How Christian Friedel immersed himself in evil for ‘Zone of Interest’

How Christian Friedel immersed himself in evil for ‘Zone of Interest’

You can understand why someone might get a little apprehensive about meeting German actor Christian Friedel after seeing his performance as Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss in Jonathan Glazer’s devastating silent scream of a movie “The Zone of Interest,” opening June 12 in Bay Area theaters.

The 44-year-old actor is utterly convincing as a real-life monster, a high-ranking SS officer who was involved with the Nazis’ mass extermination of Jews. Höss was also a family man, spending time playing with the kids when it suited him and hanging out with his social-climbing wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) along with her visiting mom at their large estate next door to the infamous Auschwitz death camp where the clinks, clacks, and muffled screams were played on an endless hellish loop.

What a relief it is that upon encountering the soft-spoken, gracious Friedel in San Francisco, the first thing you can’t help but notice is that those dead, icicle eyes onscreen have been replaced with ones that are filled with the promise of warmth and compassion.

Friedel knows firsthand how “Zone” — a loose adaptation of Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name — unmoors its audience, and serves as a powerful historical lesson and warning about the routineness of evil. Watching himself up on screen, in a role that the star of “Amour Fou,” “The White Ribbon” and “Babylon Berlin” considers to be his most challenging to date, freaked him out a bit.

“When I saw the movie  for the first time, it felt so uncomfortable to watch myself in it,” he recalled. “And then to realize, ‘Oh my God,’ now I see me and not the commandant, not an evil person.”

He was embedded in this horrifying part for two years — due to COVID-19 shutdowns and scheduling film shoots in the spring and the winter near Auschwitz. (The crew shot on location across from the camp with production designer Chris Oddy painstakingly re-creating the Höss home and its garden via old images, using a dilapidated structure 200 yards from the actual house as its base.)

“To stay so long in this character with this darkness, with these things in my subconscious, with this responsibility towards the victims, with the historical context and then with the special way we shot with this multi-camera system…and not knowing which angle is important…that (all) was really intense,” he recalls.

“The Zone of Interest” is a unique and immersive experience. It’s also an auditory nightmare with Glazer and sound designer Johnnie Burn wanting to re-create sounds endemic to Auschwitz. They used a 500-page document, and then shot two films — one with the sound and the other without it.

Glazer’s intention was to almost mirror a reality series — a “’Big Brother’ in the Nazi house,” as he is credited with saying in production notes. The idea was to be something of a watchdog, eyeing the goings-on in the house where the Höss family lived, in order for the audience to see how a mundane family life can co-exist with the heart of evil. (Rudolf Höss was convicted of war crimes and executed in 1947.)

The film is one of the most distinctive cinematic experiences in some time — a calling card for Glazer, who also directed 2009’s surreal “In Her Skin,” 2004’s “Birth,” with Nicole Kidman, and the 2000 crime thriller “Sexy Beast.” It was also an unforgettable shoot for the cast and crew.

Part of that pertained to Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s decision to place various cameras — some hidden, some visible — throughout the family house so they could shoot from numerous angles and give the film a sense it was shot in real time.

It could be off-putting at times, but Friedel praises that approach.

“Sometimes we shot scenes simultaneously and I was in this room and Sandra was in the other room with other actors and sometimes I heard her voice,” he said. Glazer, he added, was not with the actors during those scenes, setting himself off in a separate room.

“It was crazy, but it was very helpful to create the normality of these scenes and to also have time to create them without any technical interruptions. It was a really unique and intense way of filmmaking. Sometimes we said there’s no acting, there’s searching, searching for the banality of evil.”

To portray evil proved challenging to Friedel, since the goal was to “give (Hoss) an ordinary, sometimes boring and normal face. So we see a familiar face — a human being doing this to other human beings and it’s horrible. It was a challenge to show him as a perpetrator, and not to show him in such an emotional way.”

Friedel’s talent isn’t solely expressed in movies and in stage performances. He’s also the pianist, singer and frontman of the indie-pop band Woods of Birnam — whose name was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Their latest album is “Dorian,” and Friedel was on tour to promote it just as “The Zone of Interest” started making more of the film festival rounds. (It collected the esteemed Grand Prix award for the 58-year-old Canadian director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.)

It’s been a whirlwind in many ways, but Friedel is hardly complaining.

“It’s a great time,” Friedel said, with a glint in his eye that’s miles removed from anything you’ll see in “The Zone of Interest.”