Before filming began on “The Zone of Interest,” filmmaker Jonathan Glazer offered a precise piece of direction to his lead actor Christian Friedel. It was an uncanny clue into his character – Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss, the so-called king of Auschwitz – that would guide Friedel’s performance during the entire shoot.
“As you’re playing this role,” he said Glazer told him, “when you speak the truth with your mouth, lie with your eyes. And when you convey the truth with your eyes, lie with your mouth.”
Friedel held onto that advice tenaciously. “That was my challenge,” he said. “So I played Höss very inwardly. We couldn’t look into his mind and know his subtext or what he was thinking. I had to keep all this darkness inside of me. It was a very tough cocktail. And in many ways, I’m still processing it.”
The German actor, 44, who made his film debut as a schoolteacher in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009), smiled, spoke softly and exuded a lightness of spirit during our interview in a hotel lobby in midtown Manhattan. It was as different a presence as imaginable from the stiff, severe Höss in “The Zone of Interest.”
“Jonathan said to me, ‘There’s a tension inside of him.’ I had to think about that,” said Friedel. “Then I remembered when I was young, I had a very heavy backpack and how that made my shoulders feel. When I wore the Nazi uniform for the first time, I felt a similar change in my body.”
Based very loosely on a novel by the late Martin Amis, “The Zone of Interest” is a daring, anti-conventional Holocaust film in which we follow the empty, pointless lives of Höss, his wife (Sandra Hüller) and their kids while they go about their days as the horrors of Auschwitz unfold right over the garden wall. An indistinct soundscape of screaming and gunfire provide the audience’s only clues as to what is happening mere meters away. (Financed in the United Kingdom, the German-language film is the U.K.’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar.)
Friedel and Hüller never have the benefit of a close-up. The entire movie was shot with the cameras positioned at a distance, often hidden in bushes and behind furniture. Glazer also employed hidden cameras in his previous film, 2014’s “Under the Skin.” The effect here, though haunting, does draw a strange comparison to a certain irreverent reality show.
“Jonathan has mentioned that this film is ‘Big Brother in a Nazi house,’ and that was his vision, in a way,” Friedel said. “To observe by looking through the windows and watch ordinary situations of this family. I was very curious to do this because in moviemaking you have so many technical interruptions. But now we had the luxury to be alone in the set and have all the time to create the situations and the characters.”
He added, “Sometimes the filming felt like live theater, but in theater you need to project outward for an audience. Here we were able to play very inwardly. And it was the longest time I’ve ever had a character at my side. Two years, because of Covid postponement, so I actually had a personal trainer at my side so that I could lose weight for the summer scenes and gain weight for the winter scenes. That was a small but important detail.”
Friedel has been friends with Hüller for years; they played cousins in the 2014 historical drama “Amour Fou.” Hüller, in addition to her icy performance in this film, is also getting major attention for her complex starring role in the French mystery “Anatomy of a Fall.”
“Sandra is absolutely incredible in that,” said Friedel. “(‘Anatomy of a Fall’) is much different from our movie because the camera follows her character very closely and there are many possibilities to interpret her performance. I think there will be a lot of awards coming for her.”
He mentioned that when he and Hüller met for the first time, a decade ago, he had a feeling that they had already known each other for a long time.
“People notice that we have a connection together,” he said. “We were on a plane recently, on our way to the Telluride Film Festival. Sandra was sitting about two rows behind me. And the flight attendant came to me and asked, ‘If you want to sit next to your wife, please let me know.’ We were all laughing because people do think that sometimes with us.”
“In ‘Zone of Interest,’ they are a professional couple,” he said. “Perhaps there was love in the past but now they have an arrangement. She’s the queen of the garden and he’s the king in his castle. And to work as a family they just accept other things, like affairs out of the marriage.”
During its run at film festivals, the acclaimed movie has been chilling audiences cold while also provoking intense conversations about what it all means. “It’s a rare historical picture that really comes alive today,” Friedel said. “For the audience, especially. Michael Haneke said, ‘Film is a springboard but the viewer has to jump.’ This is so important. Because audiences watch this movie and realize that it’s actually about us and about the decisions we make.”
On that subject, Friedel addressed the final moments of “The Zone of Interest.” We will not reveal the specifics, but the actor admitted that he was so nervous about filming the scene that he requested his personal doctor and his sister, who is a nurse, to be on the location.
“We shot three or four hours in the night and it was horrible, but it was an experience I’ll never forget. And the ending was in the script, but not in the way that Jonathan decided to edit it. I saw the movie for the first time with Sandra and her dog, who is the dog in the film, in a little cinema in Germany. And when that ending came, we both said ‘Wow’ out loud because it was so challenging.”
Though his performance has been widely praised, Friedel is amused at the idea that his role probably won’t increase his recognizability, given that the camera is kept at such a distance from his detestable character. “My ambition is not to shine as an actor but to create something on a human level,” he said.
“Oftentimes audiences don’t recognize me, but I see that as a compliment. Maybe it’s hard for my career, but it’s all good for me.”
This story first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the International issue here.