The Zone of Interest has just played at the Toronto International Film Festival; here’s our review.
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust movie in the same way that his 2013 masterpiece Under the Skin was a sci-fi invasion flick. Loosely adapting Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, writer/director Glazer finds a new way into the historical atrocity that continues to be a source of exploration for filmmakers.
The askew view on the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp comes from the perspective of the real-life commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family, who live in provided accommodation that’s located just outside the camp. Höss’ wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), is delighted with the set-up - there’s plenty of room for the couple’s five children, a spacious garden, and areas of bucolic beauty on their doorstop. The unsightly barbed-wire-topped concrete walls that surround the house are not of any real concern; at one point, Hedwig even mentions the flowers she’s growing in an attempt to cover them up.
That’s just one moment of poisonously bleak humour in a film that has a handful of them. Although laughs are invariably short-lived given the horrors that haunt the edges of every frame. While the Höss family seems to somehow manage it, it’s impossible to not get caught up in the background details providing clues to what’s actually going on next door. From the giant chimneys spewing out flame and smoke, to the steam trails that indicate an incoming train, The Zone of Interest plays on our shared knowledge of a grim chapter of history that cannot be forgotten.
Most haunting of all is the sound design. At virtually all times, there’s a low-level background cacophony: rumblings, shrieks, gunshots. It’s nearly impossible to isolate individual sounds, but it provides a constant note of gut-churning dread, the aural opposite of hearing a playground full of children playing. The contrast with the largely domestic scenes is quite something.
The nightmarish audio goes further with the score. Glazer reteams with Mica Levi, who so memorably composed the otherworldly Under the Skin music. From the off (over an extended title card that fades so gradually it’s hard to notice), the eerie, discordant score - like the background noise - is hard to unpick into its component parts. A couple of times, the score plays out against a blank screen: occasional artful touches like this offer a counterpoint to the mundanity of the family’s existence. There are other similarly punctuating moments too, not least a couple of night-vision scenes that feel bracingly grounded (like CCTV footage), while also having a dreamlike quality.
Chief among the ideas that the film forces you to consider is compartmentalisation. The Höss family have so thoroughly dehumanised the Nazi regime’s Jewish victims that they can speak about them like they’re a minor inconvenience. Hüller in particular is superb, always seeming disarmingly human in her ambitions and frustrations. Their lives have a boring familiarity. There’s gossip, a slippery career ladder to contend with, and even children bickering in the backseat to deal with. This contrasting ordinariness somehow sheds new light on the horrors. In one scene, colleagues visit Rudolf to go through some plans for a new cremation chamber, with the dispassionate detachment you might expect from someone running through the features of a new family car. The efficiency of extermination is discussed like sales figures.
The Zone of Interest really hammers home its central thesis. Plotting is minimal and time spent in a perspective so closely aligned to these people can be demanding. A brief visit from Hedwig’s mother provides as close to a respite as you’ll get. A late and unexpected viewpoint shift upends the film’s modus operandi in a startlingly effective way, as the sounds of domesticity play alongside sobering imagery, almost like the inverse of what has gone before it.
This is a challenging and troubling film that asks a lot of the viewer, before sending them away with a great deal to consider. There won’t be many films this year that you’ll turn over more thoroughly in the hours, days, and weeks that follow.
The Zone of Interest's release date is currently TBC.