A Holocaust movie with a message for our moment.


Some movies start by telling you how to watch them. The Zone of Interest starts by telling you not to. After the film’s title fades to black, writer-director Jonathan Glazer makes his audience sit in the dark for more than two minutes as the dissonant wash of Mica Levi’s score surrounds them. In the nearly 80 years since George Stevens, the Hollywood veteran who became the head of the Allied forces’ Special Coverage Unit, filmed the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945, an unprecedented archive has been amassed to document the atrocities of the Second World War. But The Zone of Interest is a movie about what you don’t see, and what you are forced to imagine.

The Martin Amis novel on which Glazer’s film is based centers on a fictionalized version of Rudolf Höss, the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz. The movie de-fictionalizes the story to an extreme extent. Not only are Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) identified by name, but the production meticulously rebuilt their house in the shadow of the camp’s walls, a mere 50 meters from where it originally stood. Interior scenes were shot with fixed cameras in hidden locations, and the actors played out moments in different parts of the house simultaneously, so they had no idea when they were being filmed and couldn’t play to the lens. (Glazer describes the surveillance-state setup as the equivalent of “Big Brother in a Nazi house.”) Although Höss frequently enters the camp, the movie largely confines itself to the domestic sphere, the home where Höss, his wife, and their children sustain a grotesque parody of ordinary life. But while the walls of Auschwitz block their view, the sounds of the horrors inside travel freely, a low hum of atrocity punctuated by bursts of gunfire and the occasional scream. At night, the flames of the crematoria turn the sky a brilliant red.

The Zone of Interest declines to reenact, at least on camera, the violence of Auschwitz, but it is never far away. After that long, almost endless, moment in the dark, our eyeballs are seared by sunlight as the Höss family lounges by the river on a beautiful day, a pastoral that evokes the German “mountain films” in which Leni Riefenstahl starred before becoming Hitler’s favorite propagandist. It’s an image out of time, out of history. But history won’t stay contained. Höss bathes in the river as his children play upstream, and his foot catches on an unseen object that, as he pulls it above the water, is revealed to be a human jawbone. He sprints toward his children as they gleefully splash one another in the shallows, and we can see whorls of effluent scudding along the surface, the refuse of mass incineration heading right for them. Back at home, they scrub furiously in the family bathtub, but pieces of ash still cling to the side of the drain. The stain is not so easily washed away.

The superficial mundanity of the Hösses’ daily life gives rise to moments of extreme disconnection. When Rudolf announces that his job is transferring him to a new city and Hedwig balks at uprooting their comfortable life, it almost takes effort to recall that the job in question is supervising the deportation of 700,000 Hungarian Jews. Friedel and Hüller neither convey nor solicit empathy for their characters, and Glazer’s dispassionate shooting style rebuffs any instinct we might have to identify with them simply because they’re on screen. There’s not a single close-up in the entire movie, nothing to suggest that we can or should want to know what really makes them tick. But Glazer doesn’t keep us at so much of a distance that we can comfortably dissociate from them, either, and the fact that we’re forced to supply our own ideas about just what is going on inside the camp at any given moment brings with it an inevitable tinge of complicity.

Glazer’s subtractive method risks rendering the Holocaust as an abstraction, but it also feels like evidence of a principled refusal to reconstruct the abominable. In the year of Schindler’s List, Jean-Luc Godard turned down an award from the New York Film Critics Circle on the grounds that he had failed as a filmmaker, offering as proof his inability to “prevent M. Spielberg from rebuilding Auschwitz.” (At the same time, Spielberg was criticized for not going far enough, showing a near miss in the gas chambers rather than a mass execution.) The impulse to add reenactment to the heap of historical documentation, much of it collected by Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, is an understandable one, but it’s hard to feel entirely at ease with the application of conventional cinematic techniques, the mechanics of suspense and special effects, to the depiction of such obscenity. In his review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s concentration-camp drama Kapò, the critic and filmmaker Jacques Rivette singled out a moment where a prisoner kills herself by throwing her body on an electrified fence, and the camera moves in to more artfully frame her corpse against the gloomy sky. A director who deploys the tools of melodrama in filming such abjection, Rivette wrote, “deserves nothing but the most profound contempt.”

Instead, Glazer sought to literally remove himself from the action, watching on monitors in the basement as the actors played their scenes in the house above. Rather than seeking out the gauzy radiance of sunset, he shot in the harsh light of midday, the sharpness enhanced by the movie’s digital photography. “The important aspect was not to judge,” explained cinematographer Łukasz Żal, “not to make any decisions you would usually make.” The Hösses are less protagonists than they are historical artifacts, leaving us to glean from external data that, for example, the woman who shows up to stay in the family’s spare room is Hedwig’s mother, who leaves without notice after she realizes that her bedroom window is bathed at night in the glow of Auschwitz’s ovens. It’s not until the movie’s end that we’re allowed access to Höss’ thoughts, and then it’s to admit that, even at a Nazi Party conference, he can’t turn off the part of his brain that sees a gathering of people and starts working out the best way to flood the room with toxic gas.

The price of The Zone of Interest’s approach is the near total erasure, at least in visual terms, of the Nazis’ victims. We catch a faint glimpse of striped uniforms moving through tall grass, and see one man scrubbing Höss’ boots in an outdoor sink, as the water turns from muddy brown to blood-red. But in the carefully dehumanized language Höss uses as he consults with engineers on a plan for more efficiently disposing of corpses, the dead are simple “pieces,” and even Hedwig only mentions the camp’s prisoners to stress their absence from her house. The terrified-looking women who act as her servants, she explains to a friend, are simply local girls: “The Jews are all on the other side of the wall.”

We know that the Höss family’s carefully compartmentalized life is a lie—and Glazer shows us that they know it too. Hedwig’s casual chatter with her girlfriends includes references to the Jews whose belongings they pounced on when the owners were hauled away, and when one of her servants makes a minor infraction, Hedwig warns her with chilling equanimity that her husband “would spread your ashes across the fields of Babice.” Their sons play a cheerful game of hide-and-seek, but when one hides in the family greenhouse, the other holds the door shut and mimics the hissing of a gas chamber.

It would be easy to tell this story and conclude, disastrously, that it was possible to lead an ordinary life under Nazi rule—that even a concentration camp commandant’s family could go about their business as if nothing was amiss. But compartmentalization is never airtight, and finding the moments when the truth of their existence comes to the surface is simply a matter of keeping a close watch. What might we see if we turned the camera’s unforgiving gaze on ourselves? Even Glazer, who is Jewish, speaks of the movie as an embodiment of “the thing in us that drives it all, the capacity for violence that we all have.”

In his book Three Minutes in Poland, the author Glenn Kurtz spends nearly 400 pages excavating the history of a small Polish village from a short piece of footage taken by a vacationing relative only a year before the country was occupied by the Nazis. Each frame of film captures, usually by accident, a tiny fragment of a life, most of them soon to be cut short—of the town’s 3,000 Jewish residents, fewer than 100 would survive the war. An archivist tells Kurtz that the footage is especially precious because “ordinariness is one of the rarest things preserved on film.” The Zone of Interest captures a different kind of ordinariness, not the kind made tragic in retrospect but the kind imposed on tragedy by sheer force of will. Rudolf and Hedwig Höss are just ordinary people. That doesn’t mean that they’re not monsters, but that monstrosity is much closer to the norm than the exception.


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