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- Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival
Primo Levi wrote that Auschwitz sounded like “a hubbub of people without names or faces drowned in a continuous deafening background noise from which, however, the human word did not surface.” A defining quality of Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest – essentially the domestic drama of a Nazi officer and his family, stringently confined to their worldview – is the sound-designed tumult of Auschwitz: like the ambient machine hum of an industrial park near a field, dotted with gunshots, yells, screams. The camp is heard but barely glimpsed in the film, its smokestacks and watchtowers peeking above the walls of SS officer Rudolf Höss’s house and grounds; the sounds as heard in the film are the opposite of deafening, they are distant, blurred, their horrors pushed to the absolute periphery of indifference.
With The Zone of Interest, it’s as if Glazer has responded to the idea of the Holocaust as unrepresentable not just by rendering absence – the film opens with at least a minute of black screen over Mica Levi’s banshee soundscapes – but by racking focus on a slice of Germany society. And so, we observe Christian Friedel’s Rudolf Höss, workaholic and fond but preoccupied papa, and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller), a homemaker with a penchant for gardening and a fussy visiting mother. The main conflict is Höss’s transfer to another assignment, to which Hedwig protests, “This is our home … Everything we want is on our doorstep.”
Point of view is Glazer’s virtuosic obsession, folding us into the warp and weft of unfamiliar zones: an extraterrestrial hunter in Under the Skin (2013), the fixation on a taboo reincarnation in Birth (2004), even Ben Kingsley’s hectoring gangster in Sexy Beast (2000), bullying people into a new reality. In contrast to the helmet-cam-style scrum of Son of Saul (2015), or the lucid calm before the storm of Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) – both Cannes prize-winners – Glazer and cinematographer Lukasz Zal lock us down with sunny yet cool imagery shot using wide lenses that keep the Höss’s at arm’s length, especially, it seems, their faces. A sickliness seeps through slightly off-kilter camera placements and heights, while the delivery of spa travel plans and oven mass death logistics is low-key and routine.
This quality of self-absorption is what Glazer’s film adapts, or adopts, from Martin Amis’s novel, The Zone of Interest, whilst discarding swaths of plot and people, including the officers (engaged in perpetual cocksmanship) and, well, the prisoners. Instead, we are trapped within Rudolf’s mundane workplace drive and Hedwig’s bustling about (at one point donning a fur coat stolen from a dead prisoner, part of a haul of belongings dumped on the kitchen table up for grabs). More than Amis’s Zone of Interest, however, his book Time’s Arrow came to mind with its thought experiment of narrating the Holocaust backwards, in a cinematic reversal of its activity. Glazer’s film, too, feels like a self-contained exercise (at times flirting with dark-as-the-void satire).
It must be said that the banality of the Höss family and the bureaucracy of genocide are no revelation, and there’s something wrongheaded in Glazer’s cold replication of their murderous perspective and peekaboo roundabout glimpses of the Nazi atrocity (incidentally, László Nemes already went here with his immersive 2007 short about a Nazi clerk, With a Little Patience (2007)). The Zone of Interest has its chilling effects: a young child overhears a prisoner being punished; his older brother, also seen clad in Hitler Youth uniform, plays with the loose teeth of the dead. And Glazer can be counted upon for radical shake-ups. Mysterious night-vision sequences of a girl (resembling a photonegative) pop up when Höss reads his children a Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. An elegant flash-forward to the present time brings us within the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, mundanely tended by cleaners; the film was in fact partly shot there, with permission. The promised Nazi empire is nowhere in sight, partly an Ozymandian effect, partly something like Sergei Loznitsa’s portrayal of visits to camps in Austerlitz (2016). An accompanying moment with Rudolf seems to evoke, bafflingly, the retching rush of self-consciousness near the end of The Act of Killing (2012).
Glazer’s removed camerawork lets the Nazi project play out with the deadpan horror of a dystopia, even as it notably avoids techniques that might foster an emotional identification with the family dynamics and actually shake up an audience. The main possible takeaway that could redeem the film is the possible parallel between the Hösses and anyone currently participating in the systems of a murderous nationalist state while maintaining the veneer of civilisation. This was a parallel acidly volunteered by one Russian viewer I spoke to, but the lingering on office meetings and letter dictation could also extend to evoking boardroom and backroom decisions made with full knowledge of their deadly consequences.
But above all: whatever the frissons of Glazer’s perspectival gambit, why this story alone, instead of millions of others? At one point, a Höss daughter plays on the piano a song composed by Joseph Wulf, a German-Polish Jewish historian and survivor who pushed to publicise the full extent of Nazi deeds. It’s an eerie moment, with its lyrics in subtitles evoking the camps, like some final fugitive cry of anguished truth. In the end, Wulf died by suicide, despairing as he watched postwar German authorities continue to tell only a selective portion of history.