Jonathan Glazer returns with his first film in nine years – an austere, chilling depiction of a German family maintaining normalcy in close proximity to the Holocaust.
Of all the creature comforts in her family’s home, Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) is most proud of the manicured gardens – she shows them off to her mother on a bright summer’s day, highlighting the vegetable patch, and the cheerful flowerbeds. There is even a modest swimming pool for their five children to play in. “This was a field three years ago,” she explains to her mother proudly. Beyond the boundary wall loom the chimneys of Auschwitz. Every so often, the sound of gunfire or screaming pierces the air. Hedwig does not seem to notice as she chatters pleasantly about her rural idyll.
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, loosely inspired by Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, depicts a period of roughly one year in the lives of the Höss family, who lived next door to Auschwitz from May 1940 until September 1944. Their patriarch, Rudolf (played here by Christian Friedel) was the commander of the camp, responsible for the death of at least 1.1 million inmates, primarily Jewish people deported from Germany and Poland. These victims are never seen in Glazer’s film, but their presence is still there. It is impossible to not watch The Zone of Interest and feel the scale of the atrocities that occurred over the wall from the Höss’s lovingly-crafted sanctuary, where they would eat, drink, play, and pick through the possessions stolen from inmates, saving the fur coats and fine dresses. One of the children plays with a collection of gold teeth.
We observe the Höss family largely in stark wide shots as they go about their daily lives. The children race around the house. Their mother cooks dinner and gossips with her friends. In a sitting room, Rudolf Höss meets with German engineers to discuss the construction of a new crematorium at the camp, so they can more efficiently dispose of dead bodies. This juxtaposition between domesticity and atrocity is horrific and jarring – an unflinching depiction of what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil”.
When we see this family basking in the sun, in the shadow of the most notorious death camp in the Nazi regime, it’s strange and eerie in its mundanity. In highlighting the most trivial of conversations and the bland day-to-day routine of the Höss family, we become hyper aware of what we aren’t seeing. One of the young sons, playing in his bedroom, hears a noise in the distance. He totters over to the window to look. We don’t see what he sees, but he quickly looks back to his toys. In the night, Hedwig’s visiting mother stands at the window, her face half-lit by an amber glow in the distance. The proximity to evil, and the evil that flourishes by way of silence and cooperation, permeates every frame.
Discordant musical arrangements from Glazer’s Under the Skin collaborator Mica Levi emphasise the horror we aren’t seeing, while cinematographer Łukasz Żal – who previously worked with Paweł Pawlikowski and Charlie Kaufman – proves his continued versatility with a stark, documentary-like approach. There are elements of the uncanny, as Rudolf is shown methodically switching off all the lights in the home, and closing every door. In a horror film we might expect something to lurk in the shadows, but The Zone of Interest is concerned with the absence of such. The reality of what is happening beyond the wall is never lost.
The scale of what occurred at Auschwitz over the course of four years can be difficult to comprehend, even with the vital work being done by Holocaust activists and educators to dispel the misinformation and propaganda distributed by those who continue to deny history. Glazer’s film performs a strange magic trick of sorts; its intentional omissions and starkness magnify the horror we aren’t seeing but feel all the same. This is not an attempt to humanise the Höss family or to present their perspective on the camps, but to show the cold indifference that flourished — and continues to on various scales to this day — among countless ‘average’ German citizens.
In the film’s press notes, Glazer refers to the work of philosopher Gillian Rose, who “imagined a film that could make us feel ‘unsafe’ by showing how we’re emotionally and politically closer to the perpetrator culture than we’d like to think we are. One that might leave us with, as she called “the dry eyes of a deep grief.'” The Zone of Interest is a harrowing manifestation of this thesis — a film that dares us to close the curtains.
Published 20 May 2023
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