Jonathan Glazer discusses his film “The Zone of Interest,” which focuses on the Holocaust, stating that it is not just a reflection of the past but also relevant to the present.


Jonathan Glazer was raised in Hadley Wood, near Barnet in the northern outskirts of London. His family was part of a lively Jewish community. Glazer recalls a variety of fascinating individuals who would frequently visit his home during his childhood. Many of these visitors were East End Jews who had relocated to the suburbs for a better standard of living. They were not necessarily highly intellectual, but they possessed remarkable talents in entertainment, such as vaudeville musicians and writers. As a young child, Glazer greatly admired and absorbed the vibrant culture of his community.

According to Glazer, the Holocaust was a topic that was never openly discussed in his household, but it was always on his mind. When he informed his late father about his plans to make a film about Rudolf Höss, the Nazi leader of Auschwitz, his father’s reaction was a mix of anger and disappointment. He questioned why Glazer would want to bring up such an awful event and urged him to let it stay buried. However, Glazer explained to his father that he could not ignore the past and felt a responsibility to shed light on it.

It took Glazer almost 10 years to make The Zone of Interest (the characteristically neutral term used by the Nazis to describe the immediate area around the concentration camp), which will be released in UK cinemas in early February and which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes film festival. During that time, there must have been moments when his father’s words echoed in his head, when the subject seemed so daunting that giving up and letting it rot may have seemed like the best option.

During our conversation at a London hotel over coffee, he expresses, “My connection with the project was peculiar from the start. I felt compelled to pursue it, yet I also had a constant urge to step away. Part of me even hoped for a roadblock so I could give up and say, ‘I gave it my best shot, but I can’t do it.’ I was almost willing it to happen.”

A Höss family garden party in The Zone of Interest.

The final outcome is a bold movie, with unconventional techniques and a detached perspective. Filmed mostly with hidden cameras, it focuses on the daily life of the Höss family (Rudolf, his wife Hedwig, and their five children), who lived near a concentration camp. The horrors within are hinted at through glimpses of smoking chimneys and a constant background of industrial noise and human cries. It is a disconcerting film, exploring extreme cognitive dissonance. Even after I watched it, it stayed with me for weeks, prompting me to attend another screening in an attempt to understand its unsettling combination of clinical observation and sudden experimental moments – at one point, the screen turns blood red. On both occasions, it fulfilled Glazer’s intention to create a narrative that engages the viewer and encourages them to ask questions.

The filming took place at Auschwitz, with approval from the museum’s trustees. Glazer’s crew used an empty house near the camp’s perimeter to recreate, with great care, the villa where the Höss family resided for almost four years. In contrast to other works about the Holocaust, this film centers on the individuals responsible rather than the victims. The camera remained within the boundaries of the commandant’s garden, never venturing into the camp itself.

Instead, we see how the couple’s daily life conforms to a sense of normalcy amidst the horrors of Auschwitz. While one oversees the systematic extermination of masses, the other tends to domestic tasks and entertains guests. In the evenings, they participate in family activities and reflect on their past and future. Glazer explains that recognizing the couple’s humanity was a crucial aspect of creating this film, as it allows the audience to see themselves in the characters. The film aims to shed light on our current society and how we may share similarities with the perpetrators rather than the victims.

He explains that it is not simply about analyzing the ideology of the Nazis, but rather delving into a deeper aspect of human nature. “One must have some understanding of the ideology in order to write about it, but my goal was to create a film that explores the underlying root of it all – the primal instinct for violence that exists within us all.”


Since his debut film, the stylish and daring British crime thriller Sexy Beast, was released in 2000, Glazer has established himself as the most ambitious and dedicated British director of his generation. He credits Stanley Kubrick as an influence and feels more connected to Russian and Italian cinema than to British. With a background in theatre design, he entered the film industry by directing successful advertising campaigns in the 1990s, including the iconic Guinness surfer ad featuring white horses emerging from waves, and visually stunning music videos for popular bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack.

In the past 23 years, the director has only created three films, including his latest one. Each film has become more ambitious in terms of its subject matter, more complex in its structure, and more drawn-out in its journey from conception to completion. His second movie, Birth (2004), which featured Nicole Kidman as a grieving wife who becomes captivated by a young boy claiming to be her deceased husband reincarnated, took four years to produce. It then took another nine years for his next film, Under the Skin (2013), a sci-fi noir tale based on a novel by Michel Faber, to be released. In this film, Scarlett Johansson portrays a beautiful alien who roams Scotland, targeting vulnerable men whom she lures in and then submerges into a mysterious world.

Nicole Kidman sitting in a darkened cinema

In this production, Glazer chose to cast non-professional actors for the supporting roles and utilized hidden cameras to capture various scenes in which Johansson’s character approaches young men on the street. The unsettling atmosphere was amplified by the disorienting sound design by Johnnie Burn and the persistently ominous score by experimental musician Mica Levi, both of whom have collaborated closely with Glazer on The Zone of Interest. When asked about the level of dedication required to work on a Jonathan Glazer project, Burn states, “Under the Skin nearly drained me. I was extremely exhausted from long 10-hour shifts and lack of rest during filming. Once you start working with Jonathan, you become consumed by the film in the same way that he is.”


Glazer, a resident of Camden in north London, is described as friendly yet focused. When asked if he shares Kubrick’s extreme dedication to filmmaking, he replies, “Yes, I do.” The idea for The Zone of Interest was sparked when he read Martin Amis’s book of the same name shortly after its release in 2014. After obtaining the rights with producer Jim Wilson, they spent several years carefully preparing for production. “Our research led us beyond the book and into Amis’s primary sources,” he explains. “As we uncovered more information about Rudolf and Hedwig Höss in the Auschwitz archives, I realized that they were common people striving for social mobility. They desired to become part of the middle class, much like many of us today. This is what made them so grotesque and striking – their familiarity.”

The roles of the couple in the film were portrayed by German actors Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller. They represent the belief of Jewish writer Primo Levi that it is not just monsters who are capable of committing atrocities, but also ordinary people. As a Holocaust survivor, Levi wrote, “Monsters do exist, but they are not numerous enough to be a real threat. The true danger lies in the average men, the officials who are willing to believe and act without questioning.”

The couple’s ordinariness is conveyed in a series of scenes that were sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised and filmed on small, static cameras concealed throughout the house and garden. The actors were not aware of exactly where the cameras were positioned. Glazer and his crew remained off-set throughout, watching the results on a bank of screens in a separate building. The result is a cinema of ultra-naturalistic candid surveillance that Glazer jokingly describes as “like Big Brother in the Nazi house”.

According to him, his goal was to create a film that seemed to have no specific author. As the director and creator of the film, I inquire about the possibility of maintaining an objective perspective. He admits that it is not possible to completely detach oneself, but the aspiration is still present. He explains that he chose not to be on set in order to observe the characters from an anthropological perspective. He was not concerned with their personal dramas, but simply wanted to observe their behavior and actions in an unobstructed manner, in order to truly understand who they were.

According to Glazer, the two actors faced a significant decision in taking on the lead roles due to the sensitive topic and the filming location of Auschwitz. They were tasked with portraying characters who could have been their own grandparents. Friedel, known for his role as a schoolteacher in The White Ribbon, a film delving into the origins of Nazi ideology, plays the role of Rudolf Höss as a mysterious figure who often falls into contemplative silences and distant gazes, leaving the audience wondering about his thoughts.

Sandra Hüller as Hedwig Höss, in the family’s garden beside Auschwitz

Hüller has been highly praised for her performance as Hedwig in the intricate legal drama Anatomy of a Fall, directed by Justine Triet. It was jarring to see her at a recent event at a New York film festival, where she looked elegant in a stylish geometric suit, after completely embodying the character of Hedwig. At the event, she openly discussed her initial disgust upon learning about the film’s subject matter. “I must admit, it made me feel queasy. It was a surprise to me. I never intended to be a part of this type of story or to portray someone like Hedwig Höss.”

It took Hüller, who has a background in left-wing German theater, a full year to commit to the film. However, she is the most captivating presence in it: a brutally self-absorbed individual who lacks any sense of conscience or empathy. She proudly poses in front of her bedroom mirror, wearing a fur coat and lipstick stolen from a Jewish prisoner, and boasts to her mother: “Rudi calls me the Queen of Auschwitz.” When she learns that Rudi is being transferred to a death factory elsewhere, she becomes frantic with anger at the thought of leaving, yelling: “You cannot do this to me! We are living as we have always dreamed!”

Hedwig is always occupied, whether giving orders to her followers or worrying about her husband’s standing in the constantly shifting loyalties of the Reich’s inner circle. When creating the character, Glazer was influenced by philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of the Nazis as lacking thought. He explains, “There was a belief that nothing should halt and no one should pause. Everyone must be constantly engaged in activity, because if you stop, you think. And if you think, you reflect.” With Hedwig, there is no time for reflection or consideration for anyone or anything else. She is always busy and driven in order to avoid thinking.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (2013).

The author hints at the terrifying reality beyond the main character’s garden by using subtle visual cues. These include a Polish laborer washing Rudolf Höss’s boots, which are stained with red water, and a gardener spreading ashes from a concentration camp onto the flower beds. The daughter sleepwalks, while the eldest son bullies his younger brother by pretending to use gas in the greenhouse. Even the family dog is constantly on edge, running through the garden and sniffing at the ground under the wall.

During his initial trip to Auschwitz, Glazer was surprised to find that the Hösses’ house was still occupied by a Polish family who had resided there since the war’s end. He describes the chilling feeling he experienced as he observed the remnants of the garden and its close proximity to the camp and wall. He then entered the camp and viewed the wall from the prisoners’ perspective, trying to imagine the sounds they would have heard. Glazer reflects on how the Höss children’s laughter and play in the pool would have been a stark contrast to the horrors endured by the prisoners. This realization inspired the film’s theme of the coexistence of happiness and horror, where one person’s paradise can be another’s hell.

The film portrays a sense of absence, and Burn’s use of sound effectively conveys the suffering of the victims. The constant noise of machinery, the harsh commands of SS guards, and the cries and screams of prisoners being led to their deaths in the gas chambers all contribute to the haunting atmosphere. According to Glazer, there are essentially two films within this one. The visuals are one aspect, but the sounds are equally important, if not more so. The audience is already familiar with the imagery of the Holocaust through real footage, so there was no need to recreate it. However, by hearing it, Glazer believed that the viewers could imagine and visualize it in their minds.

Burn dedicated a year to conduct extensive research and collect a large sound archive. This archive aimed to document all the sounds that could have been heard at the camp, which was not only a site of human suffering but also heavy industry. The task was particularly challenging, and Burn recalls expressing to his wife after a few weeks that it was taking a toll on him. Despite not directly portraying the horror, he considers it the most violent project he has ever worked on.

The beginning of The Zone of Interest is disorienting, with two minutes of darkness followed by Levi’s electronic overture filling the cinema. The music then slowly recedes to the screen, where the sound of singing birds can be heard as the Höss family is shown having a picnic by a Polish lake in bright sunlight. According to Levi, the purpose of the music and darkness is to prepare the audience for what is to come, immersing them into another reality. As the music gradually lowers in pitch, it guides the viewer deeper into the story. Throughout the film, the music leads the audience to a place beyond what they are seeing, a realm that is difficult to comprehend logically.

Jonathan Glazer with Ray Winstone on the set of Sexy Beast.

The release of the movie was anticipated with a sense of horror. I attended the New York screening just days after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th, which resulted in the death of 1,200 people and the taking of 240 hostages. As the film began, there was an uncertain feeling in the air and a noticeable nervousness from the stage during the Q&A session hosted by the film festival curator. I spoke with Glazer a week later, while the Israeli assault on Gaza was still ongoing and had claimed 15,000 lives. This makes it a particularly crucial time to release the film. Glazer agrees, stating that the film remains timely until we can break out of the cycle of violence that humans perpetuate. Unfortunately, it does not seem like this will happen in our lifetime. He also acknowledges the current trend of violence, and how this adds complexity to the film.

I inquire with Glazer about his readiness to receive potential criticism regarding the ethical implications of representing the Holocaust. He responds, “I am prepared, but I am also curious to hear the arguments. I strongly believe that the subject must be addressed, but the crucial question is not whether you should do it, but how? In my opinion, the story must be continuously told and revisited, using new approaches and perspectives as the survivors age and their firsthand accounts transition from memory to history.”

The Zone of Interest’s brief glimmers of hope take place during the night and were captured using a thermal imaging camera, similar to the one used by photographer Richard Mosse for his refugee film, Incoming. In one scene, a young woman, her image appearing ghostly through the camera, quietly navigates through a construction site under a railway that leads to the camp. She leaves apples in the ground for the hungry prisoners on work duty to discover the next day. During this act, she uncovers a tin buried in the soil containing sheet music.

The situation occurred when Glazer encountered an elderly woman named Alexandria, who had been a member of the Polish resistance at the age of 12. She shared her story of riding her bike to the camp to leave apples and finding a piece of written music that was later discovered to be composed by a prisoner at Auschwitz, Thomas Wolf, who survived the war. Glazer explains that the house used for filming was where Alexandria lived, and the bike and dress featured in the scene belonged to her. Unfortunately, she passed away a few weeks after their conversation.

The Höss family picnic scene in The Zone of Interest.

After a long pause, he reflects, “The act of resistance, however small, of leaving food behind is vital because it represents the one glimmer of hope. At that point, I was convinced that I couldn’t continue making the film. I kept calling my producer, Jim, and telling him, ‘I’m quitting. I can’t do this. It’s too bleak.’ It seemed impossible to only show the darkness, so I searched for a ray of light and found it in her. She is the positive force.”

I inquire of Glazer what motivated him to continue with the project every time he wanted to quit and abandon it. “I am not entirely sure. Perhaps it is my heritage. The intergenerational trauma. Fear. Anger. All of those things. Many Jewish families have a connection to the event because of its enormity. When I searched through the archives of Auschwitz and came across my family’s names, I realized there were many of them. So, I believe it is just a part of who you are.”

He stops once more. “I created this movie to emphasize the fact that we are still closely connected to this tragic event that we tend to view as something from the past. To me, it is never truly in the past, and currently, I am aware – and afraid – that these types of events are resurfacing with the rise of right-wing populism around the world. The path that many individuals took is only a few steps away. It is always within reach.”

  • The book, The Zone of Interest, will be available for purchase in the United States on December 15th and in the United Kingdom on February 2nd, 2024.


You May Also Like

More From Author