THE STORY – The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.
THE CAST – Sandra Hüller & Christian Friedel
THE TEAM – Jonathan Glazer (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
There have been many Holocaust films throughout cinema’s history since the Second World War, and it’s become a sub-genre within Hollywood and other parts of the world. Every year we’re reminded of the atrocities which took place during those dark years in Europe in hopes that it will never happen again. This form of storytelling has become tired and true as we see countless films showcasing the stone-cold brutality of the Nazis towards those they wished to exterminate and nearly succeeded in doing so over 80 years ago. So when a wholly unique vision comes around that shakes you to your core, it becomes indelible. That’s what English director Jonathan Glazer (“Under The Skin”) has accomplished with his adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel “The Zone Of Interest.” When history thinks of the great Holocaust films such as “Schindler’s List,” “Shoah” or “Night And Fog,” they will have a new film to mention, for what Glazer has created may be one of the most striking juxtapositions in the history of the medium.
As the film begins, and all that’s seen is a dark screen, Mica Levi’s haunting score creeps its way through the speakers and invades your eardrums with its sonically uncomfortable mood. After a restless extended period of time, the first image we see is not of a concentration camp or innocent Jews being slaughtered (in fact, “The Zone Of Interest” doesn’t contain a single bit of on-screen violence) but of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon by a lake. We’re then introduced to their idyllic German home as we spend most of the film watching them go through the mundanity of everyday life. Pool parties, kids going to school, gardening in the backyard, sleeping well– the pleasantries many take for granted are painstakingly put up on the screen for us to absorb in full as Glazer contrasts these images with the horrific sights and sounds of the Holocaust. Gun shots, people yelling, explosions in the distance, cries for mercy– other than Levi’s beforementioned score, this is the soundscape of “The Zone Of Interest.”
We see the smoke of the countless burnt bodies rise above the Höss’ stone wall and barbed-wired fence they keep around their property, but other than this; we never see anything beyond the borders their inhumanity has created. The ice-cold unresponsiveness to what is happening beyond those walls as the Höss get on with what would otherwise appear to be their perfectly normal, loving, and peaceful lives is sickening to witness and beyond our comprehension. Such is why “The Zone Of Interest” is exactly that, a zone of interest for our minds to disturbingly examine the nature of evil and how we could ever allow such acts to be considered tolerable under any conditions. It’s a thought-provoking masterstroke from Glazer that critically forewarns how easy it could be for us to slip into such complacency someday, especially with far-right views of bigotry and hatred on the rise worldwide again.
This is not a conventional film, nor is it meant to be accessible in any way, shape, or form for a modern audience. It’s intended to provoke anger and distress. By not showcasing any form of on-screen violence, Glazer cleverly gives the audience the power of their imaginations to invoke far more barbaric images than he or anyone could have conjured for this film. The effect is beyond stunning, especially by the time the film reaches its breathtaking ending, where the vastness of the genocide is shown in its aftermath many years later (after Rudolf Höss is told earlier in the film by his superiors to start prepping the Auschwitz concentration camp to murder over 700,000 Jews).
The unassuming performances from Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel never break the illusion of what we see as Glazer crafts a realism with the dullness of the Höss’ daily lives through his impassive screenplay, the restrained production design and precise cinematography from Łukasz Żal. The meticulous editing keeps the film moving in a startling way that doesn’t promote a feeling of excitement but instead grants an ability to mentally process what is being shown rather than being told. Such command in service to an explicit vision is rarely found nowadays in today’s cinematic landscape. When it arrives with such force as this, the effect can be overwhelming.
The profoundly upsetting and cerebral message of “The Zone Of Interest” is one that is thoroughly communicated and will forever stick with you long after the final credits have rolled. Even though some may consider it emotionally detached compared to other Holocaust dramas they’ve seen before with more traditional cinematic narratives, there really wasn’t any other way to depict such cruel and monstrous behavior than with chilling indifference by the Höss family. Never one to repeat himself, Glazer has created a one-of-a-kind cinematic masterwork that you’ve likely never seen before. It’s frighteningly essential viewing that will satisfy arthouse cinema fans and hopefully convince those ignorant of the real possibility of such a dark and deadly time returning that it’s not as incomprehensible or far away from happening again as you think.