It’s an idyllic summer day. A family is picnicking by a rustic lake amidst the sites and sounds of nature, enjoying their privileged life. This seemingly ordinary scene could be happening anywhere. But this is the Höss family and the location is just outside the Auschwitz Concentration Camp where Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is the commandant in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning and masterful “The Zone of Interest.”
Based on a novel by Martin Amis, “The Zone of Interest” is a project Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Under the Skin”) has been wrestling with for a number of years. He understood that any artistic rendering of the Holocaust runs the risk of trivializing it. In some ways, depictions have become so familiar they’ve lost their moral weight. The challenge for Glazer, who also wrote the screenplay, was how not to exploit or aestheticize the experience.
His strategy is to lull the viewer into this time and place, not by depicting history but by engaging with it. The film opens with an extended sequence of hypnotically droning, yet strangely menacing, ambient music that goes on and on over a blank black screen. This serves as both a warning and an entry point into this world.
It’s a world of daily rituals faithfully executed. Höss eats a quick breakfast, puts on his freshly shined boots and goes off to work. He celebrates his birthday and cheats on his wife (with a young Jewish girl from the camp). His wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) tends to the children and her beloved garden. The kids are hurried off to school in the morning and the eldest son steals his first kiss. Nothing exceptional.
Though almost the whole film takes place in and around the two-story country villa, there is a growing sense of dis-ease for the viewer because no one here seems to notice or care what’s going on behind the walls. It’s all matter-of-fact and business as usual. When Hedwig’s mother asks if the servant girls are Jews, Hegwig gestures with her head towards the camp, “No, the Jews are over there.”
The only domestic disturbance occurs when Höss is about to be transferred to another camp. Hedwig refuses to leave and says this house and their life in the country is everything they have ever dreamt of. This is their reward for having committed their lives to the Nazi party; it’s their God-given place in society.
Visiting the villa for the first time, Hedwig’s mother is delighted to see how far her daughter has risen in the world. But then she inexplicably packs up and leaves in the middle of the night. Perhaps what’s going on next door is too close for comfort after all.
It’s the everydayness that makes the film so chilling. Glazer does not embellish the atrocities. He simply shows the Third Reich as a working machine. In reality, Höss was responsible for devising and implementing the plan for the execution of some 3 million Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. So it makes perfect sense when kindly looking elderly gentlemen pitch Höss on new, improved furnaces for cremation, and a conference on how to transport prisoners most efficiently to the camps plays like a board meeting of a company trading pork bellies.
Glazer shows us only what the Höss family chooses to see. Ashes pour out of the smokestacks next door and on one occasion human remains are discovered in the swimming hole. But even with blinders on, the sounds of the camp in the distance are inescapable. Rarely has the credit of sound designer (Johnnie Burn) had more import. Like a haunted house, we hear the creaking of the bodies in the distance—the clanging and wheezing of the ovens, soldiers marching, a random gunshot. The horror seems more real because we can hear it, but not see it.
Glazer said that he wanted to create the juxtaposition of someone pouring a cup of coffee in the house with someone being murdered on the other side of the wall. As a counterpoint to what we can only imagine is happening off-screen, life in the villa has a kind of surreal serenity, almost like a trance. Working with ace cinematographer Łukasz Żal (“Ida,” “Cold War”) and production designer Chris Oddy, Glazer maps out a geographic and psychic no man’s land. The craft of the film is precise and skilled with not an extraneous move.
To accomplish this, the director and crew utilized hidden cameras and retreated to a nearby bunker so the actors could move freely in the house for long, unbroken takes. Natural and source lighting adds to the feeling that we are watching these people in real life. Kudos must also go to the actors, many of whom are well-known German film and theater veterans, for not succumbing to the emotion of the moment.
The Germans referred to the area surrounding Auschwitz as the “zone of interest” and we are trapped there along with the Höss family. Only near the end does Glazer break the spell, and in yet another bold directorial decision, jumps to the present and takes the camera slowly and methodically down the halls of the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial where we see the remains of these monstrous days—piles of shoes, clothes, and the ovens and gas chambers used to exterminate prisoners. And all this going on while the Hösses enjoyed their country villa.
Obviously the filmmakers didn’t know that “The Zone of Interest” would be released just as Jews are once again under attack and anti-Semitism is spreading like an epidemic. It’s a cruel irony that the events of the film offer a fuller historical context to current events. “The Zone of Interest” could not be a more timely reminder of what should not be forgotten.