How do you embody pure evil? While the discussion swirls regarding precisely how much Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is meant to humanize the Nazis, by the film’s final moments, there’s no mistaking the director’s point in showing the physical distress on one’s body enacting daily atrocities. Christian Friedel, who plays commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp Rudolph Höss, was up for the difficult task of portraying this seething wickedness while attempting to keep control of his relationship with his wife (Sandra Hüller) and family connection intact.

With the Cannes winner expanding in theaters, I spoke with Friedel about why Glazer didn’t want him to read the Martin Amis novel in preparation, looking to The Act of Killing as inspiration, the physicality of his performance, and what he’s gleaned from multiple viewings of the film.

The Film Stage: I know you worked with Sandra Hüller before on Amour Fou, a film I really love. What was it like reuniting a decade later?

Christian Friedel: I was really happy about the fact that we had a little comeback and Amour Fou, it was our first movie together. We both felt there’s a connection, an energy, and a trust. And sometimes it felt we were very close friends our whole life, but we met for the first time on Amour Fou and then for this movie, after meeting her again, it was really great because we felt this trust, this energy again. That helps us to create this couple and to work together. And now we are becoming friends, and that was really, really great. I’m really grateful about that.

Before I saw the movie, I read the Martin Amis novel, some parts of which could be said to have jet-black humor, a tone I don’t think Glazer adopts here. I was curious: did he want you to read the novel, or was he just using the concept and going with his vision?

I was a good actor and came to the casting process with the book of Martin Amis. And then [Glazer] said to me, “Stop reading the novel.” He said this novel was a door-opener for his vision, and it was an inspiration for his vision, and it’s really important. But he said, “Our movie will be different and it’s more important to read the script, to talk about the script, and to find our own unique way to create this story in our imaginations of Rudolf Höss and Hedwig Höss and the family.” Because there are some similarities in the novel––it’s based on the Commandant’s family––but it’s much more important to create our own unique version. And he said to me, “Read it after the shooting process.”

Photo by Richard Jopson at the 61st New York Film Festival.

Regarding the script: the film itself is such a visual experience. Was it a unique process reading the script vs. seeing the final film?

We had a lot of material and a lot of scenes that are not in the final cut, and for me as an actor, sometimes, it’s hard because I had some really intense scenes. But in these scenes we realize the perpetrator and it was important that we don’t see him as a perpetrator. We have to see Rudolf Höss as a father, as a human being, as a boring person, interesting in nature. And I was really surprised when I saw the movie for the first time, because we all know, from the very beginning, what’s going on in the post-production. There will be a second movie, a movie you can hear. We know that’s happening. But to to see it, to watch this and to feel this––that was a really unique experience. And I was with Sandra and her dog in a little cinema in Leipzig and we saw the movie for the first time. It’s an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. Because you had the feeling and sometimes you remember the shooting process, but then you see, “Okay, this is his decision.” I was really fascinated by his decision and that his vision works, that it was really great. 

Without spoiling it, there is a part of this film where Glazer is saying this isn’t just a period piece. This is very attached to the modern day. What was your reaction to the leap he makes, and have you talked with him about that part of the film?

It was, from the beginning, really important that it’s not a historical movie. It’s a movie about a historical crime, yes, but it’s a modern movie about us. And I think––for me personally––this is the most important thing: we see human beings and we realize that human beings doing terrible things to other human being and this repeats in our modern times. We see now, we are living in very difficult political times and fascism is growing, antisemitism is growing, and I think it was important to [Glazer] to create a very modern movie. We talked about that, and we talked about how we can create this or how we can act in this way. And then the decision to shoot this movie like Big Brother in a Nazi house: this is a really modern decision. To use a modern house, to see the walls are new, the garden is new, it felt so modern, and to use natural light and to observe really digitally this family. Yeah, we knew that and we talked about that and we agreed that’s the right decision. It’s great to change the perspective and to create a modern movie about our times and that history repeats itself all the time.

There’s a great physicality to your performance, especially in the final moments on the staircase. It’s almost like you can’t put into words the emotions and feelings your character is going through––if you had a monologue, it wouldn’t be the same thing. How did you prepare for that?

I was really afraid of this scene because Jonathan is searching for the truth, and I would describe the whole shoot as a search. I think he likes method acting in a way, because he was searching for it documentary-style sometimes. I know that it was written in the script, “Okay, this is the scene,” and I talked a lot with him. And then we talked about what’s going on in this scene, what’s going on with his body. I think it’s a fight: body against his soul. Because the body tells the truth and our mind, we can betray ourselves. We are masters of self-deception. I was really afraid and I had my doctor at the set because the last time I was puking was 25 years ago, and I don’t want to do it again.

For Jonathan Glazer, I would do everything, but then we decided we had an inspiration. There is a documentary, The Act of Killing, and there is a perpetrator. He described his crime and then the body reacts. And this was the inspiration for us to create this special evil of body and soul. When the doctor had the salty liquid to do the real throwing-up, I can do it one time. But Jonathan wants to do it very precise: “Here, you stop at this staircase, there’s the first puke. Then there’s the second puke,” and then 30 times or something. And I think this inspiration of The Act of Killing was much better because it’s a physical thing. It was hard to shoot this for almost three or four hours and 30 variations, but I was happy that I’m not really puking. For me, it was one of the most important scenes of the movie. And I would say the scenes documenting the museum, they were written in the script too.

I read that you saw the film four or five times at this point. On those future viewings, what layers reveal themselves, whether it’s through Glazer’s direction or even your performance or other performances? Are you catching new things?

When I saw the movie for the first time I was really surprised about his decisions. I was really happy that his vision works, but as an actor, there are a lot of actors who say, “I never watch my movies,” and maybe that’s a good decision sometimes. [Laughs] For me, it’s very interesting because I’m really interested to watch the movie not knowing that I am in the movie, but to watch the movie or to feel how it is for me as an audience. So it’s really important to me to watch the movie with an audience together and sometimes it’s hard to realize, “Okay, there are some people who don’t like the movie and there are some people who feel it is difficult to dive into this journey, but there are people that really open to dive into it.” It’s great and you realize the details of the sound design and the incredible, great music of Mica Levi. I saw the movie in three different versions and four times and I think every time I saw different things. This is great. I watched my first movie, The White Ribbon, nine times.


But then that was enough. But it was great because the ninth time I watched the movie, I watched it as an audience and not as an actor. And that was great.

The Zone of Interest opens in limited release on Friday, December 15.

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