Near the beginning of Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, the lead character, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), tries on a fur coat. She is in her bedroom, encircled by mirrors. As she initially pulls on the coat, she goes to stand in front of a full-length mirror, to see how it fits. She glances to her side, towards another mirror, this one attached to her wardrobe, to see herself from a different angle. Happy with the look and fit, she instructs her maid, a local Polish girl, that the coat will need to be cleaned and the lining fixed. Hedwig, having pulled a lipstick out of the coat pocket before handing it off, now goes to sit at her vanity to try it on. The trifold mirror splits her face in three; all of which stare dispassionately back at her. We, the audience, watch her reflection in the mirror as she ponders the lipstick, wipes off the top, and, as with the coat, tries it on. 

Directly behind Hedwig’s vanity is a window, which faces her garden. The noises of Auschwitz concentration camp, which lies just beyond the garden, underscore the entirety of this scene. Interspersed screams and sounds of gunfire seep into the bedroom through an open window. In the bubble of her own reflection, the external horrors fall on deaf ears. 

The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest, loosely based on Martin Amis’ book of the same name, has been referred to as two films in one: the film you see and the film you hear. However, it is the ‘third film’, the carefully constructed interplay between the visual and the aural, as well as the bleeding of the ‘here’ and ‘there’, that makes Glazer’s film one of the most viscerally unsettling representations of the Holocaust and the question of complicity. It is through the film’s form, rather than narrative, that Glazer manages to show us something new and far more pressing.

Where this coat and lipstick come from is never said outright, because it doesn’t need to be. The Jewish woman it once belonged to, has, or will, be murdered, metres from where Hedwig admires her own reflection. The message of this scene, that Hedwig has become wholly desensitised to the horrors that surround her, is re-stated in different ways throughout the film. Glazer steeps his viewer in this message, forcing us to interrogate our own reaction to the film. Do we, like Hedwig, become attuned to the film’s soundtrack of atrocity inside the cinema? More significantly, have we, in our own metaphorical bubbles, become numb to the sound of atrocity outside the cinema?   

Earlier this year, Glazer and his producing partners accepted the Oscar for best international feature. While each year at least one winner uses their platform to speak to a political cause, the attention Glazer’s speech received, and maintained, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. His words about the war in Israel and Gaza have been, on one end of the political spectrum, forcefully condemned, and on the other end, wholly supported. In accepting an award for a film about the dangers of silence, he could not have stayed quiet about the atrocities that have, and are continuing to happen, on both sides of the ‘wall’. 

The forceful reaction to Glazer’s speech re-emphasizes that The Zone of Interest sits firmly in the present tense. It is not about ‘then’ and ‘there’, but about ‘here’ and ‘now’. When Hedwig looks in the mirror, she sees what she wants, with a blatant disregard for the suffering that surrounds her. In this film, Glazer asks us to choose a different path; he holds a mirror up to his audience and asks us to reflect. 

What we see vs. What we hear

The film we see is that of the banal domestic life of the well-to-do Höss family. It follows Hedwig, her husband Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and their five children. The narrative arc of the film is simple: a husband’s job forces him to relocate to a new city, and his wife, who loves their current home and the lifestyle it affords herself and the children, chooses not to follow. In the end, Rudolf is transferred back to his previous post, and returns home.

Only in the periphery, out windows of their idyllic home and in the corner of the frame, do we see Auschwitz, the concentration camp that killed more than 1.1 million people, primarily Jews. Rudolf Höss was the real-life longest serving commander of Auschwitz and in 1943 his family house was adjacent to the camp he ran, separated only by a wall.

We watch the Höss family go about their day to day on this side of the wall: Rudolf goes to work, Hedwig tends to her garden, the kids play in the pool, in-laws come to visit, and the family dog barks. Meanwhile, the film we hear is that of the horrors occurring on the other side of the wall: the continuous mechanised roar of the concentration camp, at times interspersed with moments of identifiable horror – screams, gunfire, approaching trains. 

Both visually and aurally, Director Jonathan Glazer went to great lengths to stay true to history. The film was shot 50 metres from Auschwitz, in a house that, through extensive research by the production team, mirrored the layout of the real Höss family home. This is how they lived. Their home and lifestyle were exemplary of the Third Reich’s principle of Lebensraum, “living space,” an expansionist and racial ideology that stipulated non-Aryan populations of Central and Eastern Europe had to be expelled in the name of the ‘superior’ race’s “living space.” The Höss’, having expanded east to Poland, into this beautiful, pastoral home, were living the dream.  

Glazer did not want to make a typical cinematic film and therefore did not shoot it like one. He, and his director of photography, Polish Oscar nominee Łukasz Żal, approached the filmmaking in an unorthodox fashion and the result is a hybrid between narrative cinema and conceptual art. What sets The Zone of Interest apart from Glazer’s previous films, all of which showcase his bold formalism, is that the power of this film comes even more distinctly from the interplay between form and story, with the former taking precedence over the latter.

Visually, Glazer said he wanted “to beat the image into a flat surface,”1 to purge it of any of the sensationalism that viewers are accustomed to. “The conventions of cinema…serve to empower what you’re watching on-screen. I didn’t want to do that.” So instead, he approaches the visuals almost clinically. Glazer and Żal rigged the house with multiple locked-off cameras that would roll in various rooms simultaneously. Crew stayed out of sight, watching monitors from the basement. In the scenes within the house, Glazer says, “there was no evidence that the actors were on set.” They used only natural light throughout the film and shot the night scenes with an infrared camera. He describes the setup as, “Big Brother in the Nazi house.” 

From the first image that appears on-screen, the Höss family picnicking on the riverbank, he establishes the visual language that will be used throughout the film. The scene is bright and harsh, shot in dispassionate mid and wides. The sun reflects off blonde children sitting next to a lazy river, and everything remains, unblinkingly, in focus. Glazer refuses to guide our attention through cinematic techniques like close-ups or POV shots and rather remains in impartial wides. By denying audiences a closer, more personalised look, Glazer takes a step back from authorship and creates visuals that are purposefully cold and distant; the scenes may be bright, but there is never a hint of warmth. 

The Zone of Interest

The severe visual mundanity is punctured by the sounds of the murder and torture happening on the other side of the wall. While the Höss family live in a dream “here”, their neighbours live in a nightmare over “there”. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote that Auschwitz sounded like “A hubbub of people without names or faces drowned in a continuous deafening background noise from which, however, the human word did not surface.”2

Johnnie Burns’ sound design and Mica Levi’s minimalist musique concrète score brings this “deafening background noise” to life (or death). The soundscape was made from hundreds of hours of field recordings, to find moments of real pain that rung true. The images your mind conjures when confronted with such a soundscape is far more disturbing than anything a director can show on screen. Glazer understands, and successfully wields, the power of omission, both visually and audibly. 

In the same way that we’re visually kept at arm’s length, the dialogue in much of the film is muted, “as if we should not be hearing it.”3 Hedwig talks to her friends in the house, and, as if eavesdropping, we hear them discuss clothes that were brought back from the camp. Hedwig’s group of friends laugh about a woman who picked out a dress that was too small for her, insisting she’ll lose weight to make it fit. The understanding that these clothes were taken from murdered prisoners is made clear through context but never said outright. During this conversation, the camera stays close to a Polish maid, preparing a drink for Rudolf, around the corner from where the women speak frivolously. Aside from key exceptions, the dialogue remains peripheral. 

The sense of ‘overheard conversations’, like the distanced visuals, puts us, the viewer, in the position of witness. We’re not in the conversation, but we’re close enough to hear it. In the same way that not seeing the horrors next door creates a frightening lack that our minds rush to fill, the absence of conversation about what’s occurring next door is far more unnerving than the words themselves would be. We’re reminded just how loud silence is. 

The result of “beating the image into a flat surface” and distancing the audience from the characters both visually and aurally creates an image that’s stripped of subjectivity, which achieves two ends. The audience is not brought into the world, conversations or minds of the characters, and so we stand by, and bear witness. It is also from this distance that we’re able to project ourselves back onto the screen. In this way, Glazer manages to show us something new. He shows us ourselves. 

The everyday cadences of evil

Glazer’s focus on Hedwig is an important one. While Rudolf goes off to work, Hedwig tends to her garden, cares for the children, and entertains her visiting mother. Like the audience, who overhears the conversations but does not have a seat at the table, Hedwig is close to the inner workings of the SS but is not a part of it. While Hedwig and her friends were chatting in the kitchen about clothes, Rudolf was a few feet away in his office, speaking with two SS officers who came to discuss the latest technology in crematoriums. 

Hedwig, a daughter, wife and mother, is not a perpetrator. Unlike her husband, whose boots are washed with the blood of prisoners when he returns home from the camp, Hedwig, like the viewer, never goes to the other side of the wall. She is, quite literally, a step removed. In the same way that we overhear the dialogue and watch from a distance, she too is at arm’s length from the ‘action’. Although Hedwig’s domestic life happens in the shadow of the camp, her everyday actions are banal and familiar. Throughout the film the camera remains on this side of the wall, the side of Hedwig and the quotidian.

The Zone of Interest

In the film, Glazer confronts Hannah Arendt’s famous concept of ‘banality of evil’ from a different angle. Countless films and novels have explored this concept in powerful and meaningful ways, by primarily foregrounding perpetrators at their most banal. In the film Conspiracy (Frank Pierson, 2001), for example, we watch the conference in which the Final Solution was agreed upon. The entire film takes place in meeting rooms, showing the bureaucracy of genocide. While there are some similar moments in The Zone of Interest, such as when Rudolf leads a meeting on the Hungarian mission (rounding up Hungarian Jews to be brought to camps), the film largely approaches ‘banality of evil’ in an unfamiliar way: by taking a step back. In keeping the majority of the film focused on Hedwig, who is not part of SS meetings, who does not make war-time decisions or have blood on her hands, Glazer widens the circle of evil and questions the role of complicity within it. 

In the cinema, on this side of the screen, the majority of audiences are fortunate enough to go home and be occupied by the ‘mundane’ — taking care of our living space, wanting the best for our children, attempting to progress our careers. By not showing the perpetrators committing acts of violence, but rather the everyday actions of a mother and housewife, Glazer shows the audience someone they can more closely relate to. Similarly, by having most of the film take place in their family home, we are in a familiar setting. The house, at once particular, in that it was based on the real Höss home, is also extremely general, a house you could find anywhere, a space the viewer feels at home in. 

The ‘Third ’film

It is from this viewpoint, of relatability, that we experience the ‘third’ film, which comes from the juxtaposition, and intersection, of what’s heard (atrocity) and what’s seen (banality). The audio gives meaning to the visual by providing context and proximity, making the ordinary terrifying. The Höss’ go about their lives with the sounds of murder all around them and their hideous indifference is both disturbing and worryingly personal. What do we block out to get through the day? 

Before Rudolf’s job takes him elsewhere, he takes one of his elder sons hunting. The sounds of the camp are omnipresent and get louder as the father and son duo get closer to the wall. Rudolf at one point slows his horse and tells his son: “Do you hear that?” He pauses before saying, “It’s a bittern. A heron.” They continue their hunt. This seemingly inconsequential moment reminds the audience something essential. It is not that the Höss’ cannot hear what’s going on around them. They hear everything but choose what to listen to. 

The only way that Hedwig and her family can live ‘comfortably’ is by compartmentalising and normalising what goes on next door. We see the degree to which the Höss’ have normalised mass murder and turned the sounds of the camp into white noise when Hedwig’s mother, Lena, comes to visit. Living in a town far away from the daily realities of the Holocaust, Lena is not accustomed to seeing the smokestacks routinely coughing up human remains and hearing the continuous din of torture. Hedwig gives her mother a tour of her garden and Lena, looking at the wall, ponders if Esther Silberman is “over there.” Despite her distaste for Esther, a woman whom she used to work for, giving a name to a Jew “over there,” (the only instance in the film) suggests a mindset that Hedwig has long since abandoned (if it ever existed).This naming hints towards more discomfort to come. 

Napping next to the family pool, Lena is awoken by a coughing fit. Over her head you see the clouds of smoke from the chimneys slowly seeping over the wall, suggesting the burning flesh has led to her cough, something the Höss family has adapted to. Later that night, in her bedroom, she stands by the window, pulling back the curtain. She watches orange clouds envelop the night sky and wash the whole bedroom in an orange glow. She listens to the sounds of the camp that accompany the smoke. No wall is high enough to obscure the smoke or thick enough to block the noise from coming ‘here’. 

The Zone of Interest

The next morning, Hedwig awakes to find that her mother has left. She has written a note, which the audience never sees, presumably saying the proximity was too uncomfortable to bear. Hedwig throws the letter into the fire with unflinching moral conviction. Their carefully constructed life does not have space for moral questioning or disapproval. The Höss’ likely thought that what they were doing was ‘right’ for Germany’s future and for a better, purer world. It is ostensibly easier to tune out something you’ve justified. But what is key is the reminder that you choose whether or not to turn a blind eye. 

In the scene when Hedwig is surrounded by mirrors, Glazer visually lays out where her priorities lie. Not even the sound of gunshots will puncture her idyllic bubble. And later, when Rudolf tells her he’s being transferred, she exclaims, “they’d have to drag me out of here…everything we want is on our doorstep”. Because it serves her, Hedwig chooses not to give notice to what lies just beyond her “doorstep”. 

Blurred lines between Heaven and Hell 

From the film’s first moments, we’re reminded of the interdependency and entanglement of the two sides of the wall. The film opens on a black screen underscored by Mica Levi’s threatening score which sounds like a descent into hell. After a few minutes of uncomfortable black noise, the sounds of birds chirping begin to weave their way in. The opposing noises blend together under a black image until the camera cuts to the Höss family picnicking by the river. The sounds of the bucolic setting – birds chirping, water rushing – fully replace the cacophony of noise that preceded it. In these opening moments, the entwinement of heaven and hell is laid bare to be returned to throughout the film. 

One side of the wall does not exist without the other. The atrocities of the Holocaust do not exist without the silence and complicity of the likes of Hedwig. And the ‘lifestyle’ that the Höss family enjoys does not exist without the terrors of the war, where Rudolf has risen in the ranks of the SS. When Hedwig is giving her mother a tour of the house and garden, Lena compliments her daughter on how well she’s done for herself and Hedwig jokes that Rudolf calls her “queen of Auschwitz”. This intrinsic dependency is shown visually as well. In one scene, a prisoner shovels the ashes of those murdered in the camp into Hedwig’s garden, allowing the flowers in the “most despoiled of Edens” to grow.4 

In a moment of clear (unmuted) dialogue, Rudolf states this sentiment clearly. He is at the dinner table, informing his family that work is moving him to another city for a while. He will miss birthdays and anniversaries while away. “The life we enjoy is very much worth the sacrifice.” While he is referring to his change in post, and being away from the family, the message is clear: living in heaven is worth the expense of others living in hell.  

Despite the physicality of the wall that separates ‘here’ from ‘there’, the horrors of the camp creep into the house, both materially and psychosomatically. When their son plays with a set of gold teeth (from a murdered prisoner), or Hedwig tries on the fur coat, the two sides of the wall, and more precisely, the dead and the living, directly intermingle. When Rudolf finds bones in the river where the kids are playing, Hedwig along with one of her maids scrub the children, trying desperately to keep the kids from being infected by Jews, death and whatever else lies “over there.” Crying from the forceful scrubbing, the maid tells the boy, “Everything’s fine. You’ll live.”

There are more subconscious and insidious instances of crossover as well. Their daughter is seen sleepwalking around the house at night, clearly disturbed. And when the two sons play in the backyard, the elder of the two locks his younger brother in the greenhouse and does not let him out. He makes hissing noises, like that of gas. While on the surface the lines between ‘here’ and ‘there’ seem impermeable, when you look and listen closely the wall’s porousness is clear. The decisions made ‘there’ will always pollute the air ‘here’. 

Glazer similarly explores the wall’s metaphorical breakdown through formal techniques in both the aural and visual realms. To allow genocide, there is always an act of dehumanising the ‘enemy’. Through stylistic choices, he interrogates this act of dehumanisation by collapsing the distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

While Glazer almost completely strips the film of subjective camera angles, there are a couple moments when he abandons the film’s mid and wide shots in favour of an overhead camera angle. In these scenes, Glazer visually puts his characters on a ‘level’ playing field. The first instance of this overhead shot is when we see a prisoner washing blood off Rudolf’s boots. In this moment, the shot is used on a prisoner and its positioning (high above his head) feels suggestive of the gas chambers, where gas would pour in from above.

The Zone of Interest

However, the overhead shot is later used on various characters: SS agents discussing the crematoriums, his daughters reading from a book, and on Rudolf himself, laying on the couch. Near the end of the film, Rudolf attends a lavish, black-tie party for high-ranking Nazi officials. At one point he steps away to call Hedwig. He tells her that it was hard to enjoy the party because “I was too busy thinking how I’d gas everyone in the room… it would be very difficult, logistically.” As he says this, a wide overhead shot of the room with all the SS officers inside holds on-screen. At this moment the connection between the overhead shot and gassing is substantiated. 

The Zone of Interest

By imposing this shot on people on both sides of the wall, Glazer questions how we’re different. The overhead shot on the young Nazi girls is particularly poignant, appearing to ask ‘What if it was your children?’ Despite Rudolf thinking about the logistics of gassing this room full of Nazis at the party, he seems unable to see this line of thinking through to its logical conclusion. People – mothers, fathers, children– are over ‘there’, same as over ‘here’. 

While the visuals show the dependency and cracks between the two sides of the wall, the soundscape has the unique ability to confuse the worlds. As with the first few moments of the film, when birds chirping mixes in with the sounds of a screaming void, there is a lack of clear delineation between heaven and hell. This confusion is returned to later in the film. Hedwig and Rudolf have a newborn in the house. When the baby is on-screen it is clear the cries are coming from her. But in moments when the baby is off screen, cries are heard, but it’s hard to decipher which side of the wall they are coming from. Are they coming from ‘here’ or ‘there’? From the child who will live or the one who will likely die? 

These moments, where the noises cannot easily be assigned to belonging ‘here’ or ‘there’ suggests an equanimity between the people on both sides. Where these divisions get blurred and confused there is also a potent sense of arbitrariness of which side of the wall you are on. When the walls, both physical and ideological, are man made, they will always be subject to shift. 

A guiding light

The Zone of Interest makes for an uncomfortable watch because it puts a mirror up to its audience. In our own life, what have we turned into white noise? What do we actively choose not to see and hear? While Glazer poses questions without providing clear-cut answers, he does show us an alternative. Then, as is true now, different choices exist. 

The film is dedicated to Alexandra Bystron-Kolodziejczyk, a real woman whom Glazer met during his research. She was a local, (non-Jewish) Polish girl who was 12 years old during the war. She would go out in the middle of the night to hide apples for the starving prisoners. Visually and aurally, the scenes that feature Alexandra, as a young girl, are starkly different to the rest of the film, and jar every time they come on-screen. Glazer describes Alexandra as his “north star” for this project and she’s filmed accordingly. An infrared camera was used to show her as glowing ‘heat’ moving through the night. A pulsing score accompanies these scenes, making us feel like we’ve entered a different realm entirely. 

The Zone of Interest

With Alexandra, Glazer draws a clear line in the sand. She is diametrically opposed to Hedwig, and so her representation on screen is antithetical to that of Hedwig. While Hedwig stands in bright natural light, Alexandra can only be seen with infrared technology in the dark of night. If Hedwig represents the banality of evil, Alexandra represents the profundity of good. Glazer says that in this film he felt that while showing the worst of humanity, he had a duty to also show the best. 

While the Höss’ try to keep ‘there’ as far away as possible, Alexandra does the opposite. She makes the choice to cross the border. During one of her nights placing apples for prisoners, she finds something, a piece of music written and hidden by a prisoner and brings it home with her. When she enters her house, out of the dark night, the film’s lighting returns to ‘normal’, to what we’ve grown used to in the film. She is no longer seen through the eyes of the infrared camera, but through the camera in which we see everyone else. She is a part of this same world, after all. Her goodness exists in the same realm as the Hoss’ evil. 

The next morning, she plays the song on the piano and the lyrics appear on-screen. Joseph Wulf, the real life Auschwitz prisoner who wrote this song, survived the war and recorded the melody that we hear her play. In playing his music Alexandra gives Joseph and his fellow prisoners a voice. She brings ‘there’ over ‘here’ in both the physical and aural realm. It’s the first and only time that the threatening score and the brutal soundscape makes way for music. Out of the nameless, noisy hell, comes a singular voice, expressing hope. 

The lyrics read: “Souls afire, like the blazing sun, tearing, breaking through their pain, for soon we’ll see that waving flag, the flag of freedom yet to come.”

Here and now

After the SS gala, Rudolf descends down a staircase. He starts retching while on his descent. It’s unclear why: is he excited having learnt that the Hungarian job will be named after him? Has he had too much champagne? Does he finally feel the quiet weight of his actions? As he reaches the landing he looks to his left, down the hallway, towards us. He pauses, with a perplexed expression on his face. In this moment, does he recognise that he, like all of us, is being observed by those that come after him? 

We cut to present day Auschwitz. This is the first time we’re on the other side of the wall. Now, we watch a very different type of banality. Cleaners are opening the museum, preparing for tourists – wiping the dust from the crematoriums and vacuuming the hallways. New walls are present. They are not opaque like the wall between the Höss family and the camp. These walls are made of glass and no noise comes from the other side. The silence a sharp reminder we were too late. Although the entire film lives within the  ‘present tense’, this is the first moment that Glazer directly connects the ‘then’ and ‘there’ with the ‘here’ and ‘now’. 

Earlier this year, at a Q&A with Jonathan Glazer in London, someone in the audience asked in reference to the way the Höss’ family lived, “Is that what it was really like?” He answered, with the caveat that we can never truly know, that it couldn’t have been any different. The Höss family lived in a beautiful home that shared a wall with Auschwitz. The camp’s chimneys were visible, and the sounds of torture were audible. “For people to be able to commit atrocities, it’s not that they detach from it, it’s that they normalise it.” The only way to live was to turn the horror into white noise. 

They were not movie style villains, but mothers who wanted the best for their children and fathers who wanted to provide for their families. They cared for their children, and told their horses they loved them, all the while allowing, and committing, mass murder of people next door. They normalised the horror, and chose selective empathy, because of their perceived moral high ground and because, in so doing, their life was materially enhanced. This film is a reminder that atrocities happen at the hands of perpetrators, like Rudolf, and they are allowed to continue because of the complicity of bystanders like Hedwig. Glazer’s Oscar’s speech expressed a refusal to be a silent bystander. 

Outside of the cinema, in our own lives, the atrocities may not be on our literal doorstep, but at the same time, they are never very far away. And while compartmentalisation at times is necessary to avoid paralysis, we cannot get so comfortable with atrocity that we no longer hear it. We have to find ways to hide apples for those who are hungry and share the music of those who are unable. The Zone of Interest shows us what happens if we don’t. 

Hedwig and Rudolf do not change course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t.


  1. Glazer, Jonathan. “The Zone of Interest Q&A.” Public screen talk, London, February 2, 2024.
  2. Sight & Sound. “BFI – Sight & Sound Reviews.” British Film Institute. Accessed April 24, 2024. www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/reviews/zone-interest-jonathan-glazer-returns-with-haunting-adaptation-martin-amiss-holocaust-novel.
  3. Time USA, LLC. “The Zone of Interest.” Time, September 10, 2014. https://time.com/6281554/the-zone-of-interest-review/.
  4.   Los Angeles Times. “The Zone of Interest Review: Jonathan Glazer’s Haunting Drama Set at Auschwitz.” December 14, 2023. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2023-12-14/the-zone-of-interest-review-jonathan-glazer-drama-auschwitz-holocaust-wwii.

About The Author

Jill works as a producer in film and tv marketing. Previously a producer at HBO in New York, she moved to the UK in 2019 for her master's degree in film studies at the University of Cambridge. She now lives and works in London and continues to write about film in her spare time.

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