From the moment you begin the experience of watching Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, you are sucked into a deeply emotional, visceral journey as he takes you inside the lives of an Auschwitz commandant and his family as they strive to build their dream life next to the concentration camp. While we never go inside the walls of the camp, we hear going on as we are watching the Höss family go through their day to day routines. Front and center for this film is a commanding performance by German actor Christian Friedel, who plays Rudolf Höss, the real life commandant who was the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz and was a key part in carrying out the Nazi’s plans during the war.
Friedel, most notably known for his work in the films The White Ribbon and 13 Minutes, as well as the Netflix television thriller Babylon Berlin, has been working as an actor for the last fifteen years on both the screen and stage in Germany. But with The Zone of Interest, he has his biggest role to date, and gives a haunting, all encompassing performance as Rudolf. In our review out of Cannes from earlier this year, our own Savina Petkova elegantly described Friedel’s work in the film as “arresting,” making you as an audience pay close attention to every decision he makes as he is forming the shape of this monstrous historical figure. In my conversation with Friedel at the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival, we spoke about the audition process and prep work with director Jonathan Glazer, the freedom to make his version of Höss, working his co-star Sandra Hüller, carrying the emotional weight of this film with him, and what he would like to do in future projects. With any luck, we will see Friedel in more work in the future from auteurs because what he showcased in The Zone of Interest was a magnificent, layered performance in one of the best films of the year.
Ryan McQuade: What was the audition process like for you to land the role of Rudolf in The Zone of Interest?
Christian Friedel: I had to do a self-tape to describe myself and to say why I did become an actor, without knowing the potential role, without knowing the script, only knowing it’s for a new project of Jonathan Glaser. I had decided to do it in English or German, and then decided to do it in German because it’s my native language and it feels natural. And after that, I had an invitation to meet Jonathan and his longtime producer and friend, Jim Wilson in a pub in London. And then he shared with me his vision, he shared with me his investigation, his preparation, rare photographs of the Höss family, the whole story.
I was really surprised because I didn’t know the story of the Höss family, that they lived so close to the camp. And yeah, it sounds horrible in a way, but really interesting for me as an actor, and I want to be part of this. And then I had a traditional casting with my lovely colleague, Sandra, together in Berlin with the late casting director, Simone Bär. She died early this year, unfortunately. She was, I think, the best casting director I’ve met so far. For my first film, she did the casting for The White Ribbon too. We had a really, really interesting casting with Sandra and a lot of discussions about this project. And then Jonathan asked us to be a part of this movie and I said, immediately, yes.
RM: You say yes to the project and get the script. What were your first initial instincts or reactions when you read it?
CF: It was a phenomenal script. Jonathan was, from the very beginning, very transparent to us, and shared his vision that there will be a second movie in it, a movie you only can hear. A sound design, visual effects, and so on. And then I read the script, with his vision in my mind, and then it was great. It was well-written, the situations were great, and I can’t imagine how it could be the final film. But then we had a lot of conversations about the script, about the character. Because he said it’s not a biopic, and you and Sandra must portray this couple honestly, and we have to find a way to connect with them. Because we will portray them and we had a lot of freedom to give these evil people a human face. It was, I think for me, the most important thing for preparation, these conversations.
RM: The film feels extremely detailed. For yourself, what was your research process like? How were you able to use that to create ways in to make this monstrous character semi-playable, but then also a little bit relatable and complex, other than just trying to play him as pure evil as we’ve seen in roles like this before?
CF: Absolutely. That was the challenge. For me, I had some research materials. I read some biographies, his biography I started to read, and then I decided to stop it. Because in this special process, it needed to be spontaneous in a way because it’s better not to know so much about the character because then you have the freedom to figure it out. Because every day, we had only one or two scenes per day in the shoot, and we had the freedom because of the multi-camera system, we had the freedom to figure it out. We had all the time in the world, we had the chance, the opportunity to do variations of all these scenes.
It was important to be fearless in a way and spontaneous in a way, and not to have so many things on your mind. What I had in my mind, the subtext, were some dark pictures, and the historical context. Every time the responsibility towards the victims was intense to work because we were close to the camp. Our set was very close to the camp, but the process of creating this character was more a spontaneous way to create. My preparation was more technical in a way. I had to lose weight and then gain weight for the winter, then I had to learn horseback riding, and I had a personal trainer at my side for the body language. So that was more important to start with the outside things and then to dive into the darkness inside.
RM: Prepping with Jonathan and having conversations about shooting at the camps is one thing. It’s another thing when you are actually filming there, so close to where these events in the film happened. It must have added a different layer of emotionality for yourself, and for everyone working on the film, correct?
CF: For me, as a human being, so in a way, and then as an actor too, when I visited the camp for the first time, I was there as Christian, as myself, and then as the actor who portrayed these perpetrators, and I think these free months in the summer in Auschwitz, and this is the name, the Polish name of this town, it was all the time this intense thing between my personal feelings and portraying this perpetrator, or to know that I will portray this perpetrator.
I was really surprised. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget where you are, and then you realize, “Oh my God,” maybe it’s a thing to survive or I don’t know, but I was really surprised how easy it is sometimes. But when we were at the set, whenever we had the break, you see the camp. One day, we were in the original house, and I was standing in the children’s room, looking through the window, and I saw a gas chamber, and it’s horrible to realize that the people lived there, and they had in their mind that is “our paradise, this is our home.” And it’s unbelievable. And it was really scary and chilling in a way to have this scene in the chamber when Rudolf washed himself. But I’m really grateful that we were shooting there, and we realized it was really important. So I think sometimes I had a feeling there were ghosts surrounding us and you feel, yeah, I think it was right to shoot there.
RM: From an emotional standpoint, that’s one thing. Then also go back to the technical, the 10 cameras, the set-up, the way that the movie’s cut, you can feel that going from room to room, essentially following your character’s perspective as you are shutting down at night or as people are preparing in the room. It’s an insight into his routine.
CF: I think this scene is one of the most important scenes of the film.
RM: I’m assuming that this is all blocked out with you and Jonathan and the crew. But from my understanding, he’s not there with you on set. This is all down in prep, and then you go and you do it. So how was that process of working with him throughout the film, of hands-off on set but extremely detailed and hands-on off set?
CF: Absolutely, yeah. And it was really interesting because we blocked only one day before we shot. It was important for the camera positions in the house, but we never rehearsed the scenes. Because the first intuition could be the right intuition, and we figured it out. And we talked a lot about the scenes, so we never rehearsed it. On the day of shooting, the set was prepared, and it was a luxury situation because there were no technical interruptions or anything. Jonathan mostly said nothing in the beginning, and he was next to the set in the trailer with 10 monitors and in one ear, he heard the original sound, and in the other ear, the translation, and I think it’s impressive. In the basement, there were the technic pullers for the camera.
We never saw any technicians on the set. We were alone, the actors, and all the extras and so on. That was really great. And after one take, it was only one take, it was not necessary to do another because of continuity. Then Jonathan would come to us and we talked about the scene. And when we started again and we had all the time to figure it out, because he had a phenomenal script, and we had a lot of conversations, but he was thinking, “Maybe there is something, I don’t know, let’s try figure it out together.” This was an invitation to explore, and I think it was really, really amazing. That was the process.
RM: We hear sounds throughout the film, the story going on inside the camp. And we hear your character in some of those sounds.
CF: Yeah, screaming and yelling.
RM: Yes. Are you actually acting those scenes out, and then he takes the sound from that? Was that done in post-production? What was the process of creating the story inside the wall that we hear throughout?
CF: All the sound design was created for this movie. I think there’s a lot of field recordings. And even the recordings, when I’m yelling and giving orders, I was in my uniform on a horse, and we recorded it, not filming it, but only sound recording it.
And it was important that not only I’m yelling in a room or outside, but I was emotional, I was on the horse, and even other sounds you hear were recorded sometimes in a stadium or sometimes in different settings. Because they had a library of so many sounds, and then they created together this incredible sound design, together with Mika Levy’s incredible soundtrack. I remember I had to do some recordings, voice recordings, but it was important that I was in the character for that situation. To find the right tone, so you can make yourself believe it, because if you hear it, as Michael Haneke said, “your ear never lies.” If you close your eyes and you only hear or you only listen, then, you can hear the truth or you can feel the truth. I think if you watch the movie with closed eyes, maybe it could be a different experience.
RM: Definitely would be. It definitely would be. I think the other great thing about your performance is the relationship that you have with Sandra in the film, this very complicated marriage inside a very complicated paradise, as it’s described in the film. Can you talk about working with her to create this dynamic that we see on the screen?
CF: Yeah. We met many years ago for another feature film, Amour Fou from Jessica Hausner. From the first time we had both the feeling there’s a connection and we know each other for, like we were born, or something. We were very close and there was a lot of trust, and I think that was really helpful to create this couple or to find an energy for us.
I’m a huge fan of Sandra. She’s incredible. I watched one of her first movies, Requiem, and I was really impressed about her presence, about the deepness, the intense acting. I think she’s a really great colleague, and this trust, this energy we had together, and these honest conversations, that was really important, because we know she’s here, I’m there for each other, and after every shooting day we had some conversations about that. That was really important. I think, to create these scenes, I would describe it as a professional marriage in a way, because there was love maybe in the past, but she managed the house and the garden. She’s the queen of that. And he’s working hard, and it’s important, his work is always in his mind, and to find this energy, It was a challenge and it was great that she was there.
RM: I can’t think of many endings this year that have left me pretty profoundly moved. And also, I feel like it has an open-ended meaning as to the continuation of his story from where we leave off. There’s obviously stuff with his health, There’s the future of his decisions. And we know that this all ends with the war concluding. But while this is based in some truth, Jonathan was able to make you go and interpret the story the way you want. With this in mind, what do you feel is Rudolf’s end point, his future?
CF: I think I was really impressed when I watched the ending, because that was a decision in the editing process to cutting back to him. It was not in the script. And it tells you so many interpretations. For me, my personal interpretation of the ending is it’s going on and on and on. And I think, maybe, he thinks about his guilt. But then again, I don’t think so because he never apologized. He only said “It wasn’t my work. It was important to do this work and I want to do the work. I want to be the best in my work.” In the Nuremberg trial, you can hear that.
But I think his soul fights against his mind. So lies his ignorance. But I think the meaning of all this is, he’s going back to work and going back to Auschwitz again and doing some more crimes, and it tells so much about us. We have to learn from our history, but do we learn from our history? That’s the question. And I think, for me, this is the ending, and the whole film is, for me, to realize there is a darkness in all of us, and we have to be aware of that.
RM: This is such a harsh subject matter. You’ve been talking about this movie for a while now. Are you finding ways to decompress while you’re still absorbing and discussing this character? Are you finding moments to be able to separate from it? Because this movie is a lot to carry on one’s shoulders.
CF: Oh yes, absolutely Because it was the longest time I had a character at my side, because we had a shoot in summer, then in winter, then we had postponed the shooting in winter because of the COVID thing, and then we had three additional shoots one year later, that was really intense, and I’m still processing to shake it out of my mind and my body. But I’m really grateful for this experience of filmmaking. When I’m talking about this movie, it’s great to talk about this work because Jonathan and Sandra too inspires me a lot, the work, to realize, to be a part of Jonathan’s vision, to acting at side of her. It inspires me as an actor, and talking about this, visiting the camp, walking three months and living in this place. And what I’m thinking about myself. And when I watched the movie, I realized that this could be me, sometimes, and I’m shocked and I’m really grateful for this experience. Because every project, sometimes there are projects who changed you a little bit, or you learn more about you or about filmmaking or something.
I think this is a unique project. I’m really grateful for this experience. But it’s what you said, it’s harsh. It’s intense. I watched a movie the last time in Toronto. It was my fourth time, and then I had to do a Q&A after that. I was so emotional. I was fighting with my emotions and with tears, and I felt a little bit embarrassed. I think it’s great, on the other hand, that you have to think about it and there’s something in your… It’s subtle in a way, and it’s my subconscious.
RM: I agree. I had to take a walk after I first saw it. You have to think about it, but I think you’re right, you have to let the film in. And meet it on its level.
RM: Lastly, this is such a big film for you, and you have a great extensive career, and it will be another launching pad for you going forward for other projects.
CF: I have to knock on the wood when you say that. (laughs)
RM: Going forward, what are you looking for in projects from this point on? Is it that authenticity? Is it that honesty? Is it working with premium filmmakers like Jonathan, going forward is what you want to do?
CF: That’s always a gift. I had the chance to work with Haneke and with Jonathan Glazer, and for me as an actor, it’s absolutely a gift. I’m looking for visions. I’m open for every genre. If there is a director who has a vision, for me this is the most important thing. Because this project means a lot to Jonathan. From the very first meeting, every nerve of his body was… his tension was… I felt this is so important to him, and he has to say something to the world and to do this with this special, unique kind of art. This inspires me a lot. I hope there will be more projects. Maybe something like, in an entertaining way, for example, Saltburn. It’s a very different genre. Or something like All of Us Strangers. I really liked that movie. It’s in a different genre, but you have the feeling there’s something they want to tell us, these filmmakers.
And this is great, to be a part of that. I’ve very often played historical characters. I’m really curious and open, and I want to transform myself. But if there is a person who inspires me, then it’s the perfect match. I think Jonathan inspired me from minute one. Now, to present this movie, to have this journey with this movie in my pocket, it’s a gift and I hope there will be more gifts in the future.
RM: Well, thank you so much. This movie is incredible. Your work in it is phenomenal.
CF: Thank you so much. So great to meet you.
The Zone of Interest is currently in select theaters from A24.