THE ZONE OF INTEREST | United Kingdom, Poland, USA | 2023 | 106m | German, Polish
Directed By: Jonathan Glazer
Master of portraiture Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin, TIFF ’13) was awarded the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for The Zone of Interest, adapted from a 2014 novel of the same title by Martin Amis. The film centres on the domestic life of Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, also at the Festival in Anatomy of a Fall) and Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), beneficiaries of lebensraum, whose family home — nestled between train tracks and gas chambers — is spitting distance from Auschwitz, the infamous German concentration camp located in occupied Poland, where Rudolf serves as commandant.
Towards the final days of the Holocaust, Hedwig is fixated on self-preservation, while Rudolf is increasingly burdened by his duties. We reside inside the family’s encampment, with background voices of ghost-like prisoners muffled by the perpetrator’s quotidian musings. At one point, Hedwig and her atrocious friends joke about their new luxury goods, received from Canada — the nickname of the storage facilities where such items, after being confiscated, were stored — at the demise of their former neighbours.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 3.5 out of 5
The Zone of Interest is a unique approach to the Holocaust, telling the story from the perspective of the family of a German officer in charge of the concentration camp, which is a harrowing viewing experience thanks to the brilliant direction of Jonathan Glazer.
There have been countless films made about the Holocaust, each bringing its own unique vision to this horrifying period in history. Even with countless films covering the Holocaust, Jonathan Glazer finds a new perspective to showcase the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party during the Second World War in The Zone of Interest. Glazer explores the film from the perspective of the family of one of the Nazi commanders in charge of Auschwitz, and while it may sound like the film may try to humanize the Nazis, under Glazer’s direction it becomes a truly chilling portrayal of the horrors committed by the Nazis that will haunt you long after the credits have finished rolling.
The film follows the Höss family in the later years of the Second World War, as Rudolf and his wife Hedwig try to create the perfect life for their family as Rudolf manages Auschwitz, located just next door to their family house.
There is no denying the incredible direction of Glazer, which alone makes the film a must watch. He carefully crafts each shot of the film to juxtapose the simple activity within the Höss household against the horrors of the concentration camp that are looming over the audience. Instead of showing the atrocities of the concentration camps head on, Glazer simply displays the glow of the flames at night shining through the windows, the smoke coming out of the chimneys, or the workers clearing away debris from the furnaces. By showing it so casually, Glazer creates something truly disturbing that instantly rocks the audience to their core as the indifference of the Höss family only amplifies the disturbing nature of the atrocities. It's all captured through the cinematography, which features plenty of wide shots encompassing the activities of the Höss family, in addition to what is just over the wall of their yard, and the effective sound design which has the sounds of Auschwitz coming through as an echo in every scene. They result in a collection of haunting visuals, none more disturbing than the reaction to the ashes floating down the river while the Höss children are swimming, and the subsequent violent washing away of the ashes to remove any traces of the Jews from them. Glazer’s vision does not need words to describe what is happening, as his powerful direction says it all through the visuals he creates on screen.
Where the film is going to either win audiences over or lose them, is the narrative the film has to tell. Glazer and his co-screen writer Martin Amis present the film by placing the audience in the middle of a normal day in the life of the Höss family. It’s simple, which allows their indifference to the suffering and the extermination of the Jews be magnified with the horrors of the Holocaust looming in the background of every shot. It provides a deafening contrast that drastically dehumanizes the Nazis, allowing their arrogance and neglect of the atrocities happening on their doorstep to ring loud and clear. Bolstering this vision are the lead performances of Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller who both give strong but silent performances, with an icy dismissal of the atrocities being committed at the concentration camp and a deep passion for their family.
This choice of narrative style means The Zone of Interest does not have a conventional three act story to the film. It’s a day in the life narrative, and while each scene has enough substance, there is no common thread tying the entire film together. For some viewers, this will not be a problem as they will be swept up in the masterful direction of Glazer, but for others like myself, the runtime will start to weigh on them in the second half of the film. There is no denying the technical expertise on display, and the film’s final moments are powerful, but I struggled to maintain my focus during the film’s second half.
In terms of directing, Jonathan Glazer’s work in The Zone of Interest is some of the best of the year, needing very little dialogue to create a chilling experience through disturbing and unforgettable visuals. It’s a piece of film that will haunt audiences for long after they have watched it, because it has been years since there has been such an effective portrayal of the Holocaust on camera, however, the lack of a traditional narrative will either make or break The Zone of Interest for audiences.