‘The Zone of Interest’ Review
Art in an age of horror.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST IS BOTH GREAT AND SERIOUS while also being somewhat perverse and ultimately kind of minor, to the extent that it had me questioning the very nature and purpose of cinematic art of this sort.
Writer-director Jonathan Glazer, very very loosely adapting from a Martin Amis novel of the same name, has created a tremendous oddity. On the one hand, at a plotting level, it is an almost aggressively dull picture, concerned almost entirely with the humdrum daily life of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), as he goes to work and she takes care of the home. They care for their children, going on picnics and fishing trips to the nearby river; he deals with the bureaucratic vagaries of his job; she goes shopping for clothes, toothpaste, etc.
Of course, the context of where they are and the details of these banalities is the real story. Rudolf Höss is the commandant of Auschwitz. The river he fishes in sometimes contains human remains. The bureaucratic annoyances involve buying and building a crematorium capable of burning at one end while it cools on the other, allowing the loading and unloading of human—Jewish—bodies round the clock. The “shopping” Hedwig does involves going through the goods brought by prisoners who have come to the camp hopeful that they were headed somewhere else rather than up the chimney.
You’ll frequently hear filmmakers and critics argue that films are not plot—that films are imagery, that films are sound design, that films tell the story via what you see and hear of how the people through the proscenium live—and The Zone of Interest is the best example in recent memory I can think of for this argument. The horror of the situation reveals itself in the background, how we hear sporadic, but frequent, gunfire. How we see trains puffing in and chugging out on the horizon, their smokestacks gliding along the horizon like chariots of death. How the nighttime sky is filled with the reddish glow of a constantly burning fire. One could imagine old-timey showman William Castle rigging up a smell-o-vision setup in certain theaters to capture all the senses, to give us the overwhelming olfactory impression that puts off Hedwig’s mother, Linna (Imogen Kogge), and winds up driving her to drink and then away from the camp entirely.
Linna is the most interesting character in the film; not quite an audience surrogate but unfamiliar enough the goings-on in the camp that she is one of the few Germans to really internalize the horror of what is happening there and her own complicity in it. At one point she mentions that the woman whose house she cleaned may well be behind the barbed-wire-topped walls the camera never cranes over, and right there in that one little line we see a whole universe of resentments that can lead to the justification of unthinkable horror.
BUT THAT HORROR ONLY REALLY LANDS if you have a working knowledge of the Holocaust. Indeed, the whole conceit of the film—that we never actually see the selections for the gas chamber or the bodies falling to the gunshots we hear or the remnants of the cremations, except in background smoke—requires, at the last, a familiarity with how the death camps worked, certainly through the first three quarters or so of the film. Eventually, we do get some Nazis talking about the Final Solution and the difficult balance of leaving enough Jews alive to perform the work the camps were doing, but even that is somewhat oblique.
This is going to sound perverse, but the film’s very conceit almost treats Holocaust knowledge like comic book movies treat in-universe lore: as something in the background for knowledgeable audiences to pick up on. “Ah yes, here’s the manufacturer Siemens working with Höss, can you believe they’re still a going concern?” “Do you hear that piece of music the camp worker is playing? ‘Sunbeams’? It’s a piece that was actually written in and rescued from Auschwitz, did you know that?” “Oh, did you hear that woman say she found a diamond in a bottle of toothpaste? Yes, there were many efforts to save family wealth; none of them worked.”
Adding to the perversity is the fact that much of the movie is played to almost comic effect. Take, for instance, the sojourn to the river: When Höss pulls what appears to be a piece of jawbone out of the river he comically splashes out, yelling for the kids, whom he grabs up and takes home and scrubs until they’re crying out for him to stop. Later, at a banquet in Berlin, we see him gazing down at a ballroom filled with people; afterwards, while talking to his wife, he says that all he could think about was how hard it would be to gas them. The sequence is told with the quality of a dark joke: setup, unexpected punchline, etc. It called to mind a passage from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: “The German text of the taped police examination” of Eichmann, she wrote, “constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist—provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”
I FIND THE ZONE OF INTEREST somewhat flummoxing. Glazer has undoubtedly made a masterpiece of not-showing. For those who are familiar with the horror of the Holocaust, it will be a deeply unsettling work, less about the banality of evil than the willing acceptance of it; there are few moments from recent cinema more chilling than when Hedwig, having suffered a humiliation, tells a housekeeper that her husband could spread her ashes over the fields. In that taunt, she reveals not just her complicity but her active desire to hurt her enemies. The cruelty is the point, and all that.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder what the one-in-five young Americans who think the Holocaust was exaggerated will make of the very act of not-showing. I can’t help but wonder what the teachers who have noted a rise in antisemitic humor and students ironically praising Hitler as based will respond to it. Or how such a film will be received in a period of soaring antisemitism. Assuming knowledge that either isn’t there or has been warped by the vicissitudes of the online swamp alters the cinematic calculus in ways that I am not entirely sure how to grapple with.
It is not necessarily the role of the artist to educate; a movie need not have a neat little message wrapped up within it for easy digestion. That said, The Zone of Interest is clearly asking us to bear witness. It is fair—perhaps even required—to ask what certain audiences will see when they do so.