on. History repeats, and we ignore the atrocities. We compartmentalize.”

“The Zone of Interest” opens in select theaters from A24 on Friday, December 16.

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