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The Zone of Interest

Released 2023. Director: Jonathan Glazer

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU HEAR BUT DON'T SEE in The Zone of Interest. By playing on your imagination, this movie is effectively unsettling because it evokes our collective knowledge of history without actually showing you what’s happening.

Jonathan Glazer’s enactment of the Holocaust looks squarely at a German family in Poland, without a single shot of the victims. The chilling quality and the ever-present dread comes from the mundanity of everyday domesticity, not the genocide occurring off-screen.

The structure of this elegantly austere exercise is a series of contrasts. Real-life Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss, his wife Hedwig, their five young children and servants live in a spacious, beautiful villa with a large garden. The cameras observe them inside and outside the home so we see parents and kids in their banal quotidian routine. The servants clean, the kids play, Hedwig catches up with her visiting mother, Rudolf turns off the lights and locks the doors before heading to bed, all unremarkable in themselves. Their well-tended garden is lush with a variety of flowers and vegetables, has a trimmed lawn, paved paths, a greenhouse and even a pool with a slide, all very pretty and idyllic. Like a perfect home for a model family.

But listen, you’ll hear in the background faint industrial noises, heavy vehicles, intermittent shouts and screams of terror, gunshots, barking, the sound of train engine, all coming from the other side of the fence topped with barbed wire. That’s where the Commandant goes to work every day in his Nazi uniform, a death camp, in Auschwitz.

The family pays no attention to what goes on within earshot. They’re so used to it they hardly hear it anymore. The Zone of Interest is thus a depiction of the absence of empathy and humanity. At a place where every day thousands of terrified prisoners, young and old, are systematically rounded up, forced into slave labour, tortured, shot, gassed, the family next door goes on living as normal, having a picnic, admiring the blooms, celebrating birthdays, giggle at a fond memory and talk of a holiday at an Italian spa. There’s plenty of food, warm beds, bedtime stories and planning for the future. In contrast, the faceless families over the fence starve, their possessions stripped and marched into a gas chamber. You don’t see any of the atrocities but you know. Hedwig is upset with her husband’s transfer because she doesn’t want to leave this family utopia. “Everything we need is at our doorstep,” she protests. Her words and attitude are staggering, knowing as we do the mass murders next door.

Another striking example of contrast is the scenes showing a village girl hiding apples on work sites in a small act of personal resistance. We hear Rudolf reading Hansel & Gretel to his children but we see an unnamed girl leaving food to feed those condemned to die soon. The scene is shot in thermal imaging in order to make the girl visible to us in the dark of night. What it also brings out is the glow of body heat which is symbolic of compassion against the moral coldness in other characters.

The Höss family are always filmed in medium shot, keeping us from a distance, as if to prevent us from getting close or even, as if it’s possible, connect with them. This amoral indifference to the daily suffering and murder could apply on a personal level when people wilfully ignore the plight of their neighbours and friends. Or even to a larger context when we turn a blind eye to neighbouring nations caught up in conflicts.

The Zone of Interest is a bleak film. It’s also stark and technically astute filmmaking that approaches the idea of horror in a way that depicts it as wilful complacency.

As much as The Zone of Interest is worthy of praise, it is flawed in a peculiar aspect. The movie is formally impeccable in the meticulous way it’s structured and filmed including the crucial sound design. All the same, after the idea and the techniques are established and expressed, the narrative churns slowly on the same spot. The situations largely remain unchanged and the characters show little development. Jonathan Glazer strips away any plot from the source novel by Martin Amis. Having constructed the movie's architecture brilliantly, Glazer directs the rest of the movie with thematic and technical distinction but he doesn’t really take the idea much further.

So I wonder, would The Zone of Interest be even more powerful if it was condensed as a short film? Given the rapturous reception and the accolades the film has received since its release, I hope no one throws bricks through my window for the sacrilege.

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1 Comment

Apr 14

I enjoyed this film although as you rightly pointed out, its content is bleak. Well directed and excellent acting . Btw, I like the new ads!!

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