The Plot: Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) goes about his daily business, meeting with fellow colleagues as they discuss plans for the future. He’s keen to build another future with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller): a place they can call home and raise their young children. They’ve settled into a pleasant country house with all they need. However, there are rumblings of a potential move that could provoke instability in the family. As Rudolf ponders his future, gunshots are heard in the background while an ever-present funnel of smoke rises. He is the Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp and lives next door to it with his family…
The Verdict: British writer-director Jonathan Glazer is a particular creature of habit and his films very much bear his imprint throughout. Much like Stanley Kubrick, there is a cold and detached air of otherworldliness about his filmmaking. A director whose films engage the mind and soul if not so much the heart, he can be an acquired taste. Under The Skin, for example, felt like it had been co-directed by Scarlett Johansson’s seductive alien character. However, his new film The Zone Of Interest is too important a film for anyone to ignore. It won Glazer the Grand Prize of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and has similarly been nominated for many other awards including some nine BAFTAs. There have been plenty of films about the WWII Holocaust, but nothing quite like this unique and very carefully-calibrated dissection of 20th Century evil.
At its heart, it’s a film about the banality of evil. The way that people can be complicit in the carrying out of evil acts while carrying on their daily lives without any impact on their moral compass. Not even a twitch in another direction. It’s also about people who casually choose to look the other way, ignore the problem completely or are ignorant as to what’s really going on. Until slightly later on in the film, it’s not established where the film is set. There’s an idyllic garden where Rudolf and Hedwig drink, grow vegetables, take in the sun and play with their children. There’s a visible guard watchtower, barbed wire and a chimney just over the wall though. There are rumbling sounds, muffled shouts, occasional screams and plumes of smoke. This is Auschwitz. Even the word alone evokes images of horror burned into our minds from newsreel footage.However, Glazer shows remarkable restraint throughout. He doesn’t feel the need to peek over the wall, instead letting the immersive sound design do its work while our minds fill in the horrific remainder. This is underscored by Mica Levi’s sparsely-used but unsettling score. This is a film to see in the cinema with other people around you for a shared experience. It might just be the most disturbing 12A in recent memory, a film that crawls Under The Skin and makes a home there – as it should. Glazer further immerses his actors and the audience with static cameras that capture small details and keeps the characters at a remove from the audience (a Glazer trademark). It’s not an airless chamber piece though. The story occasionally moves beyond the house to a nearby river, roads and a packed meeting room where Rudolf and other commandants squabble over The Final Solution while trying to maintain a certain percentage of the workforce to keep the camps running in their grim business. Or, to their minds, just another day in the office.
While it’s loosely adapted from the Martin Amis novel of the same name, Glazer has gone in his own direction by putting the real-life Rudolf Höss front and centre. The longest-serving Commandant of Auschwitz is portrayed with a calculated air by Christian Friedel, a man who gives orders and lets others worry about the consequences. Sandra Hüller also does sterling work as Hedwig, a mother who is blind to the children just over the wall being converted into ash. As good as the actors are though, the real star is Glazer’s intensely-focused direction which is chilly and chilling in equal measure, locking the audience into its steely glare to confront the realities of the Holocaust. This is further reinforced by the end coda, a reminder and warning that such events are re-occurring once again in other warzones. Its relevance could not be more timely. The Zone Of Interest is a fine film that offers a different but no less important window into the Holocaust. It simply demands to be seen.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Zone Of Interest
Chilly & chilling
The Zone Of Interest (US / UK / Poland / 12A / 104 mins)
In short: Chilly & chilling
Directed by Jonathan Glazer.
Starring Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Freya Kreutzkam, Ralph Herforth.