When Christian Friedel was first approached to star in The Zone of Interest three or so years ago, he had no idea what the movie was about, nor whom he’d be portraying. The German actor sent in a tape for director Jonathan Glazer, simply introducing himself as instructed; sometime later, he received the offer to meet with the filmmaker—and hear his vision for the movie. “This horrible story, I heard it for the first time then,” Friedel recounts on this week’s Little Gold Men (listen below), ahead of Zone’s New York Film Festival premiere on Sunday. “And from the very beginning, I wanted to be a part of it.”
It’s a brave thing, stepping into the shoes of personified evil—and in The Zone of Interest, Friedel pulls off the tricky, nauseating task with chilling humanity and unflinching command. He portrays Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz commandant who helped lead the implementation of Hitler’s extermination policy. Glazer’s film is far more mundane, though, than such horrific subject matter might imply, focusing with painstaking realism on the day-to-day lives of the Hösses—the concerns of marriage and parenthood and job stresses that are relatable to any family. In that depiction, particularly the tensions between the relatively amiable Rudolf and his severe wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), Zone delivers a searing examination of human nature at its most believably cruel, connecting the atrocities of the Holocaust to the terrors surrounding us in the present day.
To live in that space as an actor is not easy. Friedel’s performance is so disturbing and distinctive precisely because he embraces Glazer’s intimate, haunting vision. It’s a breakout moment for an actor who’s also a full-time musician with his band Woods of Birnam, and who’s quickly made a career of collaborating with master filmmakers unafraid of the dark, going back to his screen debut in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. He sees The Zone of Interest as tough but essential art, with a determination to experience its power fully as he continues to promote the project on the awards trail. “When I saw the movie for the first time, I felt very uncomfortable,” Friedel says. “But I’ve watched the movie now four times. It’s not a movie to watch four times, I think. [Laughs] But this work was really unique and important for me as an actor—and as a human being too.”
Vanity Fair: What was the emotional experience of making this movie? From putting in a tape for a Jonathan Glazer movie, where you don’t even know what it is, to realizing the gravity of what you’re being asked to do, it’s got to be a real discovery process.
Christian Friedel: I felt this gravity and the dimension of the whole movie when I saw it in Cannes. It started with the preparation for this movie. I had a lot of conversations with Jonathan and Sandra Hüller. We talked a lot about the characters…getting deep into this preparation to create this character. I had to lose weight for the summer shoot and gain weight for the winter shoot—it’s a very important detail for the character. It was really intense.
The way Glazer shot this was very fly-on-the-wall, where you guys are filming these unbroken takes in the house. What did that feel like?
It was really unique. I never had an experience like that. We had the multi-camera system and sometimes there were 10 cameras, which allowed us to create or to find the normality or the documentary style. Sometimes Jonathan said, “This is Big Brother in a Nazi house,” it sounds—
No, yeah, it is.
—We don’t follow the characters in an ordinary story, we observe them. So we were alone without technical interruptions, without technicians. The camera department was in the basement, for example. Jonathan and his team were separated next to the set in a little house with 10 monitors. One ear, the German or the original tone, and the other ear, the translation from it. It was amazing. As an actor, it was a really great luxury. We had only two or maybe three scenes on a day; sometimes one scene. We had all the time in the world to improvise. Sometimes we shot scenes simultaneously in different rooms, and you’d hear your colleagues speaking in another room. It was to find this sometimes ordinary life or this normal, sometimes boring life.