The Zone of Interest - Movie Reviews


The Zone of Interest - Movie Reviews

Seven months after viewing "The Zone of Interest," writer-director Jonathan Glazer's distinctive take on the Holocaust lingers hauntingly. Amidst a plethora of Holocaust films, Glazer's adaptation of Martin Amis' novel transcends mere witnessing, offering a disconcerting work marked by unsettling immaculateness that chillingly reflects on the present. Some might dismiss it as a formal exercise, but Glazer takes risks, telling the story from a German perspective, particularly Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), Auschwitz's commandant. The film's emphasis on the banality of evil, the family's cold normalcy, and the dual perspectives through sight and sound create a palpable tension. The meticulous tidying up, juxtaposed with the family's proximity to destruction, underscores the film's dissonance. Glazer masterfully explores sanitization's dual outcomes, erasure, and maintenance, offering a profound reflection on how history records tragedy in a world manipulating narratives to sanitize crimes.

Though it’s been seven months, I remain haunted by “The Zone of Interest.” Watching writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s unconventional take on the Holocaust in May left me unsettled. Trying to pinpoint what was so startling about it proved challenging. Numerous films, from “Night and Fog” to “Schindler's List” and recent ones like “Occupied City,” have explored this dark chapter, asking viewers to witness unimaginable suffering under genocidal brutality. Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel, however, goes beyond mere witnessing. It's a disconcerting work marked by an unsettling sense of immaculateness, offering a chilling perspective on the present in a way few Holocaust films have achieved.

You might argue that Glazer’s film is just a formal exercise, relying solely on atmosphere and taking the risk of narrating the Holocaust from a German perspective. Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is the Auschwitz concentration camp commandant. His first appearance is idyllic, with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and children by the riverside, surrounded by mountains and lush fields. Their dream house, a tall concrete structure, stands by tall walls, with the camp on the other side. Except for a single shot—a low angle of Rudolf framed by billowing black smoke in the background—the camp's interiors are mostly unseen. Viewers are prompted to imagine the horrors through sound, creating a tension explained by Glazer as two movies within “The Zone of Interest” (one perceived through sight and the other through sound), a tension that is palpable and compelling.

Much emphasis has been placed on the banality of evil in "The Zone of Interest." The Höss family, residing next to an ongoing genocide, strangely remains silent about the horrifying screams and the stench of death in proximity. Consequently, the film adopts an expected coldness, devoid of sentimentality. The family feigns normalcy, raising children amidst the atrocities, with Rudolf narrating bedtime stories, engaging in horseback riding, and partaking in pastoral activities. Friedel and Hüller face the challenging task of humanizing characters that are inherently inhuman. Friedel maintains a stoic coldness reflected in his frigid posture, while Hüller exudes a slippery, venomous quality. Their performances prevent Glazer's framing from veering off course.

This sensation isn't new for Glazer, as "Birth" faced criticism for its ending and the relationship between Nicole Kidman and Cameron Bright. "Under the Skin," while critically acclaimed, navigates a delicate feminist line. Glazer, known for pushing the boundaries of audio-visual storytelling in films like "Sexy Beast" and "Under the Skin," continues this trajectory in "The Zone of Interest." Collaborating with cinematographer Lukasz Zal, Glazer links domestic spaces to external sounds, creating a causal relationship: as a train carrying more Jewish people passes, a package with stockings, presumably taken from the previous train's murdered occupants, arrives at the house. While the family celebrates life on Rudolf's side of the wall with birthdays and social gatherings, death unfolds on the other side.

The unsettlingly close connection between Rudolf and his family with destruction is vividly portrayed in "The Zone of Interest." They profit from the deaths of an entire people in unspeakable ways, as seen when one of Rudolf's sons rummages through his collection of gold teeth instead of reading a comic book. Another scene shows Hedwig receiving a fur coat, discovering the previous owner's lipstick in the pocket, and trying it on. Their casual proximity to murder becomes evident when Hedwig's mother visits, initially impressed by the "scenic" home but shocked when confronted with the sounds and smells.

In a film built on dissonance, the Höss family's persistent tidying up is significant. Jewish prisoners clean Rudolf's boots, Rudolf's kids are scrubbed with scalding water when soot touches the river, and even human ashes are used for replenishment. Every misdeed follows this cycle of obfuscation. Mica Levi's foreboding score, with guttural tones in infrared scenes, contributes to the dichotomy of polishing and revealing. The use of the color white and mechanical language around death further blurs the truth. Speaking in circles about crimes makes it easier to continue performing them in a straight line.

Glazer's film delves into a specific historical moment while equally exploring how history records tragedy. When Rudolf is transferred from Auschwitz to Oranienburg, Hedwig wants to remain in their dream house, in the reality she has crafted. For the first time, Rudolf openly discusses murder with his wife, whose reaction is grim. His words barely register, and she disturbingly replies, "It's in the middle of the night, and I need to be in bed." As he descends the stairs, vomiting, editor Paul Watts makes a narrative-breaking cut to present-day Auschwitz being cleaned for visitors to witness artifacts without owners.

This juxtaposition highlights the dual outcomes of sanitization. While much of the film reveals how it can be used to erase, Glazer also shows how it maintains. How we remember history and current events—through propaganda, photography, video, and the internet—involves a constant interplay between truth and edited versions. The film's arrival amid world powers manipulating narratives to sanitize their crimes adds chilling relevance. Glazer's blending of the present and past, appearance versus truth, and life versus annihilation creates an unignorable impact, emphasizing the film's profound exploration of sanitization in shaping our perception of history.

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