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'The Zone of Interest' Review: An Exercise In Restraint

The Zone of Interest
The Zone of Interest (2023); image courtesy of Getty / BFI London Film Festival

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest gives us a cold, piercing and uncomfortable view of real Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family as they carry out their seemingly normal everyday life haunted by the violence of the bordering concentration camp. With an almost clinical gaze and sound design that thickens the air with discomfort, Glazer attempts not to place us in Auschwitz but rather invites us to critically and retrospectively be a fly on the wall of the Höss’s house. A sensory invasion, the movie leaves as much up to our imagination as it bombards us with sounds, images and memories of what Hannah Arendt famously calls the “banality of evil” that Glazer depicts by packing each scene with almost choking, ready-to-snap tension. 

Based on the 2014 book of the same name by Martin Amis, the movie is set during the midst of the Second World War and against the backdrop of a looming Auschwitz, when and where we enter the mundane life of Rudolf, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their 5 children as they attempt to create a peaceful, perfect life that is nothing but not selectively ignorant. The beginning and end of the film are both characterised by abstract, time-bending sequences: at the start, the audience sits in silence staring at a blank screen that is gradually infiltrated by sound for almost 3 minutes before being blinded by the bright sunshine of a river-side picnic, and at the end we move forward in time to present day Auschwitz as the remains and museum are cleaned by its caretakers, edited as though this is a flash-forward in Rudolf’s mind as he drunkenly makes his way down an office building. These scenes are shot conventionally, and yet nothing about their place in the film is defined by the norms that have come with films about the Holocaust—the quiet, unnerving form immediately unsettles viewers and leaves us with that same feeling.

The film’s initial focus is on the family as a unit and how (dys)functional they are living in the bubble of their house, conflict only arriving in their lives in the central part when Rudolf has to be transferred to another base as part of his duties. Hedwig refuses to leave the “home” she has built for herself, claiming they would have to “drag her out” of her house before she would leave, and so Rudolf leaves by himself—a lone man in a city while his family lives on without him at their troublesome familial home until his imminent, alluded return. 

Interestingly, apart from the conflict of contradictory wishes of husband and wife, the only other moments of contemplation- albeit restrained- we see are in Rudolf as he muses about his job and place in society. For a film set in Auschwitz- quite literally, it was shot on-site at the reconstructed version of a dilapidated house next to Auschwitz- this lack of stark physical, emotional and mental conflict speaks to how Glazer avoids humanising any of the Nazi characters and allows us to fill in the blanks of the atrocities committed by them, exercising a restraint that, in the lack of overt images, represents the tense environment. Award-winning DOP, Łukasz Żal gives us shot after shot of practised, meticulous restraint too, in the stationary camera that simultaneously captures the variety of the Höss’s garden and the haunting, looming figure of the barracks and furnaces at Auschwitz. Moreover, the scenes inside the Höss’s house were shot with cameras, cast and crew all inside the very small rooms and corridors, creating literally a suffocating environment that is reflected in the tense, sharp and precise movements of not only the actors but the camera itself. 

Movement in the film is choreographed and captured with a fine-tooth-comb that leaves out any unnecessary action, leaving us with Rudolf locking doors in the house at night before bed, Hedwig keeping a coat from a bundle of clothes received from ‘next door’, and Claus Höss (Johann Karthaus)- the eldest son- looking at a set of teeth in his bed under torchlight. None of these motions are contextualised, none of them tracked or repeated, and yet their horror lies in what is left unsaid- the doors are locked out of paranoia, the coat is from a captured Jewish woman, and the teeth are from another victim of Auschwitz. Arguably, leaving these things unsaid in the moment makes them abstract, and yet the visuality of each of these moments allows us to rack up our own knowledge, constantly reminding us that this mundane life, these “normal” routines or casual actions are none of those- a clinical, chilling gaze that doesn’t leave room for interpretation- a beneficial tool in the portrayal of the evils around Auschwitz. We are witnessing the active murder of millions of people. We cannot see it, but we will not be allowed to forget it. 

Sound plays an important role in this unforgettableness of the horrors of Auschwitz because while we may not be able to see the atrocities being committed, we can distinctly hear them. Layered behind dialogue or silences in the Höss’s garden or the vast fields surrounding the camp, sounds such as gunshots, guards yelling and people screaming are undeniably present and an ever-reminder of the grotesque crimes being committed. Simply saying “The Jews are over on the other side of the wall” does not absolve Hedwig of her complicity in their active murder, because while she can ignore their presence with the “out of sight out of mind” attitude, we see the constant, horrifically bright and enthusiastic ignorance of the sounds of turmoil coming from across that “wall.” The family’s choice—and it has to be a choice because screams, commands and gunshots aren’t silent—to remain blissfully unflinching about suffering is Glazer’s criticism, and by showing us their wilful ignorance that perpetuates genocidal violence he asks us to hold them accountable. Sound, here, is the driving force of our abject horror and discomfort with the film. 

The camera acts as an eye, inflicting a cold gaze upon the set and time that takes away from any beauty or aesthetic quality of the image. Even shots of bright flowers are unmoving, almost too bright in their flat colour grading—a choice that the filmmakers and Żal claim allows the image to stay as untarnished and raw as possible. Readjusting one’s eyes from the brightness of a garden or flower to the dark, blank screens, and then back to the green of a field—all of which linger a few seconds longer than comfortable—allows us to observe the fickleness of pure vision in this film. Aesthetic objects like flowers cease to hold meaning as beatific objects if they are accompanied by sounds of anguish, and empty screens with filmic static cannot depict nothingness if they are riddled with goosebump-inducing music (scored by Mica Levi). 

Vision and sound hence combine to give us a chilling reminder of the atrocities of Auschwitz and a glazing look at the lives of the people who used to perpetuate those horrors and the inhumane crimes committed there. Friedel and Hüller’s commitment to playing two characters with such grotesque backgrounds without any romanticisation or forced humanity provides an added layer of sensitivity and care that is also seen through the film’s unflinching critical gaze. Added to the shelf of movies regarding the Holocaust, The Zone of Interest certainly gives us a distinctly unique, yet no less impactful view that calls on viewers’ own knowledge of the Second World War and reminds us of the mundanity that upheld the atrocities committed during that time that are just as dangerous and terrifying. 


Edited by Martha Knox, Co-Film & TV Editor