There’s a danger with stories drawn from the Holocaust that familiarity breeds complacency: we think we know what happened and we have a version in our heads that undemanding books, films and TV simply reinforce. British director Jonathan Glazer’s German-language The Zone of Interest, freely adapted from Martin Amis’s novel portraying the family life of Auschwitz’s commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) is nothing like that. It’s a bold, experimental take on the horror that inherits something of the waking nightmare of Glazer’s last two films, Under the Skin and Birth. It’s careful in deciding what it does and doesn’t show, and it seeks a way of addressing this story that honours the facts while not treading over old ground formally or dramatically. It’s provocative in a deeply intelligent way.
Is a lovely garden still a lovely garden if it’s a stone’s throw from Auschwitz? Can you admire a flower, a piece of furniture, a well-cut lawn while also taking in the meaning of the smoking chimney on the horizon, the sound of gunshots in the distance and the relentless industrial burr of Mica Levi’s distressing score? The Zone of Interest runs with the nauseating truth that for Rudolf the extermination programme at Auschwitz was a fantastic career opportunity and for Hedwig it was a chance to live like ‘the Queen of Auschwitz’, as her husband jokes to a colleague.
Our hindsight brings heavy historical knowledge to the sight of a smoking, fiery chimney in the background beyond the Höss’s manicured garden. Yet these characters have no such perspective; for them this is the dawn of a sparkling new age, crystallised in how shiny, fresh and perfect everything appears in their home or in the Berlin headquarters to where Rudolf is later transferred. Glazer bathes their garden in light. The imagery is so crisp it feels like we can see every blade of grass. Still we perceive the coming night; they perceive an endless dawn. The tension between the two gives this film its uncomfortable power.
Glazer’s extraordinary film hints at the human sickness behind the nightmare
Glazer doesn’t simply portray a bubble of privilege next door to an unfolding, unseen tragedy. He hints at the human sickness behind the nightmare: Hedwig’s mother comes to stay but leaves abruptly after waking at night to a bedroom lit by the light of flames from the chimney; Rudolf gets a fit of nausea after smugly contributing to a meeting about accelerating the Final Solution; he reads fairytales to the kids at night that morph into thermal-imaging style animation of a young woman secretly helping to smuggle food to prisoners. At one point the screen just goes red and leaves us with the disturbing drone of the score. At the end of the film, there’s a documentary insert of Auschwitz now – presented with pointed banality. All of which makes sure we’re never lost in this drama; we’re never far from a moment that ensures we’re alive to the reality. It’s a stunning film – thoughtful, challenging and disturbing.
The Zone of Interest premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.