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The Zone of Interest

Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Produced by James Wilson and Ewa Puszczynska
Written by Jonathan Glazer Based on the novel by Martin Amis
With: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Freya Kreutzkam, Ralph Herforth, Maximilian Beck, and Ralf Zillmann
Cinematography: Lukasz Zal
Editing: Paul Watts
Music: Mica Levi
Runtime: 105 min
Release Date: 15 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color: Color

I'm always excited to see a new Jonathan Glazer picture. The British writer/director has only made four films in the last 20+ years. In 2000, he started his career with the unexpectedly comedic crime thriller Sexy Beast, which was Ray Winstone's breakthrough and reminded the world of Ben Kingsley's dynamic range as an actor. In 2004, Glazer made the psychological drama Birth starring Nicole Kidman, which exemplified the axiom credited to Alfred Hitchcock that "the greatest special effect is a close-up of the human face" and demonstrated that Harris Savides was the most impressive yet subtle cinematographer of Aughts. Glazer's 2013 film Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson played an otherworldly woman preying on unsuspecting Scotsmen, was an unusual, haunting sci-fi horror film that lived up to its title. In the case of each film, a second viewing is required to fully appreciate the movie's themes and the ingenious ways Glazer explores them. That second viewing may be necessary to appreciate his latest film, too, but this time, I think one can glean everything the movie has to say well before the halfway point.

The Zone of Interest stars Christian Friedel (The White Ribbon, 13 Minutes) as Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, Anatomy of a Fall) plays his wife Hedwig. They live with their five children in an idyllic estate beside the camp. Only the guard tower and the tops of the camp’s buildings, including massive chimneys for the ovens, can be seen over the large walls, supplemented with barbed wire, that separates the bucolic, impeccably tended home from the unspeakable conditions next door. The sounds of screams, barking dogs, and occasional gunfire waft over the wall, but the hearty German family has gotten used to all that.

Despite featuring real-life characters, The Zone of Interest is not a docudrama. It is more of a thought experiment, challenging the audience to wrap our minds around the horror of the situation and then start to get used to it ourselves. We wonder, are these people monsters? Are their children? How many appalled audience members sitting in the theater with us would adapt as seemingly quickly as the Höss family did? Would we? No one wants to think that, but all evidence suggests that the number who would is a hell of a lot more than people like to admit.

Glazer's source material for the film is Martin Amis's 2014 novel of the same name, but he could just as well have set out to dramatize Hannah Arendt's conception of "the banality of evil" or the heart-stopping line John Huston delivers near the end of Chinatown, "Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." I've not read the Amis book, but I have little doubt it is quite different from the ultra-minimalist narrative of Glazer's movie. A text version of this picture would read like a novelization of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Just as some books can never be effectively adapted to film, many cinematic concepts can only be experienced visually. Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman's 1975 "slice of life" masterpiece is such a movie, as are the myriad works of "slow cinema" by Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and many others. (I'm now picturing novelizations of some of my favorite Kiarostami movies.… “Then we got back into the car. And drove.”)

Unlike the contemplative pictures of slow cinema practitioners, The Zone of Interest doesn't reveal more and more to viewers the longer we watch. On the contrary, the ideas conveyed in Glazer's movie become reductive as its narrative plays out. Commandant Höss is an ambitious man whose efficiency requires him to pull up stakes and move on to his next assignment. But his rapacious, reactionary wife does not want to leave the "paradise" she's worked so hard to achieve. This minor disagreement is the closest the film gets to an overt narrative conflict, and it's solved with relative ease. Glazer's point is that the banality of evil should be painfully easy for us all to recognize and call out, yet most humans turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to unspeakable horrors every day, even if we don't literally live next door to them.

Just as Höss does such a good job of extermination that he’s removed from the garden, Glazer's film is almost too effective in putting across its ideas, utilizing exquisite technical craft. The complex sound design is subdued yet ominous. The score, by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie, Mangrove), feels like the musical equivalent of starving to death. The pristine visual compositions by cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Ida, Cold War, I'm Thinking of Ending Things) make the Höss home look like a Garden of Eden that instantly starts to feel oppressive. You don't have to wait to see and hear direct references to the inconveniences of abutting a death factory to notice how uncomfortable the clothing and the hairstyles must be, how cold the spotless interiors and manicured gardens are, and how terrible everything must smell no matter how many flowers are planted.

Still, the fact that all these thoughts and details become so evident so quickly undercuts the film's power. And since the movie came out the same year as Killers of the Flower Moon, a picture that fully dramatizes and narrativizes the idea that complacency in evil acts can be an act of evil itself, The Zone of Interest's shortcomings seem all the more pronounced.

Twitter Capsule:

Jonathan Glazer's loose adaptation of Martin Amis's 2014 novel plays like an attempt to dramatize Hannah Arendt's conception of "the banality of evil" or John Houston's chilling line at the end of Chinatown by utilizing the conventions of slow cinema.