The HoloFiles

REVIEW: The Zone of Interest

By George Bate & Josh Bate

Zone of Interest review

From Schindler’s List to All Quiet on the Western Front to The Imitation Game to, most recently, Oppenheimer, seemingly every angle and perspective of World War II has been explored in cinema or on television. Seemingly is the operative (and misleading) word here, however, as A24’s The Zone of Interest crafts a new look at one of the war’s more quietly terrifying aspects – the life.

The Zone of Interest comes from writer/director Jonathan Glazer, who followed his directorial debut Sexy Beast with Birth in 2004 and Under the Skin in 2014. Based on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis, Glazer’s latest film follows the family life of Auschwitz concentration camp commandant Rudolf Hoss (played by The White Ribbon’s Christian Friedel). The title “Zone of Interest” – interessengebiet in German – describes the 40-square-kilometer area surrounding Auschwitz concentration camp, where Hoss and his family live an unnervingly idyllic lifestyle.

The Zone of Interest opens upon the Höss family home. The home is a pristine two-story stucco villa. His wife Hedwig (played by Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Huller) cares for a beautiful young baby. Their older children occupy themselves, while young girls from town tend to the family home. The garden is like something out of a postcard and the weather is warm and welcoming. But underneath all of this picturesque mundanity is something far more monstrous. Humming ever so slightly, almost indiscernibly so, in the background are noises of Auschwitz concentration camp. Masterful sound design by Johnnie Burn makes the viewer attentively listen to the unexpectedly complex landscape. Underlying the sounds of birds chirping and wind whistling in such a nuanced manner are cries, men screaming, and occasionally gunshots. In just a few opening moments, director Jonathan Glazer strikes a chord as he juxtaposes the tranquility of a warm family home with the horror of a concentration camp, separated by mere meters. 

Much of The Zone of Interest continues along the same lines as these opening moments. It’s an effective emotional beat (having a concentration camp and family home right next to each other), one that does not cease to disturb throughout the film’s runtime. This emotional beat occurs in the absence of any substantial narrative with the film unfolding more so as a glimpse into the life of the Höss family. For some, this lack of structure and eventfulness may breed impatience or even boredom. In a sense though, this is exactly what Jonathan Glazer is aiming to evoke – how easy it can be to tune out and turn a blind eye to the horrors on our front doorstep (in this case, literally). 

Like many World War II films, The Zone of Interest does not aim to please or entertain its audience. Nor does it serve to particularly educate the viewer. Instead, it’s an exercise in outward simplicity contrasted with inner torment. Strikingly, Glazer never depicts the inside of Auschwitz. This decision makes the film all the more effective with the true horror of the arena being so starkly emphasized in the disinterest and disengagement of the family living right outside an extermination camp. And, to make the viewing experience all the more terrifying and authentic, Glazer shot the film on location, a decision that reportedly fostered logistical and psychological complications. All of this culminates in what is unexpectedly one of the scariest films of the year – a film far more horrifying than traditional horror flicks with guts, gore, and ghosts. 

At the heart of the film is Sandra Huller, who previously impressed this year with an entirely different performance in the French mystery Anatomy of a Fall. Huller plays the wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, a woman immersed in beauty and surrounded by atrocity. Rudolf, played by Christian Friedel, is inherently evil, while his wife occupies a more nebulous position. Nebulous, that is, until Hedwig hosts her mother’s first visit to their family home. When asked if the maids in the house are Jewish, Hedwig gestures to the concentration camp next door and says, “The Jews are over the other side of the wall.” 

Zone of Interest review

While Sandra Huller as Hedwig Höss makes an already disturbing film that much more unnerving, it does somewhat create an issue as a viewer. Devoid of anyone to root for, with the film’s almost exclusive focus on a host of immoral actors, The Zone of Interest can be a trying film. This speaks once again to Glazer’s aim to emotionally rattle rather than entertain and educate, and yet feeling so unnerving can only last so long. With a message that is succinctly delivered in the film’s opening 10-15 minutes, the unsettling feeling of the film is singular and most certainly overstays its welcome with its 105 minute runtime. But that is likely the point.

Without a traditional narrative, The Zone of Interest eventually comes to an end. That isn’t, however, until a haunting final few minutes. These minutes are best experienced without prior exposure or explanation, so this review will not go into detail. Simply, Glazer knows how to leave his audience unsettled and deeply affected.

VERDICT: 8/10

The Zone of Interest is a quietly haunting historical drama from writer/director Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis. Absent of a traditional narrative structure, Glazer’s film guides audiences through a glimpse into the life of the Hoss family, whose patriarch is commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The stark juxtaposition of the camp right next door to the family home never ceases to unnerve, although the film almost exclusively plays with this single emotional beat (effective, yet repetitive). Sandra Huller delivers a complex and dreaded performance as Hedwig Höss that easily makes her, along with her role in Anatomy of a Fall, one of the most accomplished actors of the year. Although World War II has been explored in seemingly countless movies and television shows, The Zone of Interest demonstrates that there are still unique and deeply emotional angles of the war and its atrocities that are worth telling and that will leave a lasting impression on an audience.

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