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'Zone of Interest' follows the family life of the Nazi commander at Auschwitz

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are lots of flowers, bees, picnics and love of family in Jonathan Glazer's new film, "The Zone Of Interest." There is also smoke in the sky, fire licking at the clouds, ash floating down and roars from the crematorium of the concentration camp just beyond the walls of the family's home and gardens.

"The Zone Of Interest" is based on the family life of Rudolf Hoss, one of the architects of Hitler's attempt to exterminate all Jews in Europe. It is based on Martin Amis' 2014 novel. It's the British entry for best international feature film for this year's Oscars and was a grand prix winner at Cannes. Christian Friedel plays Rudolf. Sandra Huller is his wife, Hedwig. And she and director Jonathan Glazer join us now. I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

JONATHAN GLAZER: Thanks for having us.

SANDRA HULLER: Thank you.

SIMON: Let me ask you both - and maybe for Americans, we need to explain this isn't Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, but Rudolf Hoss, who was the commandant at Auschwitz. This sounds obscene, but he and his family like their life at the camp there, don't they?

GLAZER: They seem to. You know, they established themselves in a house. And they had a big garden because Hedwig Hoss, who Sandra portrays, had a love for gardening and for plants. And so she built this sort of paradise garden which shared a wall with the concentration camp.

SIMON: Sandra Huller, in an early scene, packages arrive - clothing mostly - fur coat at one point that Hedwig unwraps and distributes. Those aren't from Amazon, are they?

HULLER: No. These are clothes and items, belongings of people who were killed or are to be killed in the camp next door. These things were taken away from them. And the family has took them for themselves. And sometimes, Hitler here has created a sort of fake generosity by giving them to the people who worked in the house.

SIMON: How do you give life to this character, Hedwig? What do you want people to notice? Because on the one hand, she's a very fierce and determined mother who loves her children, isn't she?

HULLER: Well, I don't think so. I think even her children are also things or pieces that need to be collected to form a picture of the perfect family. My idea, or my strong feeling, was that if you live a life like this, and if you contribute to the death of millions of people, you cannot love your children at the same time. It just - for me, I didn't know how to find that place inside of me. So we decided together - it was not only my decision - but we decided together that this sort of sentiment doesn't exist.

SIMON: Jonathan Glazer, we don't, as a rule, see the horrors beyond the walls. But we do see somebody burying ashes. We hear howls. What was your technique as a director?

GLAZER: Well, the horrors of life over the wall were going to be represented sonically - you know, in other words, something that we couldn't see, but we could certainly hear. I think those images anyway are sort of seared into our minds anyway. And so it seemed pointless to try and recreate them or reenact them.

HULLER: Yes, I think - Jonathan, please tell me when I'm wrong - but it was important for us to know that Hedwig Hoss is not somebody who's on this side of the wall and doesn't know what's going on. We know - and just this information was really important to me - we know that she has been in the camp, and she saw everything that was going on there. So...

GLAZER: She has a very important line in the film, which is a line we actually found in the vaults at - in the archives at Auschwitz, as part of a testimony given by a prisoner who survived who worked in the house. And actually, the line that she - that Sandra says in the film to one of the girls who works in the house - a local Polish girl who works in her house - spitefully, she says, "if I want him to, my husband could spread your ashes on the fields of the beach here." In that single line, we understand everything she knows.

SIMON: Was it difficult emotionally for both of you, for the entire crew, to work on this film, or - after all, you're professionals - is it just another movie?

GLAZER: You're right to say that. There is a - there are two things going on. One is the enormous weight of responsibility and challenge, you know, as a human being to where you are and what you're trying to achieve. And on the other hand, you have your practice, your craft, you know? And your craft - for me, anyway, the craft was something which - you know, which you immerse yourself in to just get through what you need to achieve that day. And, of course, sometimes you're untroubled by anything else going on around you in terms of the significance of factor of the site you're on. And other days, it stops you in your tracks, and you remember where you are.

SIMON: How was it for you, Miss Huller?

HULLER: I agree. It's somewhat the same. And I'd say - at the same time, I would always say that - or I felt at everything that could have been difficult or anything or challenging was always put into perspective through the space that we were in, because none of these things mattered at all. So whenever something felt hard or anything, it was always very clear that it's nothing compared to the things that happened there before. But definitely, it's not just another film. No, not at all. I think I will never forget the work on this.

SIMON: Sandra Huller, I feel the need to ask you a question. You were born in East Germany. East Germans didn't learn about the Holocaust the way West Germans did. Would that be fair to say?

HULLER: No, I don't agree. When I grew up, the atrocities of the camps and what the fascists did were a big topic in school. So I think - I remember that we saw very cruel pictures of that time. So there was - I think there was nothing really kept from us or history changed in some way. I don't think so. If you want to speak about the political situation right now in Germany, that's a problem for all of Germany. That's not an Eastern German problem.

SIMON: Well, could I get you to talk about that a little? Do you have concerns about the political atmosphere in Germany at the moment?

HULLER: I do. And it's a very dangerous moment that we're living in right now, and maybe you read it on the papers. Some information came out that one of the parties in Germany called AfD made actual plans to deport people from the country to make it clean again. So there is - it's a really dangerous moment. There's nothing more to say. We need to act against this. That's all I can say.

SIMON: Yeah. Sandra Huller and Jonathan Glazer - their new film, "The Zone Of Interest." Thank you both very much for being with us.

GLAZER: Thank you very much.

HULLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH PERFORMANCE OF JS BACH'S "CELLO SUITE NO. 2 IN D MINOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.