Jonathan Glazer Reckons With Evil’s Legacy

Movies


Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for ‘The Zone of Interest’


The Big Picture

  • The Zone of Interest
    offers a unique perspective on the Holocaust, blending domestic drama with the horrors of Auschwitz through sound.
  • Jonathan Glazer uses industrial sounds to juxtapose the banality of evil with everyday life, forcing viewers to confront complicity.
  • The film’s haunting ending leaves viewers with a silent, sobering conclusion about the legacy of evil and our passive response.

With over twenty years in the industry, Jonathan Glazer has only directed four feature films. He is a filmmaker who is dedicated to a singular vision, not rushing his work, and ensuring that any movie he takes on is one worth watching. His most recent film, The Zone of Interest, was released this past year by A24, garnering critical acclaim and five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and perhaps most vitally, Best Sound. It is a dark, uncomfortable movie that boldly approaches one of the most tragic, brutal periods of human history in a way that breaks cinematic form brilliantly. Because of the unconventional nature of the film, the perspective of The Zone of Interest may be difficult to grasp for some viewers, but its intentions and themes feel clarified, and incredibly resonant, in the final moments.


The Zone of Interest

The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.

Release Date
December 15, 2023

Director
Jonathan Glazer

Cast
Sandra Hüller , Christian Friedel , Freya Kreutzkam , Max Beck

Runtime
105 minutes


What is ‘The Zone of Interest’ About?

The Zone of Interest follows a seemingly ordinary family living in Germany in the early-to-mid 20th century. A husband, wife, five children, and a dog live in a beautiful home with a garden and pool. For the most part, the film is almost entirely focused on their day-to-day domestic lives, depicting chores and familial strife that anyone can relate to.


What sets this family apart, of course, is that the patriarch is Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw and engineered the horrors within the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Höss, portrayed by Christian Friedel, is placed within the film as a typical working man. He sits through dull meetings, expresses frustrations about his superiors, and comes home to a family life that is fulfilling but births conflicts and problems of its own. The movie approaches the mundane struggle of Höss’ domestic and professional life in stark contrast to the magnitude of evil going on all around their home, offering a perspective on how even the most complicit people put mental barriers up between themselves and the harm they cause.


‘The Zone of Interest’ Uses Sight to Tell One Story, and Sound to Tell Another

zone-of-interest
Image via A24

The use of sound in The Zone of Interest is the vital element that makes the film so sobering and horrifying. While the visual look of the movie is often beautiful and incredibly subdued, the soundscape is constantly lined with gunfire, screaming, and a low industrial whirring. The industrial sounds may seem innocuous, but they come from the machinery that was used for mass executions and burning of dead bodies. These sounds penetrate every frame, with spare glimpses of the sources coming in the form of blazing smokestacks and trains passing by the margins that are created by the protective barrier around the Höss family home. The film keeps the characters, and the viewer, separated from the imagery we most often associate with Holocaust-set films, and in doing so can tell two conflicting stories at once.


Related

‘The Zone of Interest’ Review: Jonathan Glazer’s Haunting, Restrained Journey into Evil

Glazer’s approach to the Holocaust film is wholly unique and undeniably terrifying.

The brutal horrors of Auschwitz are captured in the background of the soundscape, as what we see and hear most presently is a relatively simple domestic drama. Höss is promoted, and he has to move as a result. His wife, played by Academy Award nominee for Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra Hüller, is unhappy because she does not want to leave what they consider their dream life. The bleak truth of anyone possibly finding that place, surrounded by such evil, to be the most ideal home for their family, is horrifying to accept. But the Höss family is living in a state of cognitive dissonance, neglecting the suffering they are actively overseeing. The gunshots and screams, signifying lives being taken in real-time, have become indistinctive from the sound of birds chirping—background noise embellishing the mundanity of their lives.


This dissonance between what is seen and what is heard is how The Zone of Interest makes its most direct statement about evil, one concerned with how banal the most cruel human behaviors can become when people begin to treat them as normal. The banality of evil is what makes it so dangerous, because it strips away this notion that we tell ourselves that the Nazis were so inhumanely cruel that it is hard to even imagine how they existed. The Zone of Interest reminds us that the most dangerous thing about them is that they are simply people like everyone else, people who grow dejected and uncaring when it appears that harmful actions may benefit them in some way, or at least not negatively impact their lives.

What Does That Flash Forward Mean In ‘The Zone of Interest’s Ending?

The Zone of Interest - 2023 (1)
Image via A24


The Zone of Interest ends with Höss leaving a party that celebrates the success at the concentration camp. Everything is relatively working out for him. His working conditions have allowed him to return home, and he is being promoted as one of the key figures responsible for the “success” of the Holocaust. In the haunting final minutes, Höss descends a staircase quietly, twice stopping to retch. Is it his conscience catching up with him, or maybe a consequence of the pollutants at the camp? Their serene homestead is shielded from the sights of the horrors, but the walls and fences cannot save them from breathing in the ashes that spill into the air and water.

As Höss regains his composure, he stops for a moment and gazes down a corridor which quickly recedes into pitch black, and the film suddenly cuts away. The film is now in the modern day, and workers are shown cleaning the Auschwitz memorial museum. Piles of shoes, prison uniforms, gas chambers, all arranged to communicate the enormity and the brutality of his life’s work.


The film cuts back, and Höss is still staring down the corridor into nothing, likely having seen what the viewers were shown as well, a vision of how he will be resigned to history. He cannot distance himself from his legacy at this point, because it just stared him right in the face. Höss continues descending the staircase, perhaps to the Hell where he knows he belongs. The Zone of Interest concludes with a lengthy shot of empty space, a black screen, the sight of which will remind you that you may have forgotten to breathe over the silent, sobering final sequence. Yet there is no resolve. The complicity of evil, the way people push aside the horrors they wrought to keep living their mundane lives. These are things Glazer wants us to reckon with because they are not only about our past, but our present and future as well. The Zone of Interest holds a mirror to a world that is passive in the face of evil in a way that will leave a haunting impression.


The Zone of Interest is now available to watch on Max in the U.S.

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