‘The Zone of Interest’ Review: A Hollow Holocaust

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The proximity of their home and these buildings is a jolt, and based on fact. The real Höss family, like their fictional counterparts, lived in the Auschwitz complex, a swath some 15 square miles in size that housed different camps in an area called the Interessengebiet or “interest zone.” The house was tucked near a corner of the oldest camp, Auschwitz I, which had prisoner barracks, gallows, a gas chamber and crematory. After Höss was arrested in 1946, he wrote that “my family had it good in Auschwitz, every wish that my wife or my children had was fulfilled.” The children ran free and his wife had “her flower paradise.” He was hanged at Auschwitz in 1947, not far from where the family had lived.

The time frame in Glazer’s adaptation is vague, though primarily seems to take place in 1943 before the real Höss was transferred to another camp. The movie opens on a black screen accompanied by some music, a foreboding overture that gives way to a pacific scene at a river with a group of people in bathing suits. Eventually, they dress and motor off. Much of the rest of the movie takes place at the Höss family home, where Glazer’s carefully framed, often fixed cameras record the children playing while the parents chat and sometimes argue. You see Rudolf going off to work in the camp while Hedwig oversees the house. At one point, you also watch a prisoner quietly spreading ash on the garden as a soil amendment.

In “The Zone of Interest,” Glazer deploys a number of art-film conventions, including narrative ellipses and long uninterrupted takes. Throughout, characters are kept at a remove (as if they are being surveilled) and filmed mostly in medium or long shots; I only remember one grim close-up of a face. There are bursts of music (by Mica Levi), one bit features unnerving yelping and whooping, though not a conventional soundtrack. For the most part, the intricately layered audio foregrounds everyday conversations and chatter over a low, persistent machinelike hum, a droning that is regularly punctuated by train sounds, muffled gunfire and indecipherable yelling and screaming. It sounds like the engine of death.

The overall effect of Glazer’s approach to this material is at first deeply unsettling, in large part because — as ordinary life ticks on — you worry that he will take you into the extermination rooms. Instead, he continues focusing on the Hösses’ everyday life without obvious editorializing (or outrage), swells of emotion-coaxing music or the usual mainstream cinematic prompts. The camerawork — save for a few traveling shots that underline the closeness of the house to the interior of the camp — is smooth and discreet. It’s demonstrably unshowy. It’s all very matter of fact, whether Hedwig is showing a visitor around the garden or Rudolph is with some suited executives discussing plans to expand the camp.

In stressing the quotidian aspect and placid texture of the family’s life, Glazer emphasizes just how commonplace this world is, a mundanity that evokes what Hannah Arendt, in writing about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust, famously called the “banality of evil.” Rudolf and Hedwig give the appearance of a conventional bourgeois married couple (however creepy). When he gets a promotion that requires them to move, she resists. Every so often, though, fissures crack the surface of this calm as when Hedwig tries on a fur coat that’s been confiscated from a prisoner; she shuts herself in a room first, which suggests that she’s hiding and, by extension, knows she’s doing something wrong.

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