The Zone of Interest

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall”), the wife of Auschwitz commandment (Christian Friedel) Rudolf Höss, cannot believe her good fortune in the large house and servants her husband’s position affords them.  Coffee with friends, family swimming parties and gently used furs from ‘Canada’ keep her so absorbed, the death camp outside her garden wall is outside “The Zone of Interest.”

Laura's Review: A-

British director Jonathan Glazer broke out with his brilliant debut film, “Sexy Beast,” in 2000.  Since then he’d only made two more, 2004’s “Birth” and 2013’s “Under the Skin,” but each has been worth waiting for and now his fourth, the UK’s rare submission (and very likely winner) for the International Oscar, provides a whole new consideration of a well worn subject.  Adapting the Martin Amis book that inspired his perspective, along with research into testimonials, court transcripts and still photographs, Glazer illustrates the rationalization of guilt via the human ability to compartmentalize with the most extreme example imaginable.  Utilizing ten stationary cameras, a device he referred to as ‘Big Brother in the Nazi house,’ the director records an ‘ordinary’ household going about its business as unspeakable horrors occur on the other side of their garden wall.

The film begins with the sound of a discordant choir (an integral, eerie, howling, hellish chorus of a score by “Under the Skin’s” Mica Levi) over a black screen.  Eventually birdsong bleeds through, then takes over the soundtrack as a group of people in swimsuits are revealed by a lake.  We will learn this is the Höss family and although they return to a well appointed two story home, it is set against a wall topped with barbed wire, a guard tower marking its corner, sounds of shouting, screaming and occasional gunfire emanating from within.  No one appears to notice.

We will watch Hedwig entertain women over coffee, talking about their recent windfalls, one stating that she is getting more toothpaste after having found a diamond in one, observing how clever ‘they’ are.  Rudolf takes a couple of his children fishing, then recoils in horror when he picks up what looks like a human jawbone off the riverbed and hustles the kids home to be scrubbed of the black ash that has made a sticky paste as if it is the natural dirt of outdoor activity.  Hedwig couldn’t be prouder when her mother comes to visit, showing off the house and the garden she’s nurtured outdoors.  Mom mentions a Jewish woman she used to clean for, noting that she was outbid for her curtains.  Hedwig changes the subject as if she hasn’t heard her.  That night the older woman will sit by a window, the red glow of crematorium flames reflecting on her face.  The next morning Hedwig has a fit of pique when her servant girl informs her that her mother has left.  The family dog, its tail constantly wagging, is almost always present but almost never noticed.

The screen will occasionally obscure what we’ve seen, sometimes in black, others in red, a type of emotional blindness.  After seeing Rudolf read bedtime stories from the Brothers Grimm to his children, infrared cameras provide an eerie counterpart as a little Polish girl rides her bike under cover of darkness to a forced labor area by the railroad tracks where she’ll hide apples for the starving men who toil there.

The woman who is proud when her husband calls her the ‘Queen of Auschwitz’ throws a fit when she learns Rudolf is about to be transferred, a promotion, demanding that she and the children be allowed to stay in their home (Glazer shot on location renovating a building about 200 yards from the original house using photographs and blueprints).  Rudolf heads to the city and rubs elbows with the Nazi elite, calculating the amount of gas needed to wipe out a party in a lofty structure.

Although they are never afforded a close-up, both Friedel and Hüller convey the normalization of horror, his mind closed to all but perfecting his mission and protecting his family, hers on upward mobility and feathering her nest.  Glazer’s final scene change takes us from Friedel in an echoing hallway in the past, to cleaners in the same environs in the present’s Holocaust museum with its glassed in cases of victims’ belongings. “The Zone of Interest” makes its point from a chilly remove for a uniquely provocative psychological examination of evil.

Robin's Review: A-

Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) live an idyllic life in their opulent home with a thriving garden. But, that happy day-to-day existence is punctuated with screams, gunshots, shouts and the sound of trains coming and going to the Auschwitz death camp operating right next door in “The Zone of Interest.”

English-born writer-director Jonathan Glazer adapts the novel of the same name by Martin Amis and comes up with an original concept of the Holocaust seen through the eyes of camp commandant Rudolph Hoss. Selected to up the tempo of the destruction of sub-humans, he and his family move into their luxury home and garden and begin to build their pampered life.

Every day, Rudolph heads off to the “office” where he blithely follows the orders of the masters of the Third Reich. Hedwig efficiently runs her home, raises their two children and lovingly tends to her garden - with the hard labor of camp inmates “recruited” for the job. We know that something is going on within the walled boundary adjacent to the home but it is always kept away from the family, except for the sounds emanating from the camp next door which are ignored.

I have read a number of reviews and comments about “The Zone of Interest” and a goodly percentage claim the film is boring. I do not know what film they saw, but it was not “The Zone.” Certainly, the idyllic home life of the Hoss family is an exaggeration of what is “normal,” especially as you figure out the context of the story. As it dawned on me, early on, just what the huge monolithic wall next to the Hoss home is, it caused a twist to the gut.

The contrast of what we see on screen and what we hear from the other side of the wall is striking. It is a case from going from the sublime to the ridiculous, from normal on one side to indescribable evil on the other. This has the result of the “normal” side actually being an integral part of the evil and not separate.
Jonathan Glazer keeps his camera at a distance from the action. We get a good look at the beautiful luxury surroundings. The characters, too, are kept at a distance with Hoss, Hedwig and the rest almost faceless. The acting takes a back seat to the technical aspects of cinematography, set design, costume and story that is gripping and horrifying.

I have been an amateur historian my entire adult life and this is truly a unique look at the Holocaust without actually showing the destruction of human life. This is deft filmmaking at its best.

A24 releases "The Zone of Interest" in select theaters on 12/15/23, opening wider in January.