Review: "The Zone of Interest" is an endurance test worth taking
A powerful, and powerfully moral, contemplation of evil
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. It is also one of the most profoundly – and provocatively – moral.
Glazer’s film contemplates the horror of Auschwitz and the mechanized genocide of the Holocaust from the vantage point of commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig, within the Edenic estate they have constructed for themselves against the walls of the concentration camp. It is, as you have probably heard by now, a film about the banality of evil: We watch her tend to the large stately garden, fertilized by the ashes of the dead across the wall, and see him take part in casual meetings about the most efficient designs for the camp’s crematoria. The daily soundscape is punctuated by gunfire and screams of agony from the other side of the wall. The children play on the grounds while smoke from the Auschwitz chimneys darkens the sky. They all want for nothing and are seemingly untroubled by the genocide next door; in fact, when Rudolf is promoted to oversee all the Nazi’s concentration camps, Hedwig implores him to let them stay in the paradise they have built for themselves next to this factory of death.
The film asks if it is in the capacity of the human soul to build one family’s Eden and a million families’ Hell in the same space; of course it must be, elsewise the Holocaust could never have happened. To contemplate this truth is horrible, but also vitally necessary, because as much as this is a film about history, it is, I think, just as much about all of us in the auditorium and the lives we lead today. If we are privileged enough to spend time in a movie theater watching these images unfold, then we, too, have almost certainly done our own version of gardening while the sky above us darkens with blood – have turned a willfully blind eye towards an atrocity committed in our name and to our direct or indirect benefit, while taking pleasure in the insubstantial minutiae of our individual lives. The slice of history Glazer has zeroed in on makes the idea immediate and literal, and therefore intensely recognizable. It does not merely feel true as a piece of history, but as a contemplation of the present.
Of course I thought about Gaza while watching this movie; I cannot imagine being able to block that out. As I am writing this, the death toll has risen above 26,000 – over 1% of the 2.3-million-person population – and yesterday the UN’s International Court of Justice finished a hearing on Israel’s actions by imploring the country to avoid inflicting genocide. I am an American; my country and my tax dollars support this. I am not Rudolf Höss, personally overseeing the implementation of mass mechanized death, but I am a citizen implicated in the actions and inactions of my government; I enjoy a life of ease and privilege those in Gaza could never begin to imagine. I do not have a garden, but I spent a few hours this week organizing my DVD collection; the Gazan sky was burning then too. I have to do more.
I do not mean to equate Israel’s actions in Gaza with the Holocaust, any more than I mean to suggest I or other citizens are the same as Rudolf and Hedwig Höss. But within The Zone of Interest and the history it chronicles are echoes. Like the sounds of the camp’s horrors breaking beyond the walls to the garden beyond, we can try to ignore them, but to do so will rot our soul. Glazer’s film is, indeed, about the banality of evil, but it is also, crucially, an argument that evil provides no escape. The film’s final act refuses to let Höss walk away unburdened by what he has done and what he will go on to do; in a final series of cuts, he wretches violently within Nazi headquarters, as though what is left of his soul is trying to break free from the confines of his body. There is an echo here, too; the more one ignores, the harder it is to live with oneself. The body keeps the score. That squirming, sickening sensation you feel sitting in the theater, as it all hits so close to home, is proof your heart still beats. We have to do better. We cannot let our souls rot as the fire spreads.
I thought about Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer again watching The Zone of Interest. I’ve reviewed that film twice and remained uncomfortable with its treatment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki both times. Considering it in comparison to Glazer’s film, Nolan’s feels more misguided to me than ever. Like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Höss was a man who led others to construct instruments of mass death. Nolan was interested in the genius and interiority of the inventor. Glazer’s focus is consumed by his subject’s evil, staring unblinkingly at the monstrous delusion of a man and his wife trying to build a utopia atop the bones of their victims. The smallness of these people strikes us so powerfully, where every inch of Oppenheimer is built to convey grandeur. Certainly one could make a biopic about Höss’ industrial ingenuity, or the inner-workings of his family life, subjects glimpsed along the edges of Glazer’s film; but to do so would, of course, be manifestly and obviously immoral in the face of what ends that ingenuity served, or in comparison to the millions of families torn asunder while his lived in comfort. And yet that is the route Oppenheimer takes, and the route so many lesser biopics have taken all the more fulsomely, whether they are conscious of it or not. The profound immorality of that approach struck me very hard watching The Zone of Interest. Here is a film that is radical in how committed it is to sitting with the almost – but, crucially, not entirely – incomprehensible banality of the evil these people were party to, and in allowing the dead to haunt them.
The Zone of Interest is a film not of action, but of contemplation; accordingly, one of Glazer’s most crucial gestures is how, precisely, his work invites us to sit in a state of thoughtfulness and genuine reflection. I see two techniques as key here. First is that, while the bulk of the film is not scored – the correct call, so as not to tip or guide the viewer too hard, to do part of the thinking for them – the movie does open with an honest-to-God overture: several minutes of music by composer Mica Levi played against a totally black screen, the audience sitting collectively in darkness with the music as their only sensory input. The piece is intentionally discordant, challenging, and evocative, in all the ways Levi is the undisputed master of in this period of film history. And in that dark overture, we are made to practice the meditative and thoughtful stance the film asks us to adopt throughout. Short soundscapes punctuate the acts of the film at several key moments, including a particularly memorable fade-to-red from the flowers in Hedwig’s gardens; these scenes are, I think, a series of calls to hold us to the mark, to refocus and sharpen our attention, to remind us of sitting in the dark with nothing but the sound, the first principle of an experience such as this.
Second is the capture and presentation of the film’s visuals. The Zone of Interest is thematically constructed upon the juxtaposition of the Höss’ lovely estate with the adjacent concentration camp – a garden fertilized with the ashes of genocide. This creates an obvious trap for the filmmaker: if the evil banality of the film’s subjects is symbolized in the aesthetics of this immaculate home they have made, the filmmaker cannot then over-aestheticize his film, cannot create images that overly composed or focused too much on pictorial beauty. The images may contain beauty – from either the natural world or the unnatural Eden the Höss family strives to build – but that cannot be their first or highest calling, else the cinematography commit the same sin as Hedwig: To focus on aesthetic perfection while the Holocaust unfolds next door. A more neutral stance must be adopted. Glazer achieves this too, and it is one of the reasons the film works as powerfully as it does. The film is shot on digital, but with no attempt whatsoever to mimic the texture or artfulness of celluloid film, as so many movies now do. Every image is hyper clear, every detail almost distractingly sharp, everything in focus and most scenes shot at enough of a remove to give the eye room to wander. The frames are smartly and professionally composed, but not rendered so obsessively as to become iconographic or invoke the idea of ‘tableaus,’ a comparison many movies with this film’s rhythm might otherwise invite. Combined with the neutral color grade – neither cold nor warm but a reasonable approximation of reality – and a few sequences shot in night-vision, the aesthetic here is one of surveillance and observation. We are not so much voyeurs taking pleasure in illicit viewing, but anthropologists studying these events as they unfold; there is something scientific about it, emphasized in an overhead shot of every Nazi concentration camp leader seated around a boardroom table captured with a distorted wide angle lens, like these men have literally been put under a microscope. The most aggressively ‘composed’ shots come from a recurring visual motif juxtaposing the Höss household in the foreground and the fires of Auschwitz’ ovens or the smoke from the trains in the background; though they include the ‘beauty’ of the garden, they are not ‘beautiful’ as compositions – they are terrifying, and sobering, and sear deeply into the cortex of the viewer.
Jonathan Glazer has not made a film in ten years, since 2013’s Under the Skin. That was one of my top 10 films of its decade, and I would not be surprised if The Zone of Interest takes a similar place when we repeat the exercise in 2029 (it would have been high on my list of the Top 10 Films of 2023 had it come to Iowa or Denver in time for me to see it). Glazer’s film is sharp, insightful, and precise in the ways it implicates Höss and his family, but it is great, haunting, and enduring for the ways it implicates the viewer, for how it asks us to sit in reflection of the banal sins we too commit, and for how it in turn calls us to some kind of action. I would show and teach this film in several different settings, and I think I would pair it with Alain Resnais’ seminal short documentary Night and Fog, the first film there to provide the vital history, context, and moral outrage, the second to invite the just-as-vital contemplation of this evil and how we continually fall prey to it. For there will always be atrocities, and there will always be gardens to tend; as long as we commit ourselves to the latter while ignoring the former, both will grow in turn.
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