To work on The zone of interest, In Jonathan Glazer’s gripping Holocaust drama about the home life of an Auschwitz commander and his family, Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal had to “forget everything I was taught” about making “beautiful images.”
Glazer’s film, loosely adapted from Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, follows the seemingly mundane activities of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig, played by Christian Friedl and Sandra Hüller, as they strive to build a dream life for their family in their house and garden next to the camp. The fluid, stunning monochrome aesthetic that Zal perfected on his (Oscar-nominated) lens of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida And Cold War would not suffice for Glazer’s story, which aimed to evoke the banality of evil by refusing to show Höss and Hedwig as anything other than what they were: ordinary, even dull people who committed unspeakable evil.
For Zal, the challenge was to remove what he calls the “Hollywood approach” of “fetishizing history” with “beautiful actors in beautiful lighting (wearing beautiful uniforms)” in order to create an “ugly, objective” way to show evil ‘as something’. ordinary, like mending a coat or cleaning the floor.”
What made you want to be involved in this project?
Jon sent me the script and I remember reading it and being completely crushed by it. I had never seen such an approach to a Holocaust film. This was not the Hollywood approach to these types of stories, which I think can often fetishize this history, even when it comes to how the characters are shown, the way the uniforms are depicted, even when it comes to the use of color and dark shadows. Here Jonathan wanted everything to be bright and light, and everything to look so beautiful, light and normal. I remember reading this and thinking: I want to do that too. I want to shoot this film because I’ve never seen anything like it before and it goes to the heart of something I’m personally very interested in: why people do evil, how people can treat killing as something normal, as reparation. a coat or cleaning the floor.
How did you and Jonathan Glazer go about translating that idea – the banality of evil – into a visual language?
We were talking about this and I realized that for this film I had to forget everything I had been taught in terms of lighting, in terms of manipulating an image, the whole process of trying to capture moments, trying to capture the interpret reality with my camera. This would be the complete opposite. It completely went against the grain of typical Hollywood cinema, that style of trying to tell the story with beautiful lighting and close-ups that draw you into the emotions of a scene, of the characters. Our approach was completely different: creating a completely unappealing, unappealing, almost objective visual language.
The most important aspect was not to fetishize the image, not to judge, not to make decisions that you would normally make as a director of photography. Jon and I said at the beginning that the camera in this movie should be a big eye that sees everything. Of course we made some aesthetic choices, but I tried to limit my impact on this film as much as possible, forgetting my approach to aesthetics and composition and setting up the framing in as simple a way as possible. .
What did that mean in practice?
It meant embracing a completely different approach, embracing natural light, even the ‘ugly’ light. When I was being taught at school, I was also told to photograph with nice backlight or in the ‘golden hour’, when the light is at its best. Here we were shooting at noon, at 1 p.m., at 2 p.m., at three o’clock, when the light is the loudest. For me it was extremely exciting, because it completely went against the idea of making beautiful images. Instead, what I loved about our images for the film was how honest and how real they looked.
I had to forget what I knew about aesthetics, about using the golden ratio for framing, the golden hour for exposure, all those golden tricks you learn and use over and over: a little backlight here, a camera flare there, some shallow depth of field, all the ways you can use the camera to be emotionally manipulative. For this film we wanted a different approach, we wanted to show these characters in a way that would be objective, to try to get out of the way and just show things as they are.
I remember one of our first meetings on set, discussing a scene, which ultimately didn’t make it into the final film, where a character is looking through a window, and in the next scene we hear a gunshot and we know he’s been killed . I was preparing the shot and suggested to take a nice close-up portrait of this man, looking out the window. And Jon said, “Don’t you think that would be really emotional and manipulative? What if we just shoot him from afar, just show this guy at the window and not even see his face?
At that moment something clicked for me. I understood that we were going to make this film in the most objective way, using the most objective lenses, the most objective lighting and the most objective framing.
This seems most evident in the house scenes, which are shot with 10 different mounted cameras, like a reality TV show.
There was this idea: “Big Brother in a Nazi house” It was a very different process than I was used to, because all my work was in the preparation process, deciding where to place the cameras. We set up things in the house and went down to the basement with my cameraman and my team of about twenty people to go through the footage with Jon. We changed lenses, changed positions, over and over again. It was a similar process every day, every scene.
Many of the tasks I had to do involved preparing the workflow and coordinating the technology. Because we did not want to risk frequency disruption with a remote connection, we connected all cameras via fiber optic. So we have these 10 cameras with all these wires coming out of them and going through the house. There was a hole in each room for the cables, it looked like Swiss cheese. We were all connected to this advanced communications system, so I could talk to the whole team, coordinate all these cameras, and make all these changes. We prepared for maybe five or six hours every day for the next day’s shoot.
But when the shooting started, we just sat back and watched. The actors would do the scene take after take and you would have everything in one take: all the shots, close-up wide, mid shots, as the light changes, clouds pass, the sun rises or sets and we just observe with our cameras.
What equipment did you use?
We shot with the Sony Venice cameras because they have this Rialto camera extension system, which allows you to connect the camera housings with fiber optic cables to these smaller 5 x 4 inch detectors that were very easy to attach to a wall in the house or fit into could hide. a closet. When we prepared the house, we started looking for places to hide the cameras, because the shooting itself was done without a crew with actors. We all sat in the basement and watched the monitors.
We shot everything at 6K to give us that extra resolution, and at 3200 ISO so we could shoot with amazing sensitivity, with oil lamps and candles. The core approach of the film was always to get as close to reality as possible.
We wanted the lenses to be as small as possible, but we wanted modern lenses. We used Leica lenses which were great because they were so sharp. The whole idea was to use modern equipment to make it look 21st century, and not vintage. We shot digitally and we wanted it to look digital, not like film, but like sepia.
We used very high F-stops to have everything in the frame in focus, so that the viewer doesn’t have to decide what to look at, but to try to have everything in the frame in focus. It all went back to this idea of being as objective as possible, of trying to do as little manipulation as possible.
Has making the film this way changed the way you view other historical films that are made more traditionally, especially on this subject?
I think the approach should depend on the story you want to tell, but yes, it does bother me now when I look at a very Hollywood-esque portrayal of these types of stories. When I see these beautiful actors looking amazing in this beautiful light and wearing these beautiful uniforms. Because I feel like it’s not true and it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t beautiful, dramatic or emotional that way. There was no great philosophy behind this kind of killing. Killing was like parking the car, like closing a door. That’s what’s terrible and painful and why, I think, we need to talk about this now and at this moment. Because if you look at the world now, you see that we have not changed. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis, Palestinians or Poles. We are all human, we are all the same. Sometimes we can be great and brave. Sometimes we are terrible and monstrous. But we must look at ourselves as we are and not look away.