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

Movies


The Big Picture

  • The Zone of Interest
    takes a unique approach to the Holocaust by focusing on the mundane lives of the Höss family, reminding us of the atrocities on the other side of the wall.
  • Director Jonathan Glazer effectively builds a sense of terror without showing the actual events at Auschwitz, relying on the audience’s familiarity with the story.
  • Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller deliver unnerving performances, capturing the dread and acceptance of their savage characters.


This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Before we see a single frame of The Zone of Interest, from Sexy Beast and Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer, we can feel the all-encompassing nature of evil. As the words “The Zone of Interest” appear on the screen, they’re soon enveloped in darkness, swirled away into the black, fading away into a warped nightmare and Mica Levi’s haunting score. Prior to the film even beginning, Glazer throws us into the droning terror, preparing us for his idiosyncratic take on the Holocaust story.


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

When Glazer first shows us the Höss home, very little seems to be out of the ordinary. But this house shares a wall with Auschwitz, and while the Höss family seems idyllic at times, we’re always reminded of what is happening on the other side of that wall. On one side of that wall is an attempt at domestic normalcy, and on the other, some of the worst atrocities ever perpetuated in human history. Rudolf Höss (The White Ribbon’s Christian Friedel) is the commandant of Auschwitz, and he and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) have come from very little, and now have the home of their dreams, complete with several kids, and a handful of Jewish women that work within their house.


Glazer—who also wrote the script based very loosely on Martin Amis’ book of the same name—makes the story of the Höss family intentionally mundane. Hedwig shows her mother her expansive garden, which we can see stretches the length of an entire building on the other side of the wall, while Rudolf’s job involves finding more efficient ways to get rid of hundreds of bodies a day. No matter what the Höss family does, the agony of the other side of that wall permeates the day-to-day.


‘The Zone of Interest’ Takes a Terrifying Approach to the Holocaust Film

Glazer makes the surprisingly effective choice to never show us what is actually occurring in Auschwitz, and frankly, we don’t need to see what countless other movies have shown us. Glazer knows that we have already seen that story, and as the viewer, we bring our experience with these stories to this film, which fills in the blanks that he doesn’t show us. The result is a choice that is more unnerving than the film could ever show us visually.


But The Zone of Interest always reminds us of what is going on in subtle and extremely overt ways. As we follow the Höss family, we constantly hear gunshots, each one likely taking yet another life. While the Höss home has come to ignore these inconveniences, every shot is a jolt to the audience. When they decide to have a garden party, complete with a buffet of food and a pool, we can see the smoke from the trains wafting overhead. Combined with Levi’s twisted, unsettling and sparsely used score, The Zone of Interest is an aural shock—even when the world might seem normal on the surface.

Yet even Glazer’s more overt mentions of what is happening are jarring in their own right. One particular shot shows several of Hedwig’s flowers, as we hear blood-curdling screams, until the screen turns entirely red, which ends with an unexpected cut back to reality—as if we’re getting just a small dose of the panic and fear that is happening mere feet away. Glazer’s approach in these grander moments is especially powerful near the end of the film, as Rudolf has what seems to be a moment of self-awareness akin to the ending of Joshua Oppenheimer’s incredible documentary The Look of Silence, spliced together with a vision of what will happen to all his hard work.


In a way, Glazer’s approach to Amis’s The Zone of Interest is fairly similar to how he adapted Michel Faber’s Under the Skin: paring the spirit of the story down to its bare essence and telling that story primarily through impactful visuals. In the way that Under the Skin dissected the science fiction story, Glazer tears apart what we know a Holocaust story to be, showing us that pure evil isn’t necessarily always big and imposing, but rather, can be fairly banal and every day—an even more important message for today’s evils.

In adapting the Martin Amis novel, Glazer boils this story down to the pure evil that emanated from that book, a darkness that seeped into every page and through every action of these characters. Glazer’s take is far more abstract than the Amis story, allowing us to feel that rising tension, without prioritizing narrative or character. Essentially, Glazer is giving us the same impact that Amis was able to, but without speaking about this evil too directly. We can sense the darkness around every family gathering, we can hear the roar of the atrocities, and the indirect camera that is more of a viewer than an actual participant is able to show the normalcy of this family, which only makes what we’re not seeing even more terrifying.


Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller Are Unnerving in Their Characters’ Mundane Lives

Even though Glazer is showing us the “normal” every day life of the Höss family, we still feel like some horror is just around the corner—literally and figuratively. This is largely because of the restrained performances by Friedel and Hüller, who go about their days aware of the impact they have on those around them and the power they wield. We’ve seen countless films about the Holocaust, and Glazer knows we’re bringing those experiences with us into The Zone of Interest. In not showing us what’s happening over the wall, we bring our past knowledge from other films into this story, and that makes the lack of knowing even more haunting and terrifying. We can hear the gunshots and the occasional screams, and we know what’s happening because we’ve already seen these horrors before. Even though we react at every reminder of what’s going on beyond the wall, the way that Hüller and Friedel are able to go about their business without even flinching shows us the evil within them that Glazer doesn’t have to present to us.


Friedel and Hüller are particularly excellent in presenting this idea, as they are able to present an air of dread even when they’re doing nothing directly monstrous. Simply their presence and acceptance of their situation makes them savage—they don’t have to oversell their clear nature. If anything, the clumsiest parts of The Zone of Interest come when Glazer has Rudolph and Hedwig directly telling the audience ideas we’ve already gathered through the context of the story, which ends up making them feel like Glazer hitting us over the head with things we already know. For example, when one of the Jewish women who works at the Höss household makes what seems like an honest mistake, Hedwig reminds that her husband could easily spread the poor woman’s ashes without nearly a thought. But considering that we’ve already seen the fear that these women live in as the Höss family servants, the potential of this type of scenario is already abundantly clear from the simple way they move around this family.


Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Cold War, Ida) shoot The Zone of Interest mostly in the day and with natural light, once again presenting this home as a halcyon of happiness, which makes the narrative itself even more distressing. In the day, it’s easy to hide, but at night, it’s impossible to avoid the flames constantly burning in the darkness. It’s in the night where Glazer gives us small glimmers of hope, using negative film to invert the story, and show us how even the tiniest—but still immensely dangerous—attempts to fight back against the oppressors never let the hope entirely die down.

The Zone of Interest, like Son of Saul or The White Ribbon before it, finds ways to continue telling these important stories, but to do so in a way that presents these narratives in a wholly unique fashion. Glazer’s latest fits within his distinct style, breaking down a genre and working with the skeleton that’s left over in order to get at the heart of what makes these stories so jarring.


The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a haunting look at the Holocaust, a stark use of visuals and sound to create an emotional experience rather than a narrative one.

Pros

  • The Zone of Interest uses haunting sound and direction for an unnerving experience unlike any other look at the Holocaust.
  • Jonathan Glazer’s camera keeps the audience at a distance, but just close enough to feel the horror emanating from this camp.
  • The film’s conclusion is a stark reminder of evil’s legacy, and a tremendous ending for a staggering story.

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

WATCH ON MAX



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