Hedwig Höss takes pride in her gardens. And understandably so: As her husband, Rudolf, works across the wall, Hedwig turns their home into Eden, fertilized with ash. The dahlias seem to grow with special vivacity, the roses smell especially sweet. The grass grows green and lush—a fitting playground for the five Höss children and their beloved, pampered dog. The gardens even boast a pool—a favorite summertime retreat for both the family and their German friends.
She doesn’t do it all alone, of course. Hedwig has help, and plenty of it. It was a perk—one of many—that came from being the wife of a Nazi commandant. Her gardens are filled with gardeners. Their home is staffed with servants, paid to set the table and make the bed and care for Rudolf and Hedwig’s perpetually crying baby girl. The Höss estate boasts luxuries unknown throughout most of wartime Europe: central heat, full larders and plenty of help.
But who wouldn’t want to work in Eden? The grass, the gardens, the food. Hegwig would even dole out free gifts—gently used clothes taken from those on the other side of the wall.
It’s paradise, this place—or, at least, so Hedwig thought, and so she said. With such loveliness to behold, you could ignore the gunfire, the screams. The rumbling of the concentration camp’s furnaces could sometimes be covered by the children’s laughter. Their forever belching chimneys could be screened by ivy. And if the noise and smoke grew tiresome, the family could always walk to the river and frolic in the water, surrounded only by the chortling birds.
What German family would not be envious? What family would not trade places with them, there next door to Auschwitz? What woman would not want a garden so lush, so green, so fertilized by ash?
The Zone of Interest is meant to reveal monstrous behavior masquerading as domestic bliss. Rudolf and Hedwig Höss—the only people we really get to know here—are horrors, more chilling and terrifying than almost any horror-movie villain I can think of. True, Rudolf does gently pick up his sleepwalking daughter, as well as reading her and her sister bedtime stories. But that’s as far as we can go.
But we do see one woman—her identity obscured in a nifty bit of negative filmmaking—help Auschwitz’s prisoners by leaving apples hidden at their work sites. Later, someone who appears to be the same woman gently plays an anthem of resistance and freedom on the piano.
Rudolf reads his daughters the story of Hansel and Gretel—a version in which Gretel shoves the witch into the oven and slams the iron door shut. She then frees Hansel and the two “cried for joy and praised God.” Given the ovens at work across the wall, the story takes on a truly sinister sheen.
We hear various references to Jewish people, not hostile or hateful, but chilling in their indifference.
As Rudolf chats with other Nazi officials over the phone, a woman is led into his office. She sits down, takes off her shoes and undoes her hair, and Rudolf stares at her for a moment. The scene ends, but the next time we see Rudolf, he walks to a bathroom and drops his pants. Viewers don’t see anything critical, but it’s obvious that he’s washing his genitals.
Rudolf is eventually transferred elsewhere, but Hedwig and the family stay. During this time away, a laborer carries some wood into the family greenhouse. Hedwig wordlessly invites him to rest for a minute and hands him a cigarette, which he smokes. The two eye each other for several moments before, again, the camera leaves.
Rudolf and Greta are seen in their bedroom—each sleeping in their own twin bed. Rudolf is apparently shirtless, while Greta wears relatively modest nightwear. We see Rudolf and his sons shirtless, and some women and girls in swimwear.
We’re all familiar with the atrocities committed in Auschwitz, on the other side of Rudolf and Hedwig’s garden wall. But we, like the Höss family, are screened from the sight of such horrors. But we hear them. Or, rather, hints of them.
Gunfire cracks with frightening regularity. We hear screams and shouts and moans. In one scene, the youngest Höss boy (Hans) plays in his room as, outside, he hears guards interrogate a man for fighting over an apple. They quickly decide to drown the man in the river. The constant drone and churn emanating from the concentration camp gives terrible voice what its real purpose is.
That terrible purpose was no slapdash effort. The Nazi engineering described here ensured that the process was efficient, almost machine-like. Officials try to sell Rudolf on refining Auschwitz’s system of “load” disposal (loads consisting of 400-500 people) and the heat necessary to burn them to ash. “Church, cool, unload, reload,” one man tells Rudolf, referring to the process. “Continuously,” another adds. Rarely are these doomed people referred to as people. The hideous truth of it all was widely acknowledged but, in meetings, camouflaged behind the language of industry. Take away the uniforms and our own understanding of what they were really talking about, and their conversations might be mistaken as business-like conversations on how to transport, package and dispose of inanimate widgets.
When Rudolf takes charge of the concentration system as a whole, he talks cooly with other commandants about the huge numbers of “loads” they’ll need to deal with, and the necessity of brisk efficiency. When he learns that the Reich is speeding up its extermination of peoples (mainly Jews), and he’s asked to return to Auschwitz to spearhead the elimination of 700,000 Hungarians, Rudolf is practically giddy. He brags to Hedwig that some have taken to calling it “Operation Höss” (a name that has made it into the history books).
We see only one physical horror during the film: While Rudolf and his children play in the river, Rudolf reaches down and pulls what may be an ear out of the water. He quickly grabs his children, puts them in the family boat and pulls them far away from what now appears to be a river polluted by ash.
At a party filled with Nazi officials and their wives, he admits to Hedwig that he didn’t pay much attention to who was there: Rather, he was considering what a difficult job it would be to gas them all to death, given the venue’s high ceilings.
In a scene filmed in what is now the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, we see the museum’s chilling reminders of what took place there: crematorium ovens; massive gas chambers; thousands and thousands of shoes.
The movie is almost completely in German, but in the subtitles, we learn that Hedwig says, “bloody h—” twice in quick succession. There’s also a misuse of God’s name.
The Höss baby cries incessantly, and the nanny tasked with caring for her drinks heavily one colicky night.
Both Rudolf and Hedwig smoke (as do other characters). Wine is consumed with dinner and at parties. Rudolf quaffs a bit of liquor as his staff celebrates his birthday.
A character retches twice in a hallway, perhaps to the point of throwing up. Rudolf visits a doctor, and he’s asked about both his bowel and urinary habits. After discovering that he and two of his children were playing in an ash-filled river, the three are scrubbed mightily in the bathroom.
Rudolf masterminded the execution of literally millions of people. But in The Zone of Interest, Hedwig can at times feel even more monstrous in her callous, selfish disregard.
For instance: She takes a shipment of clothes from across the wall and allows her servants to take one item each—joking with friends later that one took a dress that belong to a “Jewess” half her size. She keeps a fur coat for herself, and when she finds a cylinder of lipstick in the pockets, she tries the shade on herself and decides to keep it, too. Hedwig encourages Rudolf to keep his eye out for chocolates. In conversation, she talks about how she found a diamond in a tube of toothpaste—and jokes how nice it would be to gather up more toothpaste like that.
Hedwig brags that Rudolf calls her “the Queen of Auschwitz,” and that apparently extends to her dictatorial behavior with the house’s servants. She viciously berates a maid when she finds water on the floor. When she sits down for breakfast and finds two settings at the table—one for her and one for her mother, who just minutes before had apparently left without warning—Hedwig asks the servant if the extra plate was meant to goad her.
One can use many words to describe The Zone of Interest: chilling. Oppressive. Brutal. Brilliant.
But let me draw your attention to a few words that don’t apply: graphic. Gratuitous. Bloody.
To be sure, the film is grotesque in that its characters are grotesque. It is horrific in that the setting is horrific.
But for those who feel that such horrors must be shown to be narratively effective, The Zone of Interest offers a powerful rejoinder. This might be the most disquieting, disturbing film I’ve seen this year. And it managed to be so without showing a drop of blood.
Admittedly, the horrors found in The Zone of Interest are predicated on a certain remove. We don’t need to be shown what happened in Auschwitz: We know. We watch the smokestack belch its soot, and we know what “fuel” is burning. We hear the machine-like thump and grind, low and terrible, and our imaginations conjure just what might be causing it. And that sound—almost inescapable throughout the movie—drives home the film’s ghastly truth and undergirds its real horror. The domestic tranquility next door. Familial bliss nourished by murder and ash.
Viewers, like the Höss children, are shielded from the unfiltered atrocities beyond the wall. We’re screened from it by flowers, by ivy, by summer parties and trips to the river. But unlike those children—perhaps unlike many who lived in that area in that place and time—we cannot close our eyes and willfully ignore the truth. And this sense of remove that the film forces upon us makes those atrocities, paradoxically, more terrible. More visceral. More real.
If director Jonathan Glazer had shown those horrors to us, The Zone of Interest could’ve devolved into a pulpy, gory, more forgettable film—perhaps not so far removed from any number of horror flicks that invade our screens. But it proffers no crimson distractions to pull us away from the terrible truth: The people responsible for such deeds were both monsters … and not so unlike us as we might want to imagine. They loved their children. Dreamed of better lives. Worked hard. And committed one of history’s most heinous crimes.
Rudolf and Hedwig Höss were real people, of course: I’ve not found enough about the real Hedwig to know how the screen version compares, but Rudolf seems to have been both as monstrous and human as the film shows. In an affidavit following his 1946 capture, he admitted to executing at least 2.5 million people at Auschwitz, while another 500,000 “succumbed to starvation and disease.”
Such numbers are so staggering that it’s easy to lose sight of their reality—to forget that each one of those 3 million people had their stories cut short.
Overwhelmed by those numbers, The Zone of Interest instead focuses on stories belonging to two other people. And through their indifferent eyes, we see the ghastly truth in the black smoke rising, in the grind and hum beyond the wall … and the deceptively beautiful flowers flourishing in its human ash.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.