Holocaust cinema has existed so implicitly in the shadow of a single question that it would no longer seem worth asking except that it has never been answered: How do you depict an atrocity? The most urgent and indelible examples of the form offer equally simple yet perfectly contradictory answers. Documentaries like “Shoah” and Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” suggest you don’t, while historical epics like “Schindler’s List” insist you must. If the second argues that seeing is believing, the first argues that seeing would not help, that some things are too unfathomable to be understood from a distance by the human eye and can only hope to be understood by their absence. A tsunami may not seem much bigger than any other wave when you look at it from a distant beach, but watching the ocean water as it is sucked into the sea reveals the full immensity of what is to come.
A narrative drama about the Holocaust defined by its strict compartmentalization and steadfast refusal to display any hint of graphic violence, Jonathan Glazer’s deeply chilling ‘The Zone of Interest’ is notable for how formally the film divides the difference between the two opposing modes of its solemn genre – a genre which might now be impossible to consider without it. No Holocaust film has ever been more committed to illustrating the banality of evil, and that is because no Holocaust film has ever been more determined to ignore evil altogether. There’s a literal concrete wall that separates Glazer’s characters from the horrors next door, and not once does his camera dare peek over it for a better view. He doesn’t even express the slightest hint of that desire.
“The Zone of Interest” opens with a lengthy overture that forces the audience to sit in pure darkness for several minutes at a time as the first pearls of Mica Levi’s elusive score ring together on the soundtrack. The effect doesn’t create a distance between then and now so much as it elides one; when the film’s very first scene begins, it feels like an act of not blinking. Our eyes were closed for a while and then reopened, but that was all: nothing was filtered or clarified through the lens of history. The “authorless” quality of Glazer’s images (to borrow the word he uses in the film’s press releases) frees the characters within them from the void of moral judgment. The evil on display is never in the least doubted, but its not recognizing itself as such can only thus take shape in the absence of its limiting obviousness.
Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller, seen here in an equally fearless performance of a very different genre), and their five young children enjoy an idyllic picnic on the bank of the flowing river along their house. The sky is blue and the birds are chirping, as Kurt Vonnegut would insist they continue to do, even after a massacre. When the family retires to their large stucco villa (which is surrounded by a real forest of lilacs and ladybugs, and a swimming pool with its own slide), the children surprise Rudolf with a canoe for his birthday.
The Aryan fantasy of it all isn’t subtle, but its more ominous details are easy to overlook in a film that refuses to pay any particular attention to them. It may be a few minutes before you begin to notice the coiled barbed wire atop the far wall of Hedwig’s garden, or the smokestacks jutting into the horizon just beyond. It will take a few more minutes for an erroneous line of dialogue to confirm that the Höss family lives on the edge of the most famous concentration camp in history, because Rudolf is the commandant of Auschwitz.
To call it a revelation would be to overstate Glazer’s emphasis on that information. Rudolf and Hedwig have made that house into the only real home their family has ever known – a self-contained Eden on the very edge of hell – and as the film begins, the muffled screams and occasional gunfire that lead the wall are as easy to tune as the noise coming out of any construction site. The house is pressure-sealed from the camp as if Auschwitz were on the other side of an airplane window: right there, but a million miles away. Turbulence is inevitable, but the powers that be have planned to eliminate the possibility of even the slightest disruption. Everything in this film is strictly peripheral.
Much less careful plot compared to the Martin Amis novel from which it was (very loosely) adapted, “The Zone of Interest” is a far cry from the kind of story we’ve been conditioned to expect from a premise like this. A desperate Jew never escapes to the Höss family home to stamp their humanity on Hedwig or her children. No one has a sudden change of heart, or experiences anything that could hope to cause it. When Rudolf is reassigned to an office in Berlin for trivial bureaucratic reasons – the closest thing to a conventional narrative incident in this film – Hedwig becomes enraged because she doesn’t want to abandon the perfect home she built for her precious Nazi children (whose forgetfulness inheritance might arouse your fleeting sympathies). The brief scene in which she chomps a waitress on a puddle of water on the floor is the film’s only real flirtation with on-screen violence.
It’s been 10 years since the release of Glazer’s previous feature “Under the Skin,” and “The Zone of Interest” continues the film’s (relatively hyper-commercial) forensic obsession with the fault lines of our empathy in a world where it falls so cracks often. One is predatory and seductive, the other is placid and ambient. In “Under the Skin,” Scarlett Johansson’s monstrosity is challenged by the gradual emergence of her humanity. In “The Zone of Interest,” Rudolf and Hedwig’s humanity is tested by the gradual emergence of their monstrosity. One is predatory and seductive, the other is placid and ambient. In “Under the Skin,” Glazer’s alien protagonist comes to recognize himself in others. In “The Zone of Interest,” his Aryan family explicitly denies that possibility.
That said, the director’s gaze here is still as foreign as ever. In an evolution of the hidden camera tricks he once used to lure real men into Johansson’s van, Glazer shot “The Zone of Interest” with 10 still cameras that were positioned inside the house where approximately 75 % of the film, relying on focus-extractors to operate them by remote control. The chronologically overlapping scenes would be shot in different rooms simultaneously, from the same distance, and in the same natural or diegetic light, regardless of their dramatic emphasis.
The approach results in a paradoxical effect: the film seems guided by a human spirit, but lacks a human touch (a disconnect that proves extraordinarily compelling and further confounds the limitations of AI). The process instills a flattened uniformity into a film where the lack of drama becomes deeply disgusting in itself. Watching Rudolf walk the hallways of her house or hearing Hedwig talk about spas from their separate beds isn’t so nauseating because the camera doesn’t judge them, but rather because it’s literally unable to do it. He sees these characters the same way they see themselves, which is to say clearly and not at all.
Ironically, it’s because of Glazer’s monkish discipline that “The Zone of Interest” becomes more surprising for its few occasional flourishes. In what seems like his version of Spielberg’s girl in the red coat, Glazer uses thermal imaging to observe a local child sneaking into the night and leaving food for Jews working in the Auschwitz camps. Next, after a coughing fit that evokes memories of Anwar Congo in “The Act of Killing,” Glazer suddenly introduces an even more dramatic break from the film’s established style, which brings us back to the dialectic between the depiction of an atrocity and the draw the chalk outline of one.
Do we have to choose or is it possible that one method can be used to instigate the other? “The Zone of Interest” insists that all of history’s most abominable moments were allowed in by people who weren’t meant to see them, and while the film’s maximum staying power has yet to be determined, its vision of the normal is — as Hannah Arendt once described that phenomenon as “more terrifying than all atrocities combined.”
‘The Zone of Interest’ premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. A24 to release theatrically in the U.S.