The Reel Review
Rudolf Höss, the Nazi Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, enjoys a tranquil homelife with his family. They don’t care that just over the garden wall, millions of people are being killed. Loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, this World War II-era historical drama envisions the Höss family’s everyday lives amidst The Holocaust.
Working from a screenplay he wrote with the book’s author, director Jonathan Glazer’s abstract drama is a scathing indictment of human complacency in the face of evil – an immersive perspective of the Holocaust from people living ordinary lives in its shadows. The Hōss family enjoys a gleeful garden party as gunshots, barking guard dogs and screams ring out on the other side of the wall. From an upstairs window at night, they watch the fiery glow of the crematorium. Ash from the human remains is used to fertilize the garden. It is utterly horrifying in its banality, made even more sickening by the family’s unremarkably ordinary behavior.
Christian Friedal (Babylon Berlin, 13 Minutes) plays Höss as a devoted family man, with an equally chilling Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a Fall) as his wife Hedwig, who picks through the prisoners’ clothes and personal items, deciding which to keep for herself. She doesn’t get why her visiting Mom fled in horror overnight and is distraught when faced with the prospect of leaving her dream home. Glazer’s film is abstract – there are a few jarringly strange arthouse moments. But the film’s sounds, its animated visuals of the local Polish girl hiding food at the prisoners’ worksites, and its harrowing discordant score are all intended to fill the viewer with incredible dread at just how easy it all was. It succeeds.
• Director Jonathan Glazer used five fixed cameras in the house and garden with no crew to capture many of the immersive scenes in the film. Actors never knew whether they were being shot in a close-up or wide shot. He also used the score sparingly, so as to allow the sound design to depict the off-screen horrors at Auschwitz.
• Martin Amis, the British author of the source novel, died on May 19, 2023, the same day the film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
• Rudolf Höss was the longest-serving commandant at Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943 and again from May 1944 to January 1945. He was captured in 1946 in northern Germany where he was posing as a gardener. Hess was convicted of war crimes for his direct role in the deaths of three million people during the Holocaust. Höss was hanged next to the crematorium at Auschwitz on April 16, 1947. The gallows is still there today.