Safe saying no Holocaust film’s ever looked or moved like The Zone of Interest, whose visual scheme are so odd, so resistant to expectation or desire, that it can take a good long while determining what Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal devised. A natural result for a film with no precedents or references, a success Żal described to me with equal-parts enthusiasm and shock.
I spoke with Żal at this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE, where Zone would earn the FIPRESCI Prize, about how his working practice with Paweł Pawlikowski runs in conflict with commercial enterprises, the practice’s immense difficulties, and why getting Glazer’s film was an everyday challenge.
The Film Stage: What were you working on recently?
Łukasz Żal: I was just doing commercials, but now, honestly, I don’t know. Because Paweł Pawlikowski’s film, I don’t know when we are going to do that, because we lost a lot of money because of the strike. And then also, you know, there is some project, but of course Paweł is priority. Honestly, I don’t know. [Laughs] But I’m not working on anything now––I’m just doing some commercials, and I’ll just do some life now. [Laughs] Just normal life.
That’s the film with Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara? And the strike shut it down.
It was just two-and-a-half weeks before shooting. And then, you know, we lost a lot of money because our production designer built a lot of roads because everything was very-hard-to-access terrain. So he built little roads, gates, bridges. So that’s a huge amount of people working on that. Me, too. And then on a Friday the co-production called and said, “We have to stop immediately.” They lost so much money and now we don’t have this money, basically. It’s a black-and-white film as well, so it’ll be hard to find this money now. It’s terrible, because it’s an amazing story, a beautiful script.
Yeah, it sounded promising.
And then: pff. So much work. So much effort. And I’m just waiting because I didn’t want to take anything else. You’re asking what I’m working on, and honestly I don’t know! [Laughs] Shooting some commercials, taking care of my son, and just having a life.
Plenty people you don’t associate with commercial enterprises will take these corporate jobs to pay bills the art cinema doesn’t, but it’s done in a way that’s kind of secret.
The films you’ve shot are pretty visually distinct, and I wouldn’t expect a credit card commercial to look like Cold War, you know? And I assume it doesn’t.
No, of course. Of course it doesn’t. But no, I think it’s interesting––because you can learn something. I mean, I learn so much in commercials, in terms of technology, equipment, lenses, cameras, cranes––all this kind of new equipment you can use and can try––and it’s also, I think, good. I don’t shoot a lot of films because when I’m taking a film, it needs to really resonate with me. And then I need to feel that I can do that. Maybe I can make something which I don’t really believe and it’s not, for me, important, but in commercials you can do that.
It’s money, but also, you know, I like to be on set. So like now––when I’m waiting for Paweł––it’s just good to earn money. I don’t know. Sometimes to make a film is a struggle––even if it’s a great story––but I don’t want to struggle anymore. I struggle so much, in terms of films. I did films with no money, and I don’t want to do that. It’s not about my money, but I think that it’s just important to have conditions to shoot in a good and proper way.
And I think if this is a problem, then you need to struggle for a film––for $5 million in the States. I think it’s probably losing hair, because of stress. It costs so much just to make this good, and it costs so much stress. There’s no point to do that––at least at my age. I think I’ve struggled enough and now I don’t want to struggle anymore. I mean, I can struggle now but not so much. Art films, it’s sometimes impossible just to do that––there’s no money, no time, no production design, no good locations. Sometimes not a good attitude––a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, people are pissed off––and I think it’s hard to work in this kind of atmosphere. You need to have the time. You need to have a space. Because for me it’s always a process.
I didn’t know how to do Glazer when he came to me. I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do that. I would love to do that. I love this story; I love this script. This is amazing for me. I’ve never seen an approach to this topic like that.” But when he started I don’t think I knew it was going to look like this. It’s a long process, and for me it’s always a process of just getting there, in many ways, with conversations. Talking over the script, going through locations, taking pictures, looking at this, analyzing, and sometimes you don’t know what to do. One Russian director, Alexi German, told me once––he was explaining how we were going to make this scene––and then at the end he was saying, “But honestly, Łukasz, I don’t know. But nobody knows!” [Laughs]
What you’re saying connects to Glazer, who isn’t the most financeable guy. How did he know your work? Had he seen the Pawlikowski films and approached there?
Yeah. I think it was probably a mixture of factors. Ewa Puszczyńska is a producer of this film. I did, with Ewa, Cold War and Ida, so three films which were here in Camerimage; Ewa is very special for me. Then he invited me to shoot a commercial before and didn’t know about this proposal yet.
What was the commercial?
Alexander McQueen, “First Light.” He also shot in a bit of crazy conditions––low tide in London, the Thames. So we were just shooting one-and-a-half hours, one hour a day, setting up everything there to shoot and then go back because the water was coming. So the conditions were quite similar to what we had here. We didn’t have this pressure, but the idea was just to film everything in a very short period of time. You go in there, you have a hyper focus––making decisions very fast––and then you’re shooting, and then you take everything and go back. Two months later, Ewa called me. “Jon would like to send you a script.” Then I had a conversation with Jon. He’s a real filmmaker, a true filmmaker––very dedicated to art, not compromising. I have so much respect for him. The same for Pawel, for Charlie [Kaufman]. Because you have to be so bold to take this responsibility––especially making this kind of film, which is not designed for making money. Of course it’s good if a film earns money, but it’s completely not-important––I mean, it is important but it’s not a priority––and you take this responsibility for the whole thing.
Here, you didn’t know because nobody did this kind of thing before. He came to me and he said, “I’m not interested in what was. We want to do something completely different.” There was no references. Nothing. We just start digging in this. He was working for many years––six years––in archives, reading, looking at pictures. Really, completely innate. Totally. It’s amazing to work with such a person and getting there together: making mistakes, looking for the best way to show, but sometimes something doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s terrible and it’s on the border of catastrophe, but you’re in there together with this. Jon was saying, and I completely agree, “There’s always a solution. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but we just need to find a solution. But the solution is always there. Sometimes you need to take a step back.”
Costume, image, camera, production design: everything was a process. A process where you’re just going, having ideas, discussing, taking and looking at pictures, going, “One more time. One more time.” While we were prepping, cameras were changed because it basically didn’t work, what we designed before. [Laughs] It works, partly, but basically in the two of ten cameras, it didn’t work. It looked mostly not-good.
Why wasn’t it working?
It’s funny. Because when you go to the location and just take pictures, frames, looking for positions. We went through the script, of course, because I’m doing––always––this kind of thing because I don’t know how to do a different way: we’re just playing the scenes ourselves. Jon, first AD, sometimes extra people. We’re just playing those scenes, and he would just set up the cameras––sometimes five, ten, seven––and I was taking pictures of every position. I had those images because they were needed for everybody, because we had quite a big crew. I need to prepare, for every day, with my camera operator, a document where there was every camera set-up: every floor plan, every camera marked, and every frame prepared as a start. There was a house, a garden, a wall recreated as it was in the real Höss house, and behind the wall a container––“mission control”––where we had ten monitors. Now you see what you decide; now you see how it works.
When you see those ten images together you say, “Wow. This is great. This is great. But this doesn’t work. This doesn’t work.” It’s so interesting that this process was, every day, the same. This set was also very special, because for me prep days were much more important than shooting days. We had, like, a half-day of prep and then half-day of shooting, or shooting in the morning and having a prep afternoon. So those prep days basically were those days where I really needed to concentrate totally, because we had this system of communication; I was able to communicate with everybody from my crew directly. A very, very advanced, great system. But it was very terrible. I was doing this myself. After, I don’t know, one attempt I was going back with Jon, and then I was discussing with my camera operator, Stanislaw and the rest of our crew.
It was this kind of thing: “Okay, A goes left a beat. Okay.” And they’re working on these cameras, so everything is moving. “Okay, B doesn’t work totally. You need to go down. Let’s change the lens to a bit longer. C, okay. Keep it like this. F doesn’t work. So then we need to completely move this camera. Let’s try to move it the other side, maybe by the gate.” All the process is moving. “What do you think about F? What do you think about B?” So you are working on ten images at the same time, all the time, and then you start to see: “Okay. This worked. This is beautiful. This is amazing. Oh, this is still bad. This is still bad. This is so-so. This is stupid.” So still four cameras to work on. And finally we were good. That was the process. This process was kind of the same every day. [Laughs]
Camerimage has a Polish films competition, and more than a couple entries this year are about World War II and Nazism; of course the Holocaust is at least tangential to those. As someone who’s Polish, did you think you brought anything specific to what you were taught or shown growing up, as part of a national identity? That history certainly seems to have a stronger presence here than in America.
Yeah, I agree. But, you know, that was the whole idea. My brother, when he watched the film, he called me and said, “This is unusual. This approach––this way of showing the problem––it was done for the first time in this film. This is so obvious, so normal, so proper to just show it like this.” Of course I know a lot of war, Holocaust films and watch them. But not before this film because there were no references. Jon just sent me books about Höss. I watched Shoah one more time and a few things, but basically there was no references. Just a few images he sent me of the sun hitting the table––a true reference of light. But we didn’t use any artificial light, no reflectors, no flags. When he sent me the script I was amazed by that.
Łukasz Żal on the set of Cold War
Personally, I read many Holocaust scripts; I did Ida and Cold War so I was getting a lot of this kind of film. That is why I wanted to make it. It was so striking for me and I was completely amazed: you’re observing the monster, the terrible guy, but then you see he has a life like me, like everyone wants. He’s doing his best. He’s stressed, he’s suffering, he’s sacrificing his comfort for his family. [Laughs] He’s a really good guy but he’s going there and doing this. How this is possible, that there’s this banality of evil––there’s nothing. No philosophy. No big thing. Just business. It’s amazing how this may happen. It’s amazing that there was no judging. Which is very close to me because I think nobody wants to be bad. It’s a kind of Heidegger philosophy: even a Wehrmacht soldier, a guy who’s killing people, probably if he was to choose he wouldn’t choose to be a soldier killing people. Nobody wants to be bad. So for me, it’s kind of amazing that Jon is just touching this and telling about this in this kind of way.
And when I read this I was completely amazed that we were going to be making something completely different: an approach that I need to forget about myself in terms of “author.” There’s no “author” behind this camera. We were just trying to make it. Composing in the center, using the most obvious format: 16:9 lenses, which are not imposing and look those lights. [Points up] Which are nice; I like them. But they’re sharp. We were using stops, like, 8½. So there was a decision not to… because how you can make this, I don’t know, beautiful––and for me this is beautiful, because it’s true––in terms of image, with a nice backlight and soft light? How can you manipulate like this, with this topic? Once I was shooting a documentary about a woman who was dying of cancer. And she was really dying; she died while we were shooting, at the end. I remember we were shooting on this Canon, with no contrast, but after––when we were color-grading––we decided how we can imply a special look for this story. How can you make this attractive? It’s the same here: how you can glamorize, how can you fetishize the soldiers, those beautiful males with beautiful uniforms shooting from low angles like heroes?
The first prep day, on the location, we were supposed to shoot. This scene is not in the film, but it’s a great example when something not-intellectual clicked, but it clicked that I understood: yeah, “not manipulating” means that you don’t make a portrait of a guy because he’s going to be killed. So can you be sorry, be emotional? No, we just showed him standing, looking through the window. We just showed the back of this guy. To not be emotional, to not judge. I think you cannot judge. Why can you judge? I don’t know what I would do if I was in his situation. I don’t think I would do that––I think I’m too sensitive––but I would also probably take care of my family first. I don’t know what I would do because I’ve never been in this situation. I live in now and there’s no war in Poland, but I don’t know. It’s so easy to judge. I’m not saying [Laughs] that they were good; they were awful. They did heinous things. It’s terrible how the whole society can be manipulated, brainwashed to do those things.
Höss was an intelligent guy. He was more stressed in front of Hitler that he didn’t know how to kill those people in an efficient way, so when he found this idea he felt relief. But he’s an extreme example, but I think there’s also a lot of examples of people just chatting. “Oh, found the diamond in the toothpaste.” And then you think: wow, there’s nothing behind that. They’re just killing people like packing a box. There’s nothing there. But those people are just doing their orders, and for me it’s… amazing that this film is exactly about this: how we’re capable and can just be blind, cannot feel that people are suffering. Killing somebody in certain circumstances means nothing. But nothing changed. Nothing changed. That’s the point: it doesn’t matter who we are, what nationality. We are just like this, and it’s amazing that he is telling about this ability in the human mind.
Interesting time for the film to come out.
What you said about the aspect ratio sticks with me. Having seen it in a theater, I actually didn’t realize 16:9 was the frame. If you watch something at home it’s always more noticeable.
They were even a bit shocked here. “Wow, what is this? It’s 16:9. Nobody is using this format. It’s like TV.”
Was there a fear that shooting in either widescreen or Academy ratio would lean into a filmic gesture too hard?
Totally. I think, yes, that was the idea. We wanted to avoid everything that is attractive or filmic. We were shooting at noon, just completely avoiding everything we were taught––what I was taught at school and during my whole career. Looking for “interesting” compositions. Maybe not beautiful, but interesting. For me, the frame is one of the most important things––what you see and what you don’t see––but normally, with Pawel, it was aesthetically driven. Good light, beautiful light. And I love this approach. I mean, it’s amazing to build layers, like in Cold War, and just building a whole world. But here? We were just embracing the ugliness. Someone told me, “You would never paint your house like this because the colors are ugly. You would never use the furniture like this because they are ugly.” The color of the walls was like human skin. Never use this color in a film, because––in the U.S. especially––they need to cut the person’s head from the background.
The approach to everything was new. Because everything was new those days. This is, I think, an amazing approach. Everything was real; as close to reality as possible. We were shooting near to the camp. We were shooting in the Auschwitz area. It’s not beautiful there. It is how it is; it’s green. It’s not Sicily or something. This approach was amazing: embrace this kind of ugliness, but it’s beautiful because it’s true, and then you can start to find yourself in this reality because you’re just looking for these frames. But at first, when you look at this, everything is so ugly. Even exteriors.
You have this nice garden, but you need the wall.
Yeah, you need the wall. But this is fascinating. You can’t believe in that. It’s absurd that it’s happening behind the wall all the time.
The Zone of Interest opens in limited release on Friday, December 15.