The Zone of Interest

More than a decade after 'Under the Skin', filmmaker Jonathan Glazer returns with a chilling and unforgettable Holocaust drama.
Sarah Ward
February 19, 2024

Overview

Quotes and observations about evil being mundane, as well as the result when people look the other way, will never stop being relevant. A gripping, unsettling masterpiece, The Zone of Interest is a window into why. The first film by Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer in more than a decade, the Holocaust-set, Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning feature peers on as the unthinkable happens literally just over the fence, but a family goes about its ordinary life. If it seems abhorrent that anything can occur in the shadow of any concentration camp or site of World War II atrocities, that's part of the movie's point. It dwells in the Interessengebiet, the 40-square-kilometre-plus titular area that comprised and surrounded the Auschwitz complex, to interrogate how banal genocide was to those in power; commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel, Babylon Berlin), even gloats that his name will be remembered and celebrated for its connection to mass extermination.

Höss was a real person, and the real Nazi SS officer overseeing Auschwitz from 1940–43. His wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall) and five children are similarly drawn from truth. But The Zone of Interest finds its way to the screen via Martin Amis' fiction novel of the same name, then hones its interest down from the book's three narrators to the Höss family; a biopic, it isn't, even as it switches its character monikers back to reflect actuality. This is a work of deep probing and contemplation — a piece that demands that its viewers confront the daily reality witnessed and face how the lives of those in power, and benefiting from it, thrived with death not only as a neighbour but an enabler. Camp prisoners tend the Höss' garden. Ashes are strewn over the soil for horticultural effect. Being turned into the same is a threat used to keep the household's staff in line. All three of these details, as with almost everything in the feature, are presented with as matter-of-fact an air as cinema is capable of.

The film starts with idyllic river swims — with Rudolph and Hedwig taking their brood picnicking and frolicking like this isn't the 1940s, war isn't tearing apart Europe, and casualties at the Nazis' hands via their internment system aren't heartbreaking in their horror, cruelty and number. When the Hösses return home after their day out, a sight of domestic bliss awaits there, too. Hedwig isn't just proud of the multi-level house they've constructed, and the leafy grounds with a greenhouse and wading pool; when Rudolph is told that he'll be transferred, she's unwilling to leave. Theirs is a content existence. Glazer and cinematographer Lukasz Zal (an Academy Award contender for both Ida and Cold War) ensure that the barbed wire atop the adjoining wall with the camp is evident, however. Also, the filmmaker soundtracks the feature with rumbling ominousness from his Under the Skin composer Mica Levi, the sound of the furnaces, plus screams, howls and gunfire.

The Zone of Interest doesn't plunge directly and visibly into Auschwitz's terrors, such as by moving its distanced camera over the barrier to spend time with detainees. It knows that its audience is already aware of the gutwrenching specifics, as the world should never be allowed to forget. But its approach — staring on at the Hösses primarily in mid shots, and choosing them as protagonists over the camp's inhabitants — is an act of matching its style and focus with one of the basic truths that it's unpacking. With its steadfast composure, which is resolute to an eerie degree, The Zone of Interest compartmentalises just as Rudolph and Hedwig do. When he approves crematorium designs, she tries on a fur coat that belonged to a prisoner, he sleeps with detainees and she fights to retain her perfect abode, each does so with zero thought for Auschwitz's involuntary populace as people. It's simple for a movie to restrict what it sees, of course, but magnifying the hideousness of humans doing the same to such suffering and savagery is another of the film's objectives.

So much that fills Hedwig's days as the "queen of Auschwitz", as Rudolph calls her, is particularly pedestrian — and, as navigated so unflinchingly by Hüller in her second exceptional performance of the past year (and in one of two pictures that are 2024 Oscar-nominees), so far removed from any hint of concern or guilt over what's occurring next door. Landscaping, chores, parties, chatter and visits from relatives have rarely felt so disquieting. Unsurprisingly, The Zone of Interest isn't easy to watch for a second. Unshakeable dismay emanates from the disconnect between how the Hösses embrace their existence, and willingly, with the camp's grimness that's constantly heard. It isn't sighted but pondering the reverse, about prisoners listening to playing, splashing, laughing and cavorting ringing out from over the fence amid their pain and perishing, is as much of a blistering, bruising punch. Glazer understands that the human response is alarm and outrage even at the concept of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, let alone its echoes and shadows — reactions absent from those who profit personally and professionally from its brutality, and treat it with both ignorance and apathy.

For all of its exacting gaze at sheer inhumanity, The Zone of Interest does depart from Rudolph, Hedwig and their kids in fits and spurts. Cutting to pure white, red and black makes a statement. Also, as lensed with night-vision cameras — the entire film only uses natural light, switching to heat when light genuinely couldn't be seen — the movie spies a Polish girl leaving food at detainee worksites each evening. There's hope in her deeds, with the character also based on a real figure. These moments underscore Glazer's commitment to seeing this story with modern eyes, too. The production design all-round is gleaming. The technical feat, with cameras wired into the set, is pure 21st-century. There's no dismissing what's being depicted as mere history, then, which a late jump to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum now, as explored in documentary-esque footage, emphasises.

For the bulk of the picture, Glazer's tech setup means that his actors, as led by Friedel and Hüller at their best, build their portrayals in lengthy takes and at a physical remove from the audience. He conveys the monotony of someone so influential in such awfulness, she taps into the subconscious refusal to engage with the truth of her surroundings, but getting truly close to Rudolph and Hedwig is never the aim. The Zone of Interest could never be about empathising with its points of interest, or redeeming them. As it observes their behaviour, it plummets into a nightmare that's all the more insidious and distressing for how commonplace its protagonists' lives and attitudes prove. In the process, this unforgettably potent and piercing movie also turns its window into a mirror, chillingly asking about today's equivalent of blocking our ears to shrieks and conflict, putting our own comforts ahead of what's right, striving to get ahead at work no matter the cost, and avoiding and disregarding what's over the wall.

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