The Zone Of Interest


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Zone Of Interest, adapted from the novel by Martin Amis, who has died at 73
"There are no shortcuts in this film, no conventions and nothing careless." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant Cannes Grand Prix winner (and a highlight in the Main Slate of the 61st New York Film Festival), The Zone of Interest (UK Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film), starring Sandra Hüller (of Justine Triet’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Anatomy Of A Fall) and Christian Friedel (of the Babylon Berlin series) took the best of Martin Amis’s novel and left all exaggerations aside. It is unmistakably a masterpiece and one of the best films in the 2020s so far. The excellent score by Mica Levi prepares us from the get-go. The noise in each viewer’s mind will fill in images, the information you know or surmise. The disquieting sound design is by Johnnie Burn, who also did Glazer’s Under The Skin and is a longtime Yorgos Lanthimos collaborator, including this year’s Poor Things.

The power of wilful ignorance in humans is enormous and the more it is encouraged, the more it will thrive. There are no shortcuts in this film, no conventions and nothing careless. The costumes, the haircuts, the flowers in the garden fed by ash, the furniture, the German language of the 1940s - all aid to transport us to the house, adjacent to the camp, of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their family.

Every detail matters, because the triggers distract us, the viewers of this film in the 21st Century, from the horrors happening beyond the wall of the death camp, which we do not see. But never for long. As the family lives its normal life with its petty worries, the dogs bark, shots ring out, the furnaces burn in nonstop destruction.

A father reads his children the story of Hansel and Gretel from the Grimms’ collection, about the witch being tricked into the oven. This is precisely his job. A girl leaves apples for the inmates during clandestine night endeavours, which cannot even be shown in the same filmic way, because compassion is so alien to those who inhabit the land of cruel denial. There are human bones in the river and ashes in the air. The sounds of atrocities bleed in from next door. Taught not to question and enable the “going on as you are,” anything is possible.

The film begins with no picture and big sound and already we are made to think. Jonathan Glazer is not kidding, no clichés await. We hear voices we cannot make out, then birdsong. The soundscape will always throw us back into ourselves. An idyllic picnic by the river, white dresses for the girls and flowers in their hair. The men sport black bathing suits and haircuts shaved so high that they look ridiculous now, even alarming. In Germany in the 1940s, they were the latest trend. “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf” (Sleep, little one, sleep) goes the famous lullaby from the collection of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

A horse, dogs, laughter, a rumbling from the ovens as though we were next to a boiler - the sound design functions as palimpsest. The Zone of Interest will be personal for each viewer, there is no escape to a ready-made commonplace. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal gives every moment importance. In the Höss villa, right next to the concentration camp, the staircase looks exactly how I imagined it. My heart starts racing. How do I know this without ever having been there? I fish in my memory for references, images I might have seen in a book perhaps, or an exhibition. Glazer’s film allows this work, even invites it. There is room to contemplate, to react. I come up with Sophie’s Choice, relieved. The staircase in Alan J Pakula’s movie with Meryl Streep is the same.

Outside a birthday party is going on. The kids look the way kids looked in photographs of the time. The clothes [costume design by Malgorzata Karpiuk] and hairstyles feel fresh and new, the way they must have looked then, not stylized as they do in so many “historical” movies about the time that often glamorize and erase the unflattering aspects that show on real people. There is a dog and flowers, phlox points out Hedwig. Hüller is phenomenal here. Playing a 40+ year-old child in Frauke Finsterwalder’s Sisi & I and an almost too-adult woman in Triet’s Anatomy Of A Fall this year alone, her “Queen of Auschwitz” as “Rudi” puts it, is simply a woman who decided not to reflect on her life at all, not on right and wrong or others’ suffering, because she doesn’t have to. Terrifying in its realness, we hear the clinking of wagons beyond the ever-present wall, while Hedwig shows the dahlias to her baby.

Hell is right behind that wall. Here is a very fine wheelbarrow, made by the inmates. White linens. The way the house is built can still be found all over Germany. The gladioli look nice on the little table. One of the servants is called Sophie. The help may choose from the silky finery displayed on the table, but no more than “one each!” Every so often a shot rings out. The dog wants to come inside, the baby cries. Hedwig poses to herself in a fur coat. She tries on lipstick on her hand, then her mouth. She wipes it off after looking at herself in the mirror. What a pity, she surely thinks, a proper German woman doesn’t wear lipstick. She doesn’t think: the woman who owned it has been sent to be gassed behind the wall.

Glazer doesn’t dwell on anything too long, a light touch guides our interest around the rooms. Precisely the distractions give the film so much power, because it is the vivisection of a state of mind that hasn’t died with the Nazi regime. The commandant’s sons play soldiers, smokestacks in the distance. A gigantic cream cake. Papa smokes a cigar. Sounds of screams. He acts as a good father who reads his children a goodnight tale. At this moment the film changes to its negative - the tale is another. A girl in a nightgown distributes apples in the mud. Not all is lost for humanity.

Meanwhile in their sparse Teutonic bedroom, the couple talk about their past travels to Italy. Hedwig wants to return to the spa, “remember the nice couple?” And the man who played accordion for the cows? They laugh and bond, she smells nice of French perfume and asks for “chocolate, if you find some.” Next door provides the special treats.

When Höss learns that he is being transferred he dreads telling his family. Hedwig’s mother comes to visit and sees how her daughter has “made it.” But the children’s grandma isn’t used to the circumstances yet and coughs and wonders. Living in oblivion takes time and effort, too. There is a greenhouse and a garden with kohlrabi and kale, beans and pumpkins, bees for the honey - it’s a “Paradiesgarten” next to the inferno.

The camera moves close, very close to the flowers and the bees next to screams. There are blemishes on the flowers and another scream when the screen turns red. Höss in a white shirt by the lawn chairs. The children have fun with a little pool into which leads a wooden, home-made-looking water slide. He tells his wife about the transfer to Oranienburg. She doesn’t want to leave, goes down to the river, he follows. The couple look out over the water, the calm landscape, a family dispute where to live, like any other. Only it isn’t, because his job is to systematically kill by the millions.

“Go East! That is our living space, as the Führer always said,” Hedwig argues. After the war, when all is over, they’ll have their own farm, she dreams out loud. Her husband is in discussions about a new construction, a “crematorium-ring” that will make all the difference. Souls are afire, the telling of the centuries-old tale and the girl with the apples return once more.

The themes reoccur like waves. In the greenhouse Hedwig smokes secretly a cigarette, another vice unbecoming to a good woman of the Reich. She offers one to the man helping out, as a tiny nod to the affair that is so central in Amis’s book. Rudolf will leave alone to Oranienburg in Brandenburg, where the Sachsenhausen camp is located. “Das Glück der Erde liegt auf dem Rücken der Pferde” is the slogan etched in the wall of his stable, where he tearfully says goodbye to his beloved horses before leaving. “Happiness is found on horseback” are the words Glazer shows us, “Arbeit macht frei” a stone’s throw away is what we have to add.

Höss looks out of place at a ball given for the high-ranking officials in a castle decorated with sheer endless stag antlers and chandeliers. His haircut has become more and more grotesque, as though his own head were revolting against it from the inside. The men talk and have champagne and we get pulled in, looking at the festivities, while he is all alone, wandering up the stairs, clearly more comfortable within the killing machinery at the ramp than at a grand party. All he can do is calculate. Humans and victims have become one. He walks along the corridors, the halls are empty. Is this dot we see the moon? No, it is a hole that leads into a different chamber and another time.

The Zone of Interest, a euphemism used to designate the area around Auschwitz, has grown very large. Glazer’s extraordinary artwork changes how movies depicting this time will be viewed. By showing us Nazis who conceive themselves so clearly as before the fall, we are the ones who must recognise that this actually is the fall, and it is ongoing.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2023
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The daily lives of the Höss family outside the walls of Auschwitz.

Read more The Zone Of Interest reviews:

Richard Mowe ****

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writer: Jonathan Glazer, based on the book by Martin Amis

Starring: Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel, Ralph Herforth, Max Beck, Stephanie Petrowitz, Marie Rose Tietjen

Year: 2023

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK, Poland, US

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