The Zone of Interest proves that no one makes a movie like Jonathan Glazer

The Zone of Interest proves that no one makes a movie like Jonathan Glazer

After a surreal opening sequence with a propulsive soundscape reminiscent of the cinematic sensual onslaught of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, The Zone of Interest, seems to settle into a one-note depiction of “the banality of evil.” It seems odd for a film by Glazer to make its point so early, but the patient viewer will be rewarded. Just when the risk of redundancy starts to become apparent, the film finds new and resourceful ways to expand upon the general themes, pulling the lens away from the story’s historical significance, and drawing focus on humanity as a whole. Are we truly evil beings, or are we just so well-attuned to adaptation that even the smallest comforts can blind us to atrocity?

(He said while typing on an iPad built by children).

Based loosely upon the Martin Amis novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest takes place in a small household that sits outside the fences and walls of the Auschwitz concentration camp. In it resides Rudolf Höss (Christian Freidel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their children. They have a staff of young Jewish women who exist in the periphery of their meager life. And by “staff” I mean “slaves.” Further in the periphery is the Auschwitz camp itself. As Hedwig is tending to her garden, we can see smokestacks over the fence; we can hear the screams coming from within; the gun shots, the barking of vicious guard dogs. It’s an opera of pain and suffering, but for the Höss family, it’s as easy to tune out as the sounds of sirens to contemporary city dwellers. One can only imagine what these sounds mean to the aforementioned staff.

Much of the film’s power comes in the way it humanizes the protagonists without ever excusing their monstrous existence. Meaning that it’s quite easy to get wrapped up in the domestic drama of the Höss family unit. Separated from the suffering upon which their privileged lives sit, it’s pretty standard. Work woes, the concerns of raising children, a visit from Mom — garden variety family stuff that anyone of any stripe can relate to on some level. When Rudolf is reassigned to a new post, Hedwig is adamant she and the kids be allowed stay behind in the home. “It’s the least they can do,” she argues when the idea of relocation comes up, “they” being the Nazi brass.

As these dramas unfold, Zone chips away at the notion that these people are fully inured to the horrors they both ignore and enact. There’s a rot, subconscious as it may seem, that brews within all who are complicit, held in place by a wall of denial. It’s the mentality of a child: “If I don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist.” Yet exist it does, and the film shows the degree to which even the stuff we block out affects us. We see the behavior of the Höss children being shaped by their environment. We see the generational divide between Hedwig and her mother in response to the active holocaust happening just beyond the garden wall.

It’s a simple fact that no one makes a movie quite like Jonathan Glazer. He works across genre, and always finds a way to make even the most straightforward stories as sensually effective as possible (it’s no secret that Under the Skin is perhaps the most influential piece of cinema in the past decade in terms of visuals/soundscape). In the case of Zone, the obvious flex comes in the form of the audio. The sounds of suffering make a rich, if rotten audio tapestry. Like the sounds of the titular chainsaw in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s so omnipresent that it fades away, but the second we’re made to acknowledge it, it’s an avalanche. This brutal loop of forgetting and rediscovery is masterfully managed.

The bulk of the film is shot with static cameras mounted throughout the sets. This, per the filmmakers, was to allow for long takes. The actors could play off one another without having to worry about cutting for coverage. This gives the performances a lived-in feel like no other, and it also puts the audience into a fly-on-the-wall situation. There’s a Jonathan Demme quality to it in that the viewer is made to feel like we’re spying on the whole thing (doubly so for a handful of scenes shot in night vision). This makes for a difficult watch. One wants to pop across the fourth wall and scream “don’t you see what you’re doing?!?”

But alas, the 20/20 hindsight of history is a luxury not afforded to the Höss family. We all want to think that we’d be the person to step up in the face of systemic injustice and explicit violence; that we’d be the person with enough foresight to know where history will stand when it comes to judging the present. What The Zone of Interest dares to suggest is that the moral blinders afforded to us by even the slightest amount of power, convenience, or even simple comfort, is as human an inclination as any. Yet as bleak and hard to watch as the film can be, it also sneakily speaks to humanity’s inherent goodness, and the ways it can manifest if only we could take ownership of the evils we facilitate.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Written by Jonathan Glazer, Martin Amis

Starring Sandra Hüller, Christian Freidel, Freya Kreutzkam, Max Beck

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes