Films about the Holocaust have been made for countless decades, turning it into a genre of its own in the process. Though it is rare to see any kind of Holocaust story in media that chooses not to portray the vicious atrocities and suffering ingrained within that time period. The Zone of Interest, British writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s first feature since 2013’s Under the Skin, brings such a new perspective on the Holocaust, one that is more profoundly chilling than you would expect.
A static black screen accompanied by Glazer’s Under the Skin collaborator Mica Levi‘s eerie score opens The Zone of Interest, lasting to the point of near discomfort. The film then cuts to a large family having a picturesque picnic near a lush river, shot from a distance. That family, we learn shortly after, is composed of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children. The movie’s title refers to the 40-square-kilometer area surrounding the Auschwitz camp on the outskirts of what is now Oświęcim, Poland, where this family lives their dream life just over the wall from the Nazi concentration camp.
Loosely adapted from the 2014 novel of the same name by Martin Amis, Jonathan Glazer reshapes the plot to focus on the domestic lives of its eerily unbothered subjects and strips away other perspectives. Rather than using fictional characters, he chooses to stay true to reality through the portrayal of real-life people, as Höss was a key figure in the use of techniques of mass extermination implemented during Hitler’s “Final Solution” and was the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz.
The Zone of Interest fully immerses us in the Höss family’s everyday life. They celebrate Rudolf’s birthday and have pool parties. During the day, Rudolf meets with engineers to discuss the construction of a new crematorium at the camp, and at night he reads bedtime stories to his daughters. His wife Hedwig tries on clothes stolen from inmates and tends to her sprawling garden, all the while Jewish prisoners suffer over the garden walls. Though the film largely remains plotless, conflict arises when Höss gets word that he is being transferred to work in Berlin as a deputy inspector, causing a rift in his marriage as Hedwig demands to remain in Auschwitz, which she views as her perfect “paradise garden.”
The inside of the concentration camp itself is never shown, but its presence is certainly felt through sound. We hear occasional gunshots, the screams of people being murdered in the distance as smoke and ash cloud the sky, and the roar of the crematory oven. Every character in The Zone of Interest drowns out this noise that fills their lives, and their evil is shown through the casualness with which they maneuver through their days and compartmentalize the horror happening right outside their home. Jonathan Glazer’s choice to remain entirely focused on the civilian side and omission of the violence creates an all the more harrowing atmosphere.
Cinematographer Łukasz Żal – who shot Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War – keeps us detached from the Höss household through the use of wide frame shots and a lack of close-ups. He and Glazer use remotely operated cameras placed within production designer Chris Oddy’s reconstruction of the family’s residence, simultaneously shooting on 10 cameras across several rooms using natural light. At times, the visuals switch to thermal imaging when showing a young girl leaving apples and pears for prisoners to find as part of the Jewish partisan movement, a rare moment of kindness in an otherwise terrifying film.
Using the most seemingly ordinary tools and techniques, Jonathan Glazer pushes the limits of cinema to create an unflinching masterpiece that encapsulates what German-American historian Hannah Arendt referred to as the “banality of evil.” Every element of The Zone of Interest, from the disturbing, masterful sound design and Levi’s score to Hüller and Friedel’s stellar leading performances, works in harmony to craft a remarkable portrait of the perpetrators of the Holocaust that sticks with you long after the credits roll. More than just another period drama, The Zone of Interest is going to be studied for years to come.