When “The Zone Of Interest,” Jonathan Glazer’s first film since “Under the Skin” a decade ago, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it was not greeted with the usual empty hyperbole that marks most first reactions from film festivals. It was received with a kind of unsettled awe, a shell-shocked acknowledgment of a profoundly disturbing major piece of work. It may not have won the Palme d’Or – it won the second-place Grand Prix, behind Justine Triet’s “Anatomy Of A Fall” – but awards already seemed to be beside the point for something this important and utterly brilliant. Still, Oscar season lasts all year these days, and the conversation inevitably turned to what the Academy might think of Glazer’s latest, which has the entire cinephile world buzzing.
“The Zone Of Interest” can be broadly described as a Holocaust drama, a genre that is (rightly or wrongly) seen as a shortcut toward Oscar gold. But “The Zone Of Interest” is most definitely not “Schindler’s List,” and it’s certainly not “Life is Beautiful.” Most Holocaust movies embraced by the Academy, even the most brutal and unsparing, contain easily understandable and relatively conventional narratives. We have a protagonist who bears witness to the atrocities of the Shoah, whether as a victim (“The Pianist’s” Wladyslaw Szpilman or “Son of Saul’s” titular sonderkommando) or as a sympathetic outsider (Oskar Schindler, or “Jojo Rabbit’s” reluctant Hitler Youth). We see the barbarism of the Third Reich, follow the protagonists as they attempt to survive it with their humanity intact, and feel as though we understand a fraction of the truth of what took place nearly a hundred years ago with the understanding that we will never allow such atrocities to occur ever again.
“The Zone Of Interest,” however, is a Holocaust drama turned inside-out. The protagonists are neither victims nor outsiders; in fact, they are perpetrators. They are Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), the Commandant of Auschwitz, and his family. They live a mundane but joyful life in a lovely house right outside a concrete wall topped with barbed wire. They picnic by a lake, fuss over their garden, discuss their future, etc. The sounds of the churning crematorium next door, as well as the occasional screams of murdered prisoners and scattered gunshots, don’t bother them at all. They cannot even be called “unrepentant;” they never acknowledge that they’ve done anything worth repenting for. The camera underlines their compartmentalization, never showing a hint of violence even as death hangs over every frame.
It is, by all accounts, a deeply upsetting film designed to make the audience stew in anger and anguish for its entire runtime, with no relief until the credits come up. It is not interested in being accessible, and it’s unfortunately easy to imagine “The Zone Of Interest” getting hit with the old complaint of being “more admired than liked” by the Academy. If Oscar voters thought a straightforward drama like “The Power of the Dog” was too cerebral or “Roma” was too austere, they’ve got a big storm coming their way as A24 has strategically been mounting an awards campaign by giving Glazer’s latest masterwork a fall film festival run which will culminate in a December 8th theatrical release. But as the Academy grows younger, more diverse, and more international, their taste has steadily grown more eclectic, and they may be as bowled over by the film as the critics and audiences at Cannes and the other film festivals it’s played at were.
If that’s the case, “The Zone Of Interest” will firmly be in the driver’s seat to win Best International Feature Film, representing the United Kingdom despite being a German-language film. Its main competition, “Anatomy Of A Fall,” the Palme d’Or winner, was passed up by the French selection committee, and the season has been shifting to determine who is the no. 2 challenger to Glazer’s film ever since. Is it “The Taste of Things?” “Perfect Days?” “Society Of The Snow?” If nothing can build enough steam, then once “The Zone Of Interest” starts winning critics precursors left and right (because let’s face it, you know it’s going to do very well during that stage of the race) it will be hard to deny it a win in this category considering the amount of acclaim it has already received.
Jonathan Glazer stands a very good chance at being the “international pick” for a Best Director nomination this year as we’ve seen Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round“), Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car“), and a few others do in the last few years. He’s certainly built up the credibility and respect amongst millions of moviegoers and the industry. Should he get nominated there, a Best Picture nomination for A24 is a near-certainty, as it’s hard to imagine a Best Director-nominated film missing out in a Best Picture lineup with a guaranteed ten slots.
While these three categories (Picture, Director, and International Feature) have been talking points for “The Zone Of Interest” since its world premiere at Cannes, it would be a shame if it was overlooked for its technical achievements. Even with “Oppenheimer” as its main competition, the sound design for “The Zone Of Interest” stands alone as a singular achievement from Supervising Sound Editor, Sound Designer and Re-Recording Mixer, Johnnie Burn; it makes what happens offscreen as vivid as what happens on screen more horrifying. And what happens on screen is already plenty striking: Łukasz Żal’s exacting, deceptively beautiful cinematography is more than worthy of recognition for Best Cinematography (just look at the brief shots in the trailer alone for evidence of merit). The same goes for Mica Levi’s hair-raising score, which should earn them the nomination they should have received for their previous Glazer collaboration with “Under The Skin.”
As for acting, Sandra Hüller is having the year of her career between this and “Anatomy Of A Fall.” She received praise for her performance as Rudolf’s wife, Hedwig, the preening “Queen of Auschwitz.” Given how prolific she’s been compared to much of her competition as she’s not impacted by the SAG-AFTRA strike, it’s not out of the question for her to receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this film and possibly become dual nominated Oscar nomination morning. However, there’s always a chance the film will be primarily seen as a directorial achievement, and outside of one memorably venomous scene, Hüller’s performance is mostly unshowy and naturalistic – brilliantly executed, but not necessarily Academy catnip.
Have you seen “The Zone Of Interest” yet? If so, what do you think of it? How many Oscar nominations do you think it will receive? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.
You can follow Joe and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @HoeffnerJoe