Film Review: The Zone of Interest

Words: Oliver Parker
Monday 22 January 2024
reading time: min, words

Jonathan Glazer's new film is a sanitised and one note depiction of the Holocaust...


Jonathan Glazer’s films are often referred to as a cinema of abstractions; from the haunting hallucinations in Sexy Beast that feature a menacing giant rabbit, to the mysterious background of Under the Skin’s wandering alien. With The Zone of Interest, his first film in ten years, the abstraction is Auschwitz: something that is frequently referred too, either directly or indirectly, but never fully revealed to the audience.

Glazer’s film, which deviates heavily from the original novel by Martin Amis, follows the inner lives of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), long time commander and architect of Auschwitz, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children. They live in a large family house that sits within a small proximity from the concentration camp: so close in fact that one entrance to the camp is visible from their doorstep. For most of the film Glazer follows the mundane, almost tranquil life of the family: going for picnics, maintaining the garden and swimming in lakes. Nobody in the family seems too discerned with the presence of an extermination camp within a short walk of their estate. During this time the horrifying spectre of Auschwitz is pushed to both the edges of the frame and into the intricate soundscapes pervading the film; existing only in the background to the mundane family drama that takes place within the confines of the house and its grandiose garden.

When glimpses of the camp enter the frame’s peripheral it is entirely displayed through thematic juxtaposition; whether it is Rudolf smoking a cigar alone in his garden whilst chimney’s burn in the background and echoey screams roll outside its walls, or a tracking shot that follows someone through the family garden, with the roofs of the concentration camp peeking out from over the top of the wall separating the two. It’s a tactic that Glazer clearly thinks is clever as he stretches this one concept – the contrast between the pedestrian and the horrifying – over the course of two hours; either that or he thinks the audience is too dumb to grasp the film’s most obvious thematic point: that Nazi commanders and their families lived regular lives despite knowing full well what was happening nearby; nothing exactly revelatory, especially not anyone familiar with Claude Lanzmann’s paramount documentary Shoah. Throughout the film Glazer isn’t able to develop anything deeper than simplistic provocations about how these routine events take place in such close distance to pure evil.

Many critics are talking about how The Zone of Interest highlights Hannah Arendt’s theory about “the banality of evil” – an idea that states seemingly normal people can commit atrocious acts partially as a result of being a painstakingly boring bureaucrat who is unable to grasp the true notions of what is happening. It is easy to see how people are led to make this comparison: Glazer only shows the elements of his job that are compromised of meetings with other officers and businessmen. Rudolf is also never depicted as a man who has a firm ideological belief in the system and party he has helped create; little rhetoric about Nazi ideology is spoken and when it is, it is from Hedwig’s mother who overtly references Jewish people she knew were taken into the camp. He is never shown from within the camp, he is only ever shown as an external force to its presence. A man who sits above the horror, controlling it like a puppeteer.

However, this feels like a totally misguided representation of a man who essentially built Auschwitz from the ground up and had a long running history associated to the Nazi party, something which he joined in 1922, twenty years before the events depicted in the film. Whilst the film never attempts to relinquish the Höss family of their crimes, one genuinely horrifying scene shows Rudolf discussing new incinerators with a contractor, it rarely pushes far enough into the horrifying mindset believed by them to have any sort of tangible bite to it. Glazer feels far more concerned with psychologising these acts of pure evil, rather than identifying it with a purely hateful ideology.

the cracks swiftly appear when you try to probe the film for anything more profound than rudimentary ideas

It feels more apt to depict his life, and that of the Nazis, as the evil of banality. In which fascistic mindsets are grown out of the world of the mundane: how the petty bourgeoisie get drawn to fascism through hyper individualism and homogenized racism, or regular neighbours of Jewish families who knowingly turned a blind eye to the horrors committed; all things that are omitted from the sphere of this film. However, Glazer does make some allusions to the corporations who played a fundamental roll in either bankrolling the Nazis or providing them with machinery used for genocide. One offhand comment made by Hedwig’s mum highlights someone she knows starting a job at Siemens (a company who used forced labour in Auschwitz as well as providing trucks to the Nazis), it’s a great piece of dialogue that begs to expanded upon, but never is.

The Zone of Interest feels like a departure from Glazer’s pervious formal preoccupations, his style has always felt much looser and more impressionistic. Here the film feels much colder and austere, far more influenced by someone like Michael Haneke, who, if you watched this film with no prior knowledge, you might even mistake for having directed this film. Like Haneke, this film is full of a combination of both wide shots and long tracking shots that attempt to capture everything in meticulous detail. This clinical approach to filmmaking purposefully distances you from everything happening, in an attempt to push you away from the monsters populating the screen and to avoid humanising them – something it does successfully. There is a very mechanical feeling to how the film follows the family throughout every room in their house; for this effect, Glazer wired the house with small cameras to act as if the family were being secretly filmed by CCTV. 

The result of this is surprisingly flat as Glazer attempts to capture the domestic routine of the family like Chantal Akerman does with Jeanne Dielman. However, he doesn’t have the nerve or patience to force the viewers to spend time watching the repetitive procedures of domesticity, instead he frequently undercuts it and succumbs to letting the film slip into melodramatic pulp. One example of this is when Rudolf and Hedwig fall into raging domestic disputes, scenes which feel totally at odds with the ones surrounding it. Alongside this are the parts where the film slips into a more unexpected formalism: a thermal camera tracks a young girl planting apples in labour camps (an interesting thematic concept but yet again never fully explored) and a woman living a short distance from the camp taking in her washing. These bursts of pseudo experimentalism puncture the films incredibly tedious plotting, but fail to add anything interesting; instead, they just feel clumsy and thrown in just for the sake of mixing it up.

Demanding art to justify the reason for its existence is inherently bad practice, but one wonders what Glazer believes the purpose of this film to be. It certainly isn’t entertaining, nor should it be given the incredibly grave subject matter, but neither is it enlightening or offering any new ideas and perspectives on the greatest tragedy ever committed in human history, or the far-right doctrine that it was built upon. In fact, the film often feels like it even trivialises the ideology and intentions of its central characters. Glazer’s blunt force imagery, with the worst one being a montage of brightly coloured garden flowers played to the soundscape of concentration camp victims, becomes extremely one note after the film’s first five minutes. The Zone of Interest might have been able to fool critics with its incredibly simplistic depiction of evil and its arthouse aesthetic which demands to be taken seriously, but the cracks swiftly appear when you try to probe the film for anything more profound than rudimentary ideas.

The Zone of Interest is out in cinemas on 2 February

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