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Film Reviews

The Zone of Interest

Published February 23, 2024
Happy families. Never mind the concentration camp

There’s no end to gruelling films about the Holocaust, but there may be limits as to how many we can endure. One could argue that in a world in which so many idiots think it’s sexy to be a Nazi, there can’t be enough reminders of the horrors of the Third Reich, but those who need to pay attention are unlikely to be in the audience.

To get around the sense of emotional exhaustion induced by Nazi atrocities, a director has to find a compelling new angle – which is precisely what Jonathan Glazer has done with The Zone of Interest, a film which feels like an extended gloss on Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase: “the banality of evil”. Arendt’s reference was to Adolf Eichmann, the senior bureaucrat responsible for the transport of victims to the death camps, whose defence against war crimes was that he was merely doing his job.

In this film, based on a novel by Martin Amis, Glazer ramps up the banality to chilling effect, in an extended portrait of the idyllic family life of Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedl). In a large villa next door to the concentration camp, Höss’s wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), tends her garden and holds tea parties. Their five children play in a grassy courtyard, while an industrial-size chimney in the background puffs smoke from the camp’s crematorium.

Amis used three narrators, but Glazer trims everything back to its most minimal expression. Instead of the fictionalised commandant, “Paul Doll”, he gives us the real one. In place of adultery and intrigue, he provides a deadpan presentation of everyday domestic life. Black satire is replaced by something very like Reality TV. The camera roams around house and garden with apparent objectivity, as if sizing up which images of cheerful family life are worth framing.

Glazer and cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, deny themelves the usual devices of film storytelling, keeping us at a distance from the characters, avoiding the close-ups and point-of-view shots we take for granted. We are voyeurs on the Hösses’ lives, eavesdroppers on their private conversations, with no point of identification. It’s not an actors’ film, as Friedl and Hüller reveal nothing more than the faces they wear with family, friends and colleagues.

We don’t venture inside Auschwitz until the very end, when the camera pans over the deserted site, now a grisly museum. It’s no more than a footnote to a perverse tale of happy families. We watch Höss making his way to work or receiving visitors at home, including a large deputation who come to wish him a happy birthday. In the background we hear a constant stream of muffled noises – shouts, gunshots, dogs barking, even the commandant’s own voice screaming threats and orders. At night, the fires of the crematorium cast flickering shadows on the walls of the children’s bedrooms.

The distancing extends to the soundtrack by Mica Levi, which begins with a burst of electronic noise – a kind of anti-music that refuses to provide an emotional entry point. The scenario we encounter is neither cheerful nor ominous. It’s a simple depiction of the way the Höss family lives. We watch Hedwig trying on a fur coat, only gradually realising the origins of this garment.

She is proud of her attractive home, which she expects to be occupying “after the war”, following Germany’s inevitable triumph. To her, the conflict raging in Europe seems utterly insubstantial alongside the pleasures of homemaking. She is concerned about hiccups in her husband’s career path, but indifferent to the nature of his work.

As for Höss, he is a rising corporate executive who cultivates friends and allies in high places and takes every opportunity to improve the efficiency of operations. His big innovation is to sign off on a new crematorium that will enable many more prisoners to be speedily dispatched. “Burn, cool, unload, reload, continuously,” croons the architect. The real Höss, who was tried at Nuremberg and hanged in his own camp, was notorious for pioneering the use of the deadly gas, Zyklon B, and devising a system of rail deportation that brought 440,000 Hungarian Jews to the camp in only 56 days. They would make up a substantial percentage of the 1.1 million who died in Auschwitz.

The main focus, however, is on Höss’s family life. He goes swimming with the kids in the nearby river, and picnics on its banks – at least until he finds some fragment of human debris floating downstream and rushes to pull the children out of the water. The boys are not so squeamish, as they sit up in bed examining teeth they have found. When Hedwig’s mother arrives for a visit, she is at first enchanted by her daughter’s lovely home and idly wonders if her old boss, Esther Silberman, might be accommodated next door. But grandma leaves without notice after experiencing a night disturbed by the flames from the crematorium.

These discreet episodes add up to an unsettling experience, as our sense of creeping horror is exacerbated by Höss’s business-like attitude towards his work, and his off-duty persona as a cheerful, doting family man. Hedwig becomes the Hausfrau from Hell, as she remains oblivious to the industrial murder complex next door, discussing clothing and cosmetics with the wives of the other officers, distributing plundered garments among the servants.

The real Höss was a fanatical anti-Semite who had no concerns about getting blood on his hands, either as Commandant of Auschwitz, or in his previous role with the SS. Awaiting execution in a prison cell, he wrote a memoir in which he claimed to be merely “a cog in the wheel of the great extermination machine.” He freely confessed all that he had done, and admitted it had been wrong, but his late outbreak of conscience seems laughable when set against the enormity of his crimes.

Glazer leaves the door open as to whether Höss ever came to a moment of realisation, even as he plotted the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. If he did, it was an involuntary revolt of the body, as his mind was far too involved with the workings of the extermination machine. One might see The Zone of Interest as a horror movie about compartmentalisation, about the human capacity to dissociate ourselves from the worst evils, and construct a refuge in home and family, where we may think well of ourselves. I use the “we” because this film is more than a record of a moment in history. Glazer wants us to reflect on what is normal, and what is abnormal, barbaric, obscene. It shouldn’t be hard to make this distinction, but everywhere in the world today, almost 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, the line is increasingly blurred.

 

 

The Zone of Interest

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Written by Jonathan Glazer after a novel by Martin Amis

Starring: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Imogen Kogge, Luis Noah Witte, Johann Karthaus, Lilli Falk, Cecylia Pekala, Kalman Wilson, Nee Ahrensmeier, Anastazja Drobniak, Medusa Knopf

USA/UK/Poland, M, 106 mins

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 February, 2024