Zone of Interest, The (USA/UK/Poland, 2023)

December 12, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Zone of Interest, The Poster

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is powerful but dramatically inert. For roughly the first half, the viewer is unable to look away, mesmerized by the establishment of the setting and the way the director has chosen to present it. There comes a point, however, after the initial mingled sense of horror and fascination has diminished, when the movie’s unremarkable narrative proves unable to maintain the same level of interest. With the exception of an unexpected five-minute documentary interlude toward the end, there’s not much in the final 40 minutes that comes close to the brilliance of the early scenes. Nevertheless, on the basis of Glazer’s style and presentation, this particular window into an often-ignored aspect of World War II and the Holocaust offers a perspective unlike anything I have previously seen committed to film.

One might reasonably inquire whether Glazer spent time studying Chantel Akerman before embarking upon this project; the film’s tone and approach are similar to the one employed by Akerman in her celebrated Jeanne Dielman, although the subject matter in this case is both darker and more compelling. A certain level of artistic pretentiousness overlays much of the film, at times undercutting its effectiveness. For example, the movie opens with several minutes of audio (music, background sounds) with a black screen. Later, something similar is repeated (although for a shorter duration) with a red screen. There are also instances when dreamlike scenes unfold as if filmed through an infrared/night vision camera. In terms of mood, The Zone of Interest doesn’t venture far afield from Glazer’s earlier Under the Skin.

In 1943, the Allies have not yet made a German defeat inevitable and many “ordinary” Germans go about their daily business as if victory is inevitable. Far from the front, they care little about bombs falling or battles being fought. Instead, even alongside the walls of Auschwitz, the focus is more on farming and building a home than the increasingly slippery slope being navigated by the army. Mentions of “after the war” assume that territories captured by Germany would remain under the Third Reich’s control.

The commandant in charge of Auschwitz is SS Officer Rudloph Hoss, who was responsible for developing the camp from its beginnings in 1940 to its role as an extermination clearing house. Hoss’ family, including his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller), and five children, live in an idyllic house on a large plot of land located adjacent to Auschwitz I (in fact, the yard shares a portion of the complex’s outer wall). They have an extensive garden, a pool, and areas for recreation. The country club atmosphere is enjoyed not only by the Hoss family but their many guests. When Rudolph is transferred back to Germany, his family remains behind, ensconced in a home that his wife refuses to abandon.

Hannah Arendt, a Jew who fled Germany, when reporting about the trial of Adolf Eichmann (who was one of Hoss’ supervisors), is credited with coining the term “the banality of evil,” which applies here. We observe, like voyeurs, the seeming normalcy of everyday life for the Hoss household while never losing sight of the enormity of the horror occurring just off-screen. In fact, during the early minutes of the film, the story might be focused on any upper-middle class 1940s German family…until telltale signs appear in the background. It is in many ways hard to reconcile Hoss the family man with Hoss the mass murderer. Glazer chooses not to visually depict the atrocities of Auschwitz (hence the PG-13 rating) and there are only occasional, fleeting shots of Hoss on the job.

The Zone of Interest gains its power through the disparity between what we see and what we hear. The images tend to be of normal, even pleasant, things. The audio, however, is unable to camouflage the horrors of Auschwitz I. In one memorable montage, the camera focuses on the beautiful flowers growing in the Hoss’ gardens while the soundtrack amplifies screams and gunshots. The effectiveness of this technique, however, fades over running length.

There isn’t much of a story to speak of and that ultimately is the reason why The Zone of Interest falls short of greatness. As a 30-minute or 45-minute short, it would be an incredibly daunting piece of filmmaking. But the narrative is maddeningly simple: after spending time illustrating the day-to-day activities at the Hoss household, it reveals that Rudolph is being forced to leave his post at Auschwitz for one in the Fatherland. His wife is angry and demands he request that the family be able to remain. Hoss’ superiors agree, which results in a separation between Hoss and his wife/children.

Artistic overreaching and almost non-existent narrative aside, The Zone of Interest is powerful in the way it depicts the Holocaust and the ability of seemingly normal people to compartmentalize the evil of their actions. This is one of the most effective depictions of Arendt’s “banality of evil” that I have seen and that’s in large part due to the unconventional tactics employed by Glazer in bringing this story to the screen.

Zone of Interest, The (USA/UK/Poland, 2023)

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Huller
Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Martin Amis
Cinematography: Lukasz Zal
Music: Mica Levi
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2023-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Thematic Material, Suggested Violence)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In German and Polish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1