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Christian Friedel as Rudolf Hoss in 'The Zone of Interest'  smoking a cigarette

'We are looking in a mirror': What's it like playing the Commandant of Auschwitz?

'In every scene, you see a small new detail of this huge, unbelievable crime and how people lived with that': Christian Friedel, star of 'The Zone of Interest', talks to Sky HISTORY about playing Rudolf Höss in his compelling new film.

Christian Friedel plays Rudolf Höss in 'The Zone of Interest'

As its longest-serving commandant, Rudolf Höss was the true mastermind of Auschwitz. Höss was instrumental in expanding Auschwitz from a rudimentary set-up to a sprawling complex. Under Höss' direction, the camp grew to include forced labour camps with areas set aside to commit mass murder. He pioneered the use of Zyklon B in the gas chambers.

But Höss was also a family man, who lived with his wife Hedwig and their five children in a pristine villa next to the camp. New film The Zone of Interest, tells the story of this happy family living in the shadow of history's most notorious death camp.

The film, which is loosely based on a Martin Amis novel of the same name, takes a radical approach to depicting the Holocaust. The horrors of Auschwitz take place off-screen, suggested by ominous noises, muffled shouts, screams, and rifles being discharged. What is going on beyond the garden wall is only ever subtly alluded to by members of the Höss family, but you can feel the horror lurking just out of sight.

Christian Friedel, a German actor best known to UK audiences for his role in Babylon Berlin, plays Höss. Friedel did not know the story of the Höss family before getting involved in the project but when he first read the script, he was fascinated with the idea of 'changing the perspective of the perpetrator'. Discussing director Jonathan Glazer's vision, Friedel explains, 'The key point was to tell a story about bystanders'.

While Höss ran Auschwitz, his wife Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller) presides over the Höss household. In Friedel's words, Hedwig is the 'queen in their house'. In one chilling scene, when Höss is deployed to a different posting, Hedwig begs her husband to let her remain in Auschwitz with her children. She enjoys the perks of being the commandant's wife and is determined never to give them up.

'In every scene, you see a small new detail of this huge, unbelievable crime and how people lived with that', Friedel explains. ‘The movie is about us. We all have this darkness inside of us. This was Jonathan Glazer's vision. We are looking in a mirror and we should see ourselves.'

There are challenges playing historical characters in real situations. However, Friedel did not feel he had to spend his time reading biographies of Rudolf Höss. 'It was different than other movies because Jonathan and his team did an amazing investigation and preparation. We didn't want to make a biopic of these people or idolise them. We had a lot of conversations about the script, the characters, and the story. For me, the most important thing was to create this character.'

The Zone of Interest was filmed very close to Auschwitz itself, with one scene filmed in the basement of the real-life Höss residence. 'It was intense' explains Friedel. 'To feel the reality surround us. Sometimes we had the feeling there are some ghosts with us from the past. We felt the responsibility of what we were doing for the victims. But I thought it was important to visit the camp not only as a human being but as an actor, too.'

Sandra Hüller as Hewig Höss in 'The Zone of Interest'
The 'queen in their house' \ Sandra Hüller plays Hedwig Höss in 'The Zone of Interest'

The film has a detached quality. It was filmed with fixed surveillance-style cameras so it feels as if you are observing the day-to-day lives of a real family. Glazer has described this effect as ‘Big Brother in the Nazi house'. As Friedel sees it, 'It was more important that the cameras observe the characters than follow them'.

The innovative approach to filming had other benefits. 'It was a luxury situation for us actors,’ explains Friedel. ‘We had all the time in the world to find the right tone because the multi-camera system let us have a run-through without interruptions'.

There were no technicians on set and director Jonathan Glazer would be in a trailer watching the action on monitors. 'It was amazing because we were alone on set. Sometimes we had scenes inside the house, or outside the house or we had scenes in different rooms simultaneously. Sometimes you'd hear your colleagues in the other room and you felt it was real. It helped us to get into a mood and sometimes to forget it's a film.'

While Friedel may have sometimes forgotten he was taking part in a film, for the viewer, The Zone of Interest is an unforgettable experience. It is a film that reveals all the horrors of the Holocaust without showing one death. It is a historical film that feels utterly contemporary through its innovative production.