The Zone of Interest (A24, PG-13)

The Zone of Interest opens with a black screen displaying titles in stark block lettering. Mica Levi’s discordant and ethereally mournful score fades in and plays out for what feels like minutes. A strange anticipation builds, the expectation of the opening image begins to loom. When it finally comes we see a family gathered by a riverbank enjoying a swim. The image is shot from a slight distance with a removed sort of clarity, pastoral but uninvolved. A combination of visual simplicity and jarring, eerie music constitutes the aesthetic building blocks of the film. So much is indirect, unspoken, communicated primarily through visual and aural cues. As such it’s Jonathan Glazer’s most restrained work, and his most uniquely disquieting and bleak.

Glazer loosely adapts a 2014 novel by Martin Amis about a Nazi officer who falls in love with the Commandant’s wife, told from multiple perspectives. For the film, Glazer throws out the love-triangle completely, narrowing the focus on the Commandant and his wife. In doing so, he transforms the material into a chilling and unromantic meditation on the banality of evil. Said term, coined by Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt in her book about Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, is bound to come up again and again in conversations about The Zone of Interest. As Arendt observed Eichmann’s trial, she came to see Eichmann as a man who had convinced himself that his crimes had no malicious imperative, but were motivated only by duty; because it was his job. Glazer’s Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) lives by this same justification, his clockwork routines and outward disinterest a clear sign of severe compartmentalization and gradually withered empathy. The resultant narrative demonstrates the insane mundanity of the life of a perpetrator and the casualness with which atrocities are carried out.

Höss and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) live in a picturesque country estate abutting Auschwitz. Their flourishing flower and vegetable garden, spot of numerous get-togethers and ceaseless tending, is an Eden located on the edge of Hell on Earth. Almost all of the film takes place here, never straying into Auschwitz itself to show the horrors within. All that can be seen remains on the periphery, never intrusive but always present. Still, even when shielded by physical structures and the camera’s intentionally avoidant focus, complete separation from the camp is impossible. Always lurking somewhere in the frame are the curved tops of the walls lined with barbed wire or the climbing chimneys of the crematoriums sending smoke and ash and infernal licks of flame into the sky.

Hedwig entertains numerous guests in the house, most of them blithely uninterested in the genocide occuring mere feet away from them. Only Hedwig’s mother seems to have any awareness of the morbid placement of the home. She develops a cough, seemingly from the constant smoke, and finds sleeping difficult, as the guest room at night becomes filled with the demonic glow of the furnaces of Auschwitz constantly incinerating what Rudolf and his associates refer to only as “loads”, but which we know are the bodies of innumerable Jews.

In contrast to the uncomfortable awareness shown by some, the Höss family has come to a tipping point between ignorance of the prisoners to utter dehumanization of them. In one scene Hedwig models an expensive fur coat seized from a prisoner upon entering the camp. In the pocket she finds an engraved tube of lipstick and lightly dabs on her lips the makeup which once  decorated the mouth of a person now being murdered next door. Later, when Rudolf comes home from the camp with several other Nazi officials, he leaves his boots at the door to be washed by a prisoner working in the yard. The hose water turns pinkish with blood as it falls off the boots. The oldest Höss son examines teeth encased in gold while laying in bed, admiring the souvenirs of human remains like trading cards.

Only at one point does the family become disconcerted with the horrors occurring near them. As Rudolf and his children wade in the azure waters of the nearby river, he sees a cloudy patch of something coming towards him. As it begins to pass, he feels around in the water and pulls out a human bone. He frantically gathers the children upon realizing that they’re swimming in ashes, and takes them home for a vigorous bathing. The deaths of the people in the camp literally dirty them and must be desperately scrubbed away and splashed out of the children’s eyes while, with grim irony, Hedwig tells them, “you’ll live.” The reality of what they’re doing doesn’t naturally elude them. It must be desperately and actively ignored.

Rudolf later gets transferred to a different camp, but Hedwig refuses to accompany him, insisting on staying at Auschwitz and maintaining the home she’s gone to such great lengths to make an object of envy. This instigates a rift in the two which results in perhaps the only moment of true clarity for either of them. Speaking to a clearly uninterested Hedwig on the phone about his reassignment back to Auschwitz to carry out the extermination of recently transported Hungarian Jews, Rudolf recalls that during a fancy reception held by top Nazi officials he could only think about how he would go about gassing the entire room. Afterwards, Rudolf makes a solitary descent down an ever-darkening staircase. Apropos of nothing he begins to retch, as if disturbed by some unseen force. This sudden bout of sickness comes immediately after the phone call in which he divulges this gassing fantasy to Hedwig. It’s as though the poison of the atrocities committed under him have so thoroughly subsumed his entire being that his body begins to physically try to reject it. 

Only a few brief segments diverge from the film’s steadfast placidity. Two scenes photographed in startling reversed black-and-white, having the appearance of film negatives, show a local Polish girl hiding apples among the prisoners’ work areas. Later, after Hedwig gives her mother a tour of the garden, a close-up shot of a posy dissolves into a sheet of red light while the sparsely used score rises out of the silence into an ominous thrum. These strange, vivid moments poke through the film’s static skin like fourth wall breaks, ghostly and ominous and almost entirely for the enlightenment of the viewer. Only one scene, which stands as the film’s most potent and staggering, uses this device in a way that seems to directly affect a character—a sudden shift in temporality and setting seen by both the viewer and potentially Rudolf that puts us in direct confrontation with the lasting horror and tragedy of the Holocaust.

What makes The Zone of Interest so unnerving and effective is its quiet insistence on suggesting, never stating, its objectives. The elliptical story of the Höss family plays out with such subtlety that it simulates their experience for us, where horrors abound but have been made perfectly easy to ignore. One could watch the entire film and, if sufficiently checked-out, perceive little to no presence of genocide. Through its narrative and impeccable craftsmanship, The Zone of Interest astutely replicates the enduring psychological mechanisms that make evil normalized and tolerable. | Nic Champion

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