For one German family, life in central Europe was seemingly idyllic, even as World War II raged around them. “Every wish that my wife or children expressed was granted to them,” wrote family patriarch Rudolf Höss in his autobiography. “My wife’s garden was a paradise of flowers.” Rudolf’s five children played with tortoises, cats and lizards at their villa near the Polish city of Krakow; in the summer, the siblings frolicked in a pool in their yard or swam in a nearby river.
These peaceful domestic scenes masked a dark reality: Rudolf was the Nazi officer in charge of Auschwitz, the concentration and extermination camp where the Nazis killed an estimated 1.1 million people—most of them European Jews. Rudolf was directly responsible for these killings, which he oversaw as the camp’s longest-serving commandant. And the peaceful villa with its floral garden? It stood just beyond the high walls surrounding the Höss home.
The Zone of Interest, a new film written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, envisions the Hösses’ everyday lives, rarely venturing beyond the villa’s borders to acknowledge the atrocities unfolding next door. By emphasizing the mundane, the acclaimed British filmmaker hoped to expose Rudolf (played by Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), as undeniably human. “I wanted to dismantle the idea of them as anomalies, as almost supernatural,” Glazer tells the New York Times. “You know, the idea that they came from the skies and ran amok, but thank God that’s not us and it’s never going to happen again. I wanted to show that these were crimes committed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith at No. 26.”
Unlike Schindler’s List, The Pianist and other staples of Holocaust cinema, The Zone of Interest never explicitly depicts the horrors of life and death inflicted by the Nazis. Instead, the film relies on the power of suggestion, alluding to mass murder through brief glimpses of crematoria chimneys and an ambient soundtrack punctuated by gunshots and screams. The story is less about the Nazis than the broader question of human nature, “the thing in us that drives it all, the capacity for violence that we all have,” Glazer tells the Guardian. “For me, this is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims.” (As many critics have pointed out, the film underscores “the banality of evil,” a phenomenon described by philosopher Hannah Arendt during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust.)
Ahead of The Zone of Interest’s release in theaters across the United States on January 7, here’s what you need to know about the movie and the real history behind it.
What events does The Zone of Interest dramatize?
The film deviates heavily from its source material, a 2014 Martin Amis novel of the same name. In the book, a Nazi officer falls in love with the wife of Auschwitz’s commandant, who is loosely based on Rudolf but doesn’t share his name. For his take on the story, Glazer excised the love triangle and made the characters’ connections to the real-life figures explicit. To immerse viewers in the family’s routines and create an environment akin to a surveillance state, the director filmed interior scenes on hidden cameras—a setup he likens to “‘Big Brother’ in a Nazi house.”
A central conflict in the film is Hedwig’s objection to her husband’s pending promotion, which will take him to Berlin and her away from her beloved home outside the camp. (According to the Times, this argument is based on testimony recently found in the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which consulted on The Zone of Interest and makes an appearance in its closing moments.) At his wife’s request, Rudolf convinces his superiors to let the rest of the family stay behind while he relocates. The Hösses are only reunited when Rudolf is put in charge of an enormous undertaking: the deportation and murder of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews, all in the span of less than two months in 1944.
The question of what the Höss family knows—and to what extent they can be held responsible—looms over The Zone of Interest. Hedwig and her children aren’t directly involved in Auschwitz’s administration. But the movie suggests complicity in one way or another. At one point, Hedwig tries on a luxurious fur coat stolen from a murdered woman. In another scene, the couple’s oldest son, Klaus, uses a flashlight to examine false teeth pried from the mouths of Jews killed in the gas chambers. When Rudolf and his children go swimming in a river, the commandant stumbles onto a human jawbone—a macabre find that prompts him to hurry home for a bath.
As Polygon notes in its review of the film:
We don’t see the camp, but the sounds of it are all-encompassing, blaring just beneath the everyday sounds in the rest of the movie. They’re like a thick fog that permeates the family’s weightless domestic concerns, making the evil they’re complicit in inescapable. Death and its noises are ever-present but never acknowledged, shrouding the nearly meaningless events on the screen.
Who was Rudolf Höss?
Born to Catholic parents in Germany in 1900, Rudolf fought in World War I before joining a nationalist paramilitary group. He first heard Adolf Hitler speak in 1922, and he joined the Nazi Party shortly thereafter. The following year, Rudolf and several accomplices murdered a schoolteacher who’d betrayed a fellow paramilitary soldier to the French. Sentenced to ten years in prison, Rudolf was released in 1928 under a general amnesty. He spent the next few years farming and starting a family but eventually abandoned the agrarian lifestyle in favor of the SS, the Nazis’ elite paramilitary division.
Between 1934 and 1940, Rudolf worked at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, which at the time housed mainly political prisoners. He impressed his superiors so much that they appointed him commandant of the newly created Auschwitz. In this role, he transformed the camp into the Nazis’ chief killing center, settling on Zyklon B as the most efficient method of gassing. As he later said, gassing was preferable to shooting because the latter “would have placed too heavy a burden on the SS men who had to carry it out, especially because of the women and children among the victims.”
Rudolf approached the prospect of mass murder with systematic, detached precision. As historian Laurence Rees wrote for History Extra in 2020, “Höss was no mere robot, blindly following orders, but an innovator in the way he organized the killing.” At the camp’s peak, Auschwitz’s gas chambers were capable of murdering 2,000 people an hour.
Rudolf’s family lived in a villa in Auschwitz’s zone of interest, an SS-administered area surrounding the camp. During the war, the SS expelled some 9,000 locals from this 16-square-mile zone, preventing outsiders from witnessing the atrocities and isolating the prisoners from the rest of the world. The commandant took care to hide the crematoria chimney from his children, erecting a garden wall and planting trees that obstructed their view from the house.
In his autobiography, Rudolf maintained that Hedwig had no knowledge of the killings taking place at Auschwitz. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The Hösses lived a life of luxury, employing camp inmates as forced laborers and seizing items confiscated from the dead, including expensive furs, cooking supplies like sugar and flour, jewelry, and leather goods. The commandant “made his household so magnificent and so well-equipped that his wife declared, ‘Here I want to live and die,’” recalled Stanislaw Dubiel, a Pole who worked as the family’s gardener, in testimony provided after the war. “They had everything in their household, and there was no way they would lack anything with the enormous supplies of all kinds of goods accumulated in the camp.”
Both Hedwig and Rudolf were deeply antisemitic. According to Dubiel, “She believed that [Jews] all must disappear from the surface of the earth, and that some day the time would come even for English Jews.” Rudolf, for his part, “had joined the SS because he believed wholeheartedly in the overall Nazi vision,” Rees wrote.
As in the movie, Rudolf was reassigned to Berlin in late 1943, tasked with overseeing operations at all of the Nazis’ concentration and extermination camps. The SS was pleased with his progress, describing him as “a true pioneer in this area because of his new ideas and educational methods.” His family remained at Auschwitz during his stint in the German capital, but their separation was relatively brief.
In May 1944, Rudolf returned to the camp to oversee the eponymous Operation Höss, which brought 440,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in just 56 days. The Auschwitz Album, a collection of photographs housed at Yad Vashem in Israel, records these individuals’ arrival at the camp, where the majority were immediately sent to the gas chambers. The images stand in stark contrast to snapshots captured by SS officer Karl Höcker around this same time. In the photos, Rudolf, Josef Mengele and other SS men stationed at Auschwitz participate in a sing-along and relax at a retreat, as well as attend official camp ceremonies. Juxtaposed with the final moments of the newly arrived Jews, the officers’ blithe enjoyment of everyday life appears both callous and eerily relatable, reminding viewers—much like The Zone of Interest does—of the Nazis’ humanity.
“Though Höcker's album does not depict any criminal or immoral actions, one is struck by [its] amorality,” notes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on its website. Eliding the brutality of Auschwitz, the photos instead show “SS officers going about their business, socializing, enjoying the beautiful weather and mourning fallen comrades, seemingly oblivious to the magnitude of the crimes which they are either perpetrating or enabling.”
What happened to Rudolf Höss and his family after World War II?
Toward the end of the war, the Höss family went into hiding in northern Germany, hoping to bide their time until they could escape to South America, where many Nazis sought refuge after the conflict. Hedwig and the children settled above an old sugar factory in the coastal village of St. Michaelisdonn, while Rudolf moved to Flensburg and worked at a farm under the alias Franz Lang.
It took a year for authorities to catch up with the former commandant. In March 1946, British soldiers showed up at Hedwig’s home. “My older brother Klaus was taken with my mother,” Rudolf’s daughter Brigitte later recalled. “He was beaten badly by the British. My mother heard him scream in pain from the room next door. Just like any mother, she wanted to protect her son, so she told them where my father was.”
The man in charge of the search was Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who’d fled Berlin in the 1930s and ended up in Britain. When Alexander turned up at Rudolf’s door one night, the Nazi denied that he was the former commandant. But his wedding ring proved otherwise, bearing the inscribed names “Rudolf” and “Hedwig.”
Following his capture, Rudolf testified at the Nuremberg trials, providing detailed accounts of the Nazi killing machine and his own role in the murders at Auschwitz. He was the first senior Nazi to confess to such crimes, taking responsibility for his actions while many of his peers refused to admit any wrongdoing. Transferred to Poland, he was tried for murder and sentenced to death by hanging. While awaiting execution, he wrote his autobiography, painting himself as “a cog in the wheel of the great extermination machine created by the Third Reich.” On April 16, 1947, Rudolf was hanged at Auschwitz, the site of his crimes, in front of a crowd that included former camp inmates.
After Rudolf’s execution, his family struggled to make ends meet in a country eager to forget its Nazi past. As the widow of a convicted war criminal, Hedwig didn’t receive a pension or other government funding. But she never held a job either, leading her grandson Rainer Höss to speculate that she survived on money “from the old Nazi network that flocked around her.” The commandant’s oldest son, Klaus, eventually relocated to Australia, while his daughter Brigitte moved first to Spain and then to the United States. The rest of the children stayed in Germany, as did their mother. The family rarely talked about Rudolf, preferring to hide their connection to the infamous Nazi and downplay his crimes.
Alexander’s great-nephew, a journalist named Thomas Harding, interviewed Brigitte while working on a book about his uncle’s search for Rudolf. "She told me that he was the nicest father in the world, that he would read stories and take them on boat rides,” Harding told the Globe and Mail in 2013. “His family loved him. There were two sides to him—the father and the commandant.” Harding added, “What I found is that a single person can be both [a man and a monster], and that’s frightening. It could happen again, and that’s why we need to be vigilant.”