The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

by Donato Totaro Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 7 minutes (1517 words)

The Zone of Interest (A24)

Scored by frequent Jonathan Glazer composer Mica Levi, The Zone of Interest laces into the horrors of the Nazis with a clinicism that depicts the Nazis as normal monsters who go about their day with common regularity while attending to unspeakable horror (translated to unwatchable but listenable horrors by Glazer’s direction). Just like us, Nazis like picnics in the summer, lounging by the pool with their children, horticulture, and sunbathing. And how bad can Nazi death efficiency expert Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) really be when he has such deep love for his cherished horse and stranger dogs he meets while out walking? For the first 30 or so minutes of the film Glazer depicts the environment with a lighter visual touch, airy, sunny exteriors, fishing excursions, rowing along the river, Höss’ clan partaking in wholesome family activity. But the off screen is present in its absence. A constant low hum of the burning ovens layers the soundtrack. Screams of children or adults and gunshots often interrupt the benign foreground sounds. Puffs of black smoke curl their way into the background of shots. The horrors of the nearby Auschwitz infiltrates directly in some moments, like a ‘business’ meeting where a salesman waxes on enthusiastically to Röss and a few other Nazi officials about the improved effectiveness of his new circular rotating camp oven whose design includes a cool down area to maximize efficiency ("burn, cool, unload, reload" as Rudolf repeats). Or the moment when Röss and his children are bathing in the nearby river when Röss sees dark particles in the water, pollutants from the Camp (probably the ashes of incinerated corpses from the Concentration Camp discharged into the river), and quickly ushers his children out of the water and into the house for a cleanup. This gesture echoes in the later scene where Röss has sex with a Jewish female prisoner and then quickly goes into a basement basin to scrub his genitals clean with a soapy face towel.

Glazer distorts our sense of visual perception with the use of an extreme wide angle lens, especially in the interior shots of the Röss farmhouse, which they have taken over from a Polish family. Long corridors, rooms with oppressive corners, prison-like frames within a frame give the interior spaces a sense of overwhelming determinism, like every path has already been planned and pathways taken. I was pleased with this observation when I heard that Glazer set up multiple cameras on fixed tripods strategically around the home to give the actors freedom of movement and add a sense of improvisatory spontaneity to the family’s physical displacements in the house. This literal perceptual distortion influences our emotional and intellectual ideas on humanity as well: human nature can also be distorted beyond normal comprehension.

Rudolf Höss is played by Christian Friedel, who sports an awkwardly anachronistic hair cut with his sides shaved. His wife is Hedwig Höss, played  by Sandra Hüller, who gives a wholly different performance here than in Anatomy of a Fall, more physical, less verbal. They have five children and Hedwig plays the part of the proud matriarch who not only rules her ‘home’ roost but enjoys her anointed nickname the “Queen of Auschwitz,” which causes her to giggle like a schoolgirl when she mentions this to her friends. Hedwig appears motherly with her siblings but cruel to others. The home they live in has been stolen from a Polish family, and the Höss’ even keep one of the former occupants of the home, a Polish woman, on as a house maid. Hedwig treats her like the slave she is and at one point takes out her anger on her by threatening to send her to the ovens. Hedwig’s mother joins for a visit, and congratulates her daughter on the beautiful home. She has done well in her life. And there is nothing better for a sibling than to make their parents proud (this is the level of satire and venom that Glazer is operating at). But when nighttime comes and the mother’s bedroom is illuminated by hellish hues of red from the flames of the camp ovens, she is horrified and leaves unannounced the next morning. The mother can only stomach the horrors being committed by her Nation from afar.

The noted lighter toned opening of the film gives way to a much darker mood in the latter half of the film. And symbolically, this mood of clinical distance is supported by the plot where Röss is instructed by his superiors to leave their Auschwitz home where they lived from 1943-1944 (apparently) to oversee another Camp. Ostensibly a promotion given his effectiveness in murdering Jews. His wife Hedwig is angry and tells her husband that she wants to stay at their Auschwitz home for the sake of her children, although the subtext suggests her reasons are less ‘motherly’ than that. The fact that she even refers to this home in Poland which they have ostensibly stolen as her “home” adds a delicious and symbolic irony –of the whole Nations that Germany have occupied. His own infidelity and a scene in the greenhouse where Hedwig shares a cigarette while staring longingly at her gardener implies she may also be having sexual liaisons, which suggests that all is not well below the surface of the Höss household.

Glazer slowly dehumanizes the Höss family and the Nazis by separating them and often filming Rudolf and Hedwig alone in the frame. Interiors become darker and feel more sinister. Glazer interjects some inexplicable formal gestures throughout that also disorient the viewer: A minute long opening on a black frame before we fade in to the opening idyllic, painterly picnic; a red frame that dissects a scene and holds on for several seconds before cutting back to the film; a series of black & white (photochemical negative-styled)  night vision scenes of a young girl planting apples along a ditch outside Auschwitz for prisoners to find, a bizarre and appropriately ‘inverted’ (visually) act of kindness. The first time we see this scene it coincides with Rudolf reading a bedtime story to his children, hence might appear to be a subjective or fantastical projection of the story he is reading; but later it becomes more vague what it represents.

At one point the tale of Hansel & Gretel serves a direct reference to the humans being burned in ovens (in the grim German Grimms fairy tale Gretel traps the witch in her own oven where she burns to death). A final intrusive moment is a cut away from a ritzy official Nazi party scene to a documentary-like present day scene at an Auschwitz museum. Even the action before this jump in time is bizarre: Rudolf vomiting on the staircase after a phone call with his wife. Why is he vomiting? Has his reign of horror finally caught up with him and made him guilty to the point of nausea? Or did he just eat some bad fish? Two or three extremely distorting overhead angle shots of rooms with people and objects throws us for a visual loop. Composer Levi’s atonal and non-musical score is another distancing gesture. The style here is all encompassing, putting an end to the idea that in film, story and character are everything. I note this partly because of the reaction of some to a quote director Denis Villeneuve made recently in an interview with The Times:

“Frankly, I hate dialogue. Dialogue is for theatre and television. I don’t remember movies because of a good line, I remember movies because of a strong image. I’m not interested in dialogue at all. Pure image and sound, that is the power of cinema, but it is something not obvious when you watch movies today. Movies have been corrupted by television.”

This interview grows out of a video essay Villeneuve appeared in for Cinefix where he discusses his favorite shots from among his films. Apparently Villeneuve was chastised for this comment on Twitter/X by some ‘fans’ who countered that their favorite moments where centered on story, dialogue or character. I can only assume this reaction comes from a place where image over story is seen as the purview of non-popular or ‘artsy’ cinema. A more proper way to frame this is that style should always be at the service of what the filmmaker is trying to illicit. And in the case of Jonathan Glazer and The Zone of Interest,  his aim is to frame the Nazi horrors as a highly stylized indictment of human evil, or perhaps better, Glazer’s cinematic recreation of the famous phrase ‘banality of evil’, from the title of Hannah Arendt 1963 book, A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Film Reviews   concentration camp   jonathan glazer   mica levi   nazism   world war 2