Recreating the Garden at Auschwitz

I don’t recall ever seeing a garden so prominent in a movie, with most of the scenes set in the garden, as in the Oscar-nominated film The Zone of Interest.  There’s even a long scene, shown above, of the homeowner/gardener naming each plant as she gives a tour of the garden. It’s all the more surprising, and shocking, that the woman so justly proud of her garden is the wife of the commandant at Auschwitz, in occupied Poland, and her garden is just outside its walls.

In another scene, the concentration camp is seen just over the wall from the garden, where family and friends frolic.  Such fun!

So, lots to unpack from a film that never shows us the horrors behind the wall but instead, focuses in a cinema verité kind of way on the family’s otherwise ordinary lives at home, and especially in their garden.

How the Garden in the Film was Created

So I wondered how the family-friendly, flower-filled garden shown in the film was found or created and did it reflect residential gardens in Poland in the 1940s?

The Zone of Interest features a fictionalized version of Rudolf Höss, the actual commandant, whose home is still standing but in bad condition and privately owned. So production designer Chris Oddy found a “derelict” home nearby and converted it into a replica of the original, including replicas of the original furniture. Amazing attention to historical accuracy. 

Then came the garden. Wiki tells us that the designer “started planting the garden in April 2021 so that it would be in bloom when filming began [in the summer of ’21].” So it wasn’t exactly an overnight make-over like the ones HGTV used to tout but still very fast, and the garden looks awfully established.

ScreenRant covered the interior and garden production design, explaining that the garden was easier to replicate than the home, thanks to old photos:

Oddy had a lot more archival imagery to go off of when working on the exterior scenes. Several elements in the final film, including the swimming pool, picnic table, and toy car, are lifted directly from these images.

One of the most vital aspects of the Höss villa was the garden, which Hedwig [the wife] is seen attending to throughout the film. The general aesthetics of the garden could be witnessed through the archival photos themselves, but seeing as accuracy was tantamount to The Zone of Interest, additional research was required to align the plant selections with the flora growing in 1943. “[I took] a forensic kind of loop on [existent species at the time so] I was able to detect what some of those plants were,” Oddy explained.

The New York Times’ fills in some more details about the garden:

There’s a spacious garden with a small wading pool, beehives, a sprawling greenhouse and beds of flowers tended by camp prisoners. A tall wall topped with barbed wire borders the garden; through the wire, the tops of numerous death camp buildings dot the view….. After Höss was arrested in 1946, he wrote that “my family had it good in Auschwitz, every wish that my wife or my children had was fulfilled.” The children ran free and his wife had “her flower paradise.”

Could it be that everything here was planted a month or two before filming? Or were elements just added to an older garden with established plants?

The Washington Post covered the garden, too:  “Oddy was just as meticulous in re-creating [the matriarch’s] garden, which adopts a utilitarian design with its rigid pathways and carefully planted greenery. He observed that the camp wall never appeared in family photos captured in the garden.”

A detail from that article makes the garden seem almost complicit:

No matter how blissful a life the Höss family hopes to project, the property reveals the horrors of their complicity and disregard. In the middle of the garden sits a small pool that Oddy based on his visits to the real house and an aerial photograph of the yard. An Auschwitz watchtower is visible from the pool’s waterslide, peeking above the wall. Oddy stared at this scene, disturbed, and realized once he zoomed in on the photograph that the family filled their pool with water using a shower head, just like the fixtures the Nazis used to trick prisoners into believing the gas chambers were shower facilities.

Mostly scrubs, vines and trees – not an easy or instant make-over. 
The film does include a short mention of the camp wall – as one would a pergola or any other harmless feature while showing off the garden to visitors.

Replica of the original home.

Since we’re talking about movies…

The Zone of Interest  has been called  “the year’s most disturbing film,” despite an absence of on-screen violence. Still it’s won lots of awards and is an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Best International Feature, Best Directing, and Best Writing.  Sandra Hüller, who plays the matriarch in the film, is coincidentally nominated as Best Actress for her starring role in Anatomy of a Fall, another Best Picture nominee.

I’ve seen all 10 Best Picture nominees this year and my quick review is that I recommend every one of them, which is amazing to me. My pre-Oscars catch-up viewing was thanks to YouTube, where I discovered that recent movies can be rented for as little as 6 bucks.

I was able to see the five nominated short documentaries at my local nonprofit theater, and I loved them! What a relief in these times, when there’s so much to be disturbed about, to see films about real life that are uplifting. I guess I needed it.

To go off-topic just a bit more…my interest in movies has grown as I keep taking film-studies courses at the University of Maryland. (Now in my third, we’re studying nature documentaries.)  Classes are tuition-free for retirees 60 and older, and boy, am I ever taking advantage, auditing classes in all the arts, and one in Environmental Studies. The campus is 15 minutes from my house.