‘The Zone of Interest’ review: A chilling portrait of complicity

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


For the first few minutes of The Zone of Interest, the film deliberately isolates your sense of hearing. A black screen lingers as droning notes are woven with whispers and the sounds of nature. You’re plunged into a meditative state of simultaneous sensory deprivation and amplification, the effect being that for the next two hours, you’ll pay attention to everything you hear.

Sound becomes paramount to Jonathan Glazer’s magnificent, disquieting new film as the primary means of revealing what’s happening beyond a blissfully sheltered garden wall. What Glazer gradually reveals is the idyllic domestic life of an upper middle-class family striving for suburban perfection — that of Rudolf Höss (played with chilling precision by Christian Friedel), the longest-serving Auschwitz commandant and his family. But we’re hearing the sounds of Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million people, the majority of which were Jewish people, were murdered in five years at the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland. And it’s this contrast that provides the film’s grim dynamic, painting a chilling portrait of complicity among atrocity.

Essentially, Glazer’s A24 film makes you sit at the table for family dinner, lounge beside the backyard pool, and celebrate birthdays, right next to the site that would become the symbol of Nazi genocide. As lives are destroyed over the garden wall, the Höss family pours itself more coffee.

What is The Zone of Interest about?

A man in a white shirt and tie smokes a cigarette at night time.

Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss in “The Zone of Interest.”
Credit: A24

Based on Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest is completely set within the 40-square-kilometre area surrounding Auschwitz known by the Nazi SS as “the zone of interest,” or interessengebiet in German. Within this euphemistically titled space, the film takes place almost entirely within the two-story stucco villa and sprawling garden occupied by Rudolf and his wife Hedwig (an exceptionally unnerving performance by Sandra Hüller, who also stars in Anatomy of a Fall). 

Here, within this grim domestic oasis, Rudolf and Hedwig build a halcyon paradise for themselves and their children, while the atrocities of the camp endure beyond the barbed wire-topped wall surrounding the property. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Ida, Cold War, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things) captures these bizarrely bucolic scenes with panoptic wide-angle lens shots that make everything feel slightly uncanny.

The film opens with a Renoir-worthy picnic on the riverbank, complete with blackberry picking. In their home, the Höss family feasts on opulent meals metres from the edge of the camp. The children play with their Nazi neighbours while children are made casualties of war just beyond their backyard. With the arrival of Hedwig’s mother on her first visit to the property, we’re taken on an ostentatious house tour just steps from one of the worst genocides in history. 

But these people aren’t turning a blind eye to mass murder. They’re planning it. Building it. Profiting and thriving from it. High-ranking SS members and engineers coldly pore over blueprints for civilian crematoriums in the family living room. Höss takes his son horse-riding through the surroundings where prisoners endure forced labour. Through these juxtaposed moments, Glazer and Żal, along with savvy cuts by Under the Skin editor Paul Watts, show just how effective a tool dehumanisation is for oppressors, and how it allows them to serve their own abhorrent self-interests more easily. The only moments we see anyone beyond the Nazi officers and their families are a handful of surreal scenes using infrared cameras to show a young Polish woman hiding apples and pears by night amid Auschwitz’s trenches, doing whatever she can. 

But nothing is more effective in The Zone of Interest than its sound design.

The Zone of Interest makes a weapon of sound design.

A woman holds a baby toward a flower in a pleasant walled garden.

Sandra Hüller as Hedwig Höss, standing within the family’s garden.
Credit: A24

Put simply, The Zone of Interest boasts some of the most powerfully emotive and exquisite sound design you’ll encounter in a film. It’s all thanks to sound designer Johnnie Burn, who previously worked with Glazer on the haunting audioscape for Under The Skin, as well as with director Yorgos Lanthimos on The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favorite, and most recently, Poor Things, among many other atmospheric projects. Burn worked alongside musician and composer Mica Levi and music supervisor Bridget Samuels to create what might be one of the most unsettling, outstanding audio experiences of the year. 

With the film’s first five minutes underscoring the audience’s experience for the duration, Burn uses sound to strategically perturbing effect in order to hammer home the sinister nature of complicity while showing history in its everyday horrific reality. “Out of sight, out of mind” may be the aim, but out of earshot the film’s events are not. In the foreground, the Höss family go about their daily business, going to school, tending their flower beds, hanging out the laundry. In the background, fires burn, smoke billows, and watchtowers purvey the horrors below as a terrible rumbling pervades each scene. We know what it is, we don’t have to be told. And more importantly, Glazer and Burn know you know.

Other moments of sound are more explicit; Hedwig casually tends her enormous greenhouse and her young son plays Yahtzee in his bedroom as the sounds of firing squads ricochet through the scenes. Glazer uses unmoving close-ups of every last beautiful flower in the Höss garden as the sounds of barking dogs, military orders, and that ever-present rumbling trigger a harrowing reflection for the audience — this scene even fades to bright red.

These are sounds that will stay with you long after the last moments of the film, which are instead filled with the sounds of vacuum cleaners and glass wiping, readying the site for visitors in the present to face history’s terrible truths.   

The most disturbing moments of the film are its most subtle.

One of the major themes running through The Zone of Interest comes from the title itself, the euphemism used by the Nazi SS to describe the area around Auschwitz. The terrible power of obfuscation runs through the entire film, from the orders delivered in chilling code to the geographical distinction between the Höss home and the camp.

Glazer includes deeply uncomfortable moments of subtle recognition for the audience of the plight of those incarcerated and murdered in the camp, including one scene that shows a hoard of confiscated belongings being fussed over by Hedwig and the housekeeping staff. The film doesn’t outwardly say these are the valuable and sentimental possessions of people deported to the camp, but we’re left in no doubt. Every coat, blouse, and piece of jewelry the Höss family wears, every plate used, every toy has presumably been seized from someone whose death has been designed by their patriarch. Rudolf greedily sifts through seized cash of various currencies. In one scene, Hedwig finds a beautiful gold lipstick in a seized coat pocket, an obviously treasured possession of its former owner. 

One of the most chilling set pieces in the film sits proudly in the Höss backyard, a fountain and pool crafted from a shower head. It’s sitting in Hedwig’s pride and joy, her garden. It’s a chilling moment that collides with Glazer’s visuals, bright and full of springtime euphoria. Later, despicable scenes of summer bliss surround this very same shower head, as neighbouring Nazi families bring their children to splash and play in the macabre pool, their matriarchs lounging in deck chairs, as the smoke rises behind their leisure time. 

Even the design of the garden itself is a deeply disturbing element of the film, as it becomes obvious that it’s been built to last, with meticulous planning for seasonal yields and extended development. The grass on the pavement is overgrown, the sunflowers stand tall, the beehives well established. As Hedwig strolls through it superciliously, she proclaims, “Rudi calls me the Queen of Auschwitz.” It’s shockingly casual, gleeful even, and it’s a notable act of courage from Hüller and Friedel to take on these particularly despicable roles, which most likely would not have been an easy decision. Through this garden, we’re subtly aware of the passing of time for this wretched place. In a moment of sheer impassivity, Hedwig tells her mother she’s planted vines at the camp wall “so they’ll grow and cover it.” Ultimately, she’s put down roots here, something made obvious later in the narrative with Rudolph’s reassignment; Hedwig’s planning a long life at Auschwitz while developing decorative strategies to avoid having to look at her own involvement in mass genocide. “They’d have to drag me out of here,” Hedwig declares. 

Ultimately, Glazer distills the chilling nature of complicity to one of abhorrent self-interest, using magnificent cinematography, bold performances, and exceptional sound design to physically plant the audience on the very wrong side of history. If you’re paying attention, The Zone of Interest will make you feel sick, because whether we’re willing to accept it or not, we’re all capable of being complicit.

The Zone of Interest is now in theaters.

UPDATE: Dec. 8, 2023, 9:11 a.m. EST The Zone of Interest was reviewed out of the BFI London Film Festival in October. This article has been re-published for its theatrical debut in the US.





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