Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 21st, 2023
The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023) 2 out of 4 stars.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s new film, The Zone of Interest, is how little it has in common with its ostensible source text, Martin Amis’ 2014 eponymous novel (the title refers to a euphemism for Auschwitz). In that, it shares DNA with his 2013 Under the Skin (his last movie), which similarly took its title and most basic premise from a book—Michel Faber’s 2000 sci-fi volume of the same name—and then jettisoned any possible resemblance to the original beyond that. It seems somewhat perverse to obtain the rights to a work you will then subsequently ignore, but at least Under the Skin was resultingly brilliant.
The results here are decidedly mixed. The central idea, however, compels. Glazer offers a portrait of what the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called the “banality of evil,” profiling the familial life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel, 13 Minutes). Comfortably ensconced just over the death camp’s wall with wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann), their five children, and one very rambunctious dog, they exist free of any apparent concerns about the horrors next door. Or so it seems at first. Some folks will eventually succumb to the reality of what is happening.
In ways both subtle and much less so (the latter courtesy of composer Mica Levi’s overly indicational score), Glazer—hardly ever approaching his characters in compositions closer than a medium full shot (down to the knees), and often much wider—keeps us at a remove from the action, just as Höss and company keep themselves cognitively isolated from the nightmare in which they are deeply implicated. That’s mostly to the good of the narrative, as seeing the Holocaust through this mundane a lens brings home the otherwise almost incomprehensible nature of it.
But then Glazer introduces other elements that prove simultaneously heavy-handed and mind-numbingly opaque. Beyond the day-to-day (and nighttime) activities of the Höss parents et alia, the movie shows us a young woman foraging in nearby fields, presented initially via a negative image, as dissonant chords blast on the soundtrack. Some of these scenes appear to link metaphorically to the story of Hansel and Gretel, which Rudolf reads to the daughter who can’t go to sleep on her own, but maybe not. It’s hard to tell, and as that negative girl’s actions further develop, the reasoning behind them becomes less clear.
Still, much of the first half of the movie remains engrossing, even if the primary thesis (see above: Arendt) is evident within the opening 15 minutes. Friedel and Hüller fully commit to their roles and pull us in, no matter how sinister (or clueless) the behavior. Neither they nor the somewhat (if that) novel approach to Nazi atrocities (which thankfully remain offscreen, even if we hear disturbing sounds) can sustain a 105-minute drama, however. It’s a worthy experiment, filled with laudable artistic ambition. Perhaps it would have worked better as a short.