At this point it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that Jonathan Glazer is incapable of making a movie that’s anything less than bracingly original. His 2000 feature debut, Sexy Beast, elevated the British gangster thriller. Four years later, his reincarnation mystery, Birth, got a cool response from most critics but has since been steadily re-evaluated as a spellbinding heir to Rosemary’s Baby. Almost a decade later, he returned with the hypnotically austere sci-fi chiller Under the Skin, about an alien succubus preying on Scottish men and discovering empathy during her killing spree.
Glazer’s new German-language film, The Zone of Interest, which comes after another 10-year absence from features, is a devastating Holocaust drama like no other, which demonstrates with startling effectiveness the British formalist’s unerring control of tonal and visual storytelling. The worst thing you could say about the director is that for such a singular talent, he’s frustratingly unprolific. Or perhaps that’s why his films are so unique.
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Adapting Martin Amis’ 2014 novel by radically pruning and reshaping the entire plot and narrowing its gaze to just one of the three narrators, Glazer transforms the book’s fictionalized protagonist into the real-life SS officer he was inspired by, Rudolf Höss. The longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Höss was a leading force in perfecting the techniques of mass extermination implemented during the acceleration of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
The other key element retained is the setting that gives both book and film their title. The area in question is the roughly 25 square miles immediately surrounding Auschwitz in western Poland.
The euphemistic nature of the term fits the themes of compartmentalization and denial in Glazer’s film, explored through the bucolic existence of Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, the revelation from Toni Erdmann) and their five children just over the wall from the camp, within hearing distance of where unspeakable atrocities are being committed. That juxtaposition seems the very essence of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” perfectly captured in the cast’s naturalistic performances.
The movie tacitly makes the important distinction between obliviousness and simple refusal to acknowledge the endorsement of mass murder as anything but patriotic adherence to the party line. The echoes of that kind of ethical pliancy in many political landscapes across the world today go without saying.
Working with Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal, who shot Pawel Pawlikowski’s beautiful black-and-white companion pieces Ida and Cold War, Glazer embedded remotely operated cameras in production designer Chris Oddy’s reconstruction of the Höss residence. They shot simultaneously on up to 10 cameras in different rooms using no film lights and allowing the actors to move unobstructed.
This dovetails with the visual scheme outside in the extensive garden — Hedwig’s pride and joy with its greenhouse, fruit trees and vegetable patches, all of it carefully landscaped according to historical records. The film unfolds predominantly in fixed wide shots under natural light, establishing a detached observational style that somehow makes its scrutiny more chilling.
Likewise, the unsettling use of Mica Levi’s music, which follows the experimental composer’s nerve-shredding work on Under the Skin in fusing score with ambient sound, thinking about film music in boundary-pushing new ways. The movie’s prologue and coda feature a few minutes of black screen, broken only by the words of the title at the start and accompanied by Levi’s score, murky and malevolent at first, then exploding into a terrifying cacophony at the end. The film is punctuated intermittently by violent blasts of horns that sound like the wounded cries of other-worldly animals.
The Höss family is first seen picnicking by the river on a sunny day with friends, and the camera often captures them in the garden, celebrating a birthday or splashing in the pool at a party. The clear visibility (and presumably the smell) of smoke billowing from the camp’s crematoriums and the sound of prisoners screaming, guard dogs barking or officers ordering executions seem not even to register. All the horror becomes almost like the background noise of a TV left on in another room of a house.
But rather than normalizing the family’s apparent imperviousness to the atrocities, the choice to remain entirely on the civilian side of the wall makes the nightmare more gut-wrenching. What’s unseen often is more frightening. Even the fact that scarcely a word of Hitlerian rhetoric is spoken makes the cold reality of it all hit harder.
Glazer’s script moves adroitly between ordinary snapshots of Höss family domesticity — Hedwig laughing with other officers’ wives around the kitchen table about her unpaid Jewish housemaids as if they aren’t there; Rudolf routinely closing and locking each door at night; one of their young sons playing alone in his room, not even flinching at the noise of a prisoner being shot — and the patriarch’s professional responsibilities, such as an informal business meeting in which he and his colleagues discuss optimal methods for high-volume incineration.
Only in rare instances does the reality of the death camp intrude forcefully on their consciousness, notably during an afternoon Rudolf spends fishing and canoeing on the river with his kids. Aghast to realize the water’s surface is sprinkled with the ash of burned bodies, he hurries the children inside to be scrubbed clean.
The film’s strangest and most haunting interludes unfold over the sound of Rudolf reading bedtime stories. The visuals switch to thermal imaging, showing a young girl doing her bit for the Jewish partisan movement, sneaking out at night to pick apples and pears and leave them where prisoners can find them.
The conflict that ruptures the family’s contentment comes when Rudolf gets word that he’s being transferred to head office, near Berlin, a move that he protests to no avail. Hedwig is enraged that he waits to tell her until any hope of reversing the decision is gone, reminding him that living away from the city with space to breathe has been their dream since they were 17. Her anger spills out during a momentary annoyance with a maid, spitting out that she could have her husband sprinkle the woman’s ashes in a field.
In the high-level meetings that follow, Rudolf spearheads procedure for handling a massive influx of Hungarian Jews, as if he were managing any ordinary factory shipment. Reporting the news of Himmler’s approval to Hedwig later, he says, “I’m pleased as Punch!” These glimpses of standard bureaucracy and infrastructure being applied without a flicker of emotion to genocidal extermination make your blood run cold.
Glazer saves the sole exposure to what’s beyond the wall in Auschwitz for last, with a time shift and a brief detour into documentary that recalls the unblinking gaze of Alain Resnais’ landmark 1956 short film, Night and Fog. The sickening blunt impact is heightened by the quotidian nature of everything going on around what we’re seeing, and the eruption of Levi’s music that follows is like an alarm going off, reminding us to remain alert to the cyclical loops of history.
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