Trigger warning: The following is a review of the film “The Zone of Interest.” The review contains references to the Holocaust and the Auschwitz concentration camp. Reader discretion is advised.
I think Jonathan Glazer is seen as a difficult director. His films can seem impenetrable at first glance, but the images he creates linger even if I don’t always fully gel with what he’s doing.
Outside of his accessible-if-offbeat debut film Sexy Beast from 2000, his three subsequent movies have been marked by inscrutability. They are deeply strange, existential stories told with a formal rigidity that brings that bleakness to the forefront.
There’s Birth, from 2004, about a woman whose long-dead husband may have been reincarnated as a young boy. His last film (until this new one) was 2013’s Under the Skin, where an alien roams Scotland in search of prey and ends up brushing against her own identity for what seems like the first time.
Now, ten years later, Glazer has made The Zone of Interest, a film about the Holocaust. And while that genocide is its main subject, it is defined largely by its absence in the central story.
By absence, I mean its tangibility as an event. What’s missing are the images we know, from history books, documentaries, and yes, many, many movies. Rather than depict the explicit carnage of the Holocaust, Glazer taps into the often surreal, delusional fantasy of those who perpetrated it.
The Zone of Interest, based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, is about Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), Nazis who live next door to the Auschwitz death camp with their children. Much of the movie takes place in their tidy, well-maintained home, where Hedwig prides herself on the immaculate garden they’ve built on their side of the camp wall in the few years they’ve lived there.
Rudolf is the commandant of Auschwitz, the bureaucratic evils of fascism incarnate. His job is to ensure as many Jews are killed at the camp as possible; almost every day he crosses the threshold that the camera deliberately refuses to.
Glazer’s approach to this material works because of his matter-of-fact pacing, distant framing, and brilliant use of sound. Sometimes you can hear screams or loud bangs as characters talk in the home, other times plumes of smoke drift ominously in the background of otherwise serene gatherings. In an early moment, Rudolf returns home from work with bloody boots, which he takes off before entering the house so that they can be cleaned by a servant.
The Zone of Interest quietly layers these kinds of details, which have grown more haunting the longer I sit with them. The eeriest scene shows Rudolf’s quiet, relaxing day of fishing in a nearby river with his children upended by the sudden appearance of ash and human bones in the water. He sprints out of the suddenly murky river, grabs the children, and takes them home, where they are ruthlessly scrubbed in their bathtub.
But the film can only rely so much on the deft deployment of moments like this. By leaving the horrors at large mostly to our imagination, or by including them as background noise to the Höss family’s everyday lives, The Zone of Interest attempts to reckon with the use of Holocaust imagery in general.
How well it works largely depends on your tolerance for such an exercise in the first place. It worked for me because of its strangeness, even if that feels a bit self-conscious at times.
And for all the things it does not show, I still think it’s a mistake to say that The Zone of Interest keeps the horrors of the Holocaust on the periphery. The actual carnage happens there, but what’s presented is the terrifying mundanity (or yes, banality) of what Rudolf is facilitating on the other side of that wall as his children and dog run around their well-tended, sun-dappled yard..
Any views or opinions expressed in this letter are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.