If you read many reviews of The Zone of Interest, whether (mostly) raves or (a few) pans, the amazing thing you see is how many critics believe this is primarily a film about the twisted psychology of the Nazis and the Final Solution. A more artfully crafted one than most, but it’s that and nothing more.
However, this isn’t just a film about Nazis. This is a film about us. Surely that’s obvious? Director Jonathan Glazer is known for his formally bold choices in earlier works like Sexy Beast (2000) and Under the Skin (2013), which make each of his films an event. In The Zone of Interest, for example, he holds on blank screens — we gaze at black screens or, at one point, a blood-red one — for what seems like minutes. The suddenly empty screen is a time-honored cinematic device that goes back to militant leftist Third Cinema works of the 1960s and ’70s, at least, and is designed to force audiences to reflect on what they’ve seen and become aware of their own participation in creating what’s intended to be the radicalizing experience of the film. The use of this device in The Zone of Interest gives us plenty of grim time to think about what the film is showing us, and what it’s not showing us, and what the implications are for our own lives.
The whole movie centers on the most extreme form of living in denial about genocide, even when it’s so close that it’s occurring on the other side of a wall. While we watch Nazi family members cheerfully weed gardens and entertain friends and take dips in the pool and lead their deliberately oblivious lives right next to the Auschwitz prison camp, we’re given a great deal of time to think about how much easier it is to ignore genocide when it’s occurring, say, on another continent thirteen hours away by plane. The whole ghastly effect of The Zone of Interest is in making us aware of how persistently we’re willing to live in a state of convenient denial of mass slaughter, even with full knowledge of our own complicity in it. We’re doing it right now.
If you won’t take my word for the intended impact of the film, you might take the director’s. Glazer is saying in every interview, “This is not about the past, it’s about now.” He began work on the film responding to the scary international rise in right-wing populism and antisemitism, but since then events have overtaken its release. The October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel occurred while advance screenings of The Zone of Interest were taking place, and the Israeli decimation of Gaza and the massacre of its people are ongoing while the film plays in theaters. Glazer, who is Jewish, notes his own personal stake in the film, and states:
The sickening thing about this film is it’s timely and it’s always going to be timely until we can somehow evolve out of this cycle of violence that we perpetuate as human beings. And when will that happen? Not in our lifetime.
The Zone of Interest shows us in minute detail the orderly, affluent lives of the camp commandant of Auschwitz and his family, who live mostly happily on the grounds, separated from the ovens and gas chambers by a high wall. But they’re able to see top of the guard tower and the firing up of the crematorium smokestacks, and they’re able to hear a near-constant cacophony of the noise of routinized slaughter in the form of grinding machinery, gunshots, shouts, and screams woven into a complex soundtrack of horror.
The film’s narrative is very loosely based on a 2014 novel by Martin Amis, which inspired nearly ten years of dedicated research by writer-director Glazer into Amis’s source material: the actual lives of Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children. They really did live on the grounds of the death camp during World War II. Their comfortable home was painstakingly recreated in a building on location in Auschwitz, and fitted up with multiple hidden cameras so that the actors were generally being filmed from many angles, giving much of the final form of the film a creepy quality of anonymous observation.
Though we never get past the wall to see the mass killings inside, just as Hedwig and the children never breach the wall to Rudolf’s “workplace” where he goes each day in the shortest possible commute. But the film brings the effects of what’s happening in “the zone of interest” ever closer to the family and to us. We see Hedwig trying on a fur coat and putting on lipstick that we slowly grasp has been taken from one of the Jewish women brought into the camp. We’re appalled at the source of the ashes being used to fertilize Hedwig’s blooming gardens. Rudolf takes the children for a swim in the nearby stream only to have to shoo them out in alarm when he spots human remains floating downstream.
And the effects on human psychology are on increasingly open display as well. As Rudolf makes his nightly rounds in the house, turning off lights, he keeps encountering in ever more disturbing moments one of his small daughters sleepwalking, looking like a troubled ghost. Before bed, one of his sons plays with sets of human teeth that are presumably a gift from his father. Even the family dog evinces a perpetual state of low-level unease. He’s in a constant state of restlessness as he’s shut out of rooms and nudged out of people’s way.
But the far greater emphasis is on how easy — not how uneasy — the family’s lives are.
Hedwig comes unstrung not because of the ghastliness of their situation but because Rudolf is told he’s being transferred from this paradise. Though the transfer seems at first like a career failure, it’s actually a promotion that puts him in charge of all the camp commandants in Poland, in recognition of his efforts to make the machinery of death work more efficiently. It seems Rudolf and Hedwig have struggled to rise to their present status. “We’re living as we dreamed we would!” she exclaims.
Hedwig’s come to love her position as “the queen of Auschwitz,” and refuses to consider any other way of life. She shows off her luxurious house complete with Polish servants and expansive grounds to her visiting mother Linna (Imogen Kogge), who says proudly, “You’ve certainly landed on your feet, my girl.”
A former cleaning woman, Linna blandly wonders if one of her Jewish employers might be in the camp on the other side of the wall at that moment. They speculate briefly about what went on in the life of that woman. “Oh, Bolshevik stuff, probably,” says Hedwig dismissively. “Jewish stuff.”
Though Linna seems unbothered by the idea of Jews she once worked for imprisoned and perhaps murdered a short distance away, we see her in the night watches, looking at the red glow beyond the window curtains, and peering out the window at the flames shooting up from the smokestacks. Hedwig wakes up one day to find that her mother has departed during the night without saying goodbye, and then rips up the note Linna left behind without showing it to anyone. We’re left to imagine what her mother has written.
It’s also during the night that we see a young Polish woman bicycling around the camps on a perilous mission, hiding apples at the camp worksites to be found by the starving prisoners. Glazer based her on an actual local named Alexandria that he interviewed shortly before her death at age ninety. She’d been a twelve-year-old working for the Polish resistance, and the bicycle and the girl’s dress used in the film actually belonged to her.
Glazer and Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal used thermal photography for most of the scenes, so that she looks like a brightly lit animated drawing in a black landscape. Glazer noted:
I kept ringing my producer, Jim, and saying: “I’m getting out. I can’t do this. It’s just too dark.” It felt impossible to just show the utter darkness, so I was looking for the light somewhere and I found it in her. She is the force for good.
Żal has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, one of five earned by the film that also include Best Picture, Best International Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It’s worth noting that, though Sandra Hüller is nominated as Best Actress for Anatomy of a Fall, she also deserves it for her chilling performance as Hedwig, with her all too ordinary human ambitions and her tunnel vision in pursuing them.
Though there are longstanding jokes about the obligatory yearly Oscar nominations for films about the Holocaust, The Zone of Interest is one that’s genuinely exceptional as a cinematic feat. Glazer’s work is always formally compelling, especially when trying to capture scenes of alienation edging toward horror. I still remember with stark clarity many disquieting images from his last film, Under the Skin, which I haven’t seen since it was playing in theaters in 2013.
So if you’re serious about film as well as the evocation of how we tend to live in a common state of proximity to human atrocity, hurry out to see The Zone of Interest while it’s still in theaters. The big screen and the cavernous darkness and your undivided attention are necessary to the experience.