How ‘The Zone of Interest’ re-created a Nazi’s family home


In “The Zone of Interest,” Jonathan Glazer’s new Oscar-nominated film examining compartmentalized evil during the Holocaust, the director makes the choice not to depict the horrific acts occurring inside the death camps. Instead, a majority of the scenes take place immediately outside the walls of Auschwitz in occupied Poland, in and around the family home of the German commandant overseeing the exterminations.

The Höss family leads an idyllic life at the house that patriarch Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), relocated to with their five children during the Third Reich. Glazer juxtaposes the mundanity of their day-to-day with the brutalities of the camp next door. They sit idly on wooden stools built by imprisoned workers. Hedwig takes great pride in her garden, which includes flowering shrubs and creeping plants positioned to one day cover the camp wall.

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The property is as central a character to “The Zone of Interest” as its inhabitants. It still exists in real life, though it belongs to a different family. BAFTA-nominated production designer Chris Oddy, who previously collaborated with Glazer on 2013’s “Under the Skin,” visited the real house several times after signing onto the project. He noted that it “wore its age” and decided to re-create for the film what the Höss home might have looked like in the 1940s by renovating a different property also located outside Auschwitz.

Historical accuracy was at the top of mind for Oddy. He described his approach as “forensic.”

Several details of the renovated house pull directly from his visits to the original. Rudolf Höss added an additional floor, according to Oddy, who re-created the abstract wrought-iron railings that lined the staircase. They were “almost deco” in style, Oddy said. “It’s sitting in modernity for [Höss].”

Other aspects were more interpretive. Oddy had access to a few photographs capturing the interior of the house when it was seized in 1947, but they were “quite grainy and not massively informative.” He worked off the recorded account of someone who had worked as a cleaner for the Höss family. It was akin to “a witness statement” and detailed what each of the rooms contained, per Oddy.

Some of the most haunting visuals from “The Zone of Interest,” whose five Oscar nominations include a nod for best picture, involve the house’s windows. Rudolf and Hedwig’s sons play inside as the panes behind them display thick plumes of smoke rising from Auschwitz. Hedwig’s visiting mother, Linna (Imogen Kogge), stands still in her granddaughters’ bedroom with her mouth agape, staring out the window at the sky turning a terrifying red.

“You can see the camp very clearly,” Oddy said. “It was important to make that physical relationship between the house and the wall [stand] out. More windows were added to double that point.”

Oddy was just as meticulous in re-creating Hedwig’s garden, which adopts a utilitarian design with its rigid pathways and carefully planted greenery. He observed that the camp wall never appeared in family photos captured in the garden. Hedwig mentions it casually while giving her mother a tour. And yet Linna, a former maid who delights in her daughter’s upward mobility, still looks at the wall and wonders whether the Jewish woman whose house she used to clean is on the other side.

No matter how blissful a life the Höss family hopes to project, the property reveals the horrors of their complicity and disregard. In the middle of the garden sits a small pool that Oddy based on his visits to the real house and an aerial photograph of the yard. An Auschwitz watchtower is visible from the pool’s waterslide, peeking above the wall. Oddy stared at this scene, disturbed, and realized once he zoomed in on the photograph that the family filled their pool with water using a shower head, just like the fixtures the Nazis used to trick prisoners into believing the gas chambers were shower facilities.

“It just emphasizes, again, the fact that not only can they have fun in this pool,” Oddy said, “but they can feed it with a shower head — the very thing that they’re using in the camp.”


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