This review is published as part of DraftKings Network’s 2023 New York Film Festival coverage.
When we think of the word evil, it’s more in an active sense—the action of someone having the forethought to do something cruel to someone else. This could be physical, mental, or emotional. Isn’t it just as horrible for people who are aware of these evil acts and know nothing about them? Instead, try to benefit as much as possible to the detriment of those subjugated by immense cruelty. It’s important to remember as many of the soldiers and officials who directly had a hand in the torture and murder of millions; there was the bureaucracy upheld to make it so and people who actively disassociate from the atrocities.
Jonathan Glazer’s first feature in ten years, The Zone of Interest (somewhat based on Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name), first frames zeroes in upon the Höss family after they dip in a local lake. They seem carefree as they march up the woods to their cozy house. Glazer doesn’t reveal things immediately, but this house feels off. The placement, the saturation of color, and the angles in which the house is framed don’t seem right. Only after a few minutes does the camera return, and you see a massive wall. Upon further examination, you realize the Hoss villa is only yards from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
How could somebody, let alone a whole family, knowingly live alongside a site of horror? The understatedness of it all is the most chilling aspect of The Zone of Interest. Just as quickly as officers convene in the household to speak with German SS soldier Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) about building a more extensive furnace system to burn more bodies, it flips to scenes where his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) tends to her garden. Glazer’s film doesn’t overly show what was happening inside the camps like Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List. Everything is localized within the confines of the wall. When Hedwig and the five Höss children give their father a canoe for his birthday, you hear prisoners’ screams and soldiers’ yelling.
When characters go for a walk, there are shots of barbed wire and carts of Nazi soldiers heading in another direction. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal films everything at a wide ratio. It’s cold and distanced from the characters we follow on screen. I shudder at the thought of a family partaking in fun in a lush background while four chimneys billow out black smoke into the atmosphere. In the direction The Zone of Interest drives its characters in, everything feels so malevolently basic in how they go about daily life. Before bed, one of the Höss boys looks through a small box of gold teeth. Later, Hedwig tells the Jewish servant in her house that she could have her cremated flippantly.
The family's only sense of strife throughout this film is when Rudolf is up for a potential transfer. Hedwig throws a fit at the chance of the family having to relocate to upset their “utopic home.” Glazer is trying to draw attention to this detached dissonance that one could melt into despite it being hell on earth for others. Mica Levi’s score consists of a sudden electronic droning. It feels like a funeral pyre and 1,000 deplorable men and women heartbeats.
In contrast to everything we get to witness, Glazer breaks up the things we notice with the site of a little girl in night vision placing apples for some of the prisoners. What happens later on when a prisoner is caught with an apple notes that no good deed is unpunished. Glazer could have elected to show everything on the front lines, but the more abstract and relatively effective way is showing the other levels of insane corruption. For every family that operates like this, there is a land of high-ranking officials who sign off on genocidal positions. You will struggle internally with those juxtapositions – the visuals of men gathered around the roundtable looking for ways to kill more people at a time.
The Zone of Interest might feel foreign because it exhibits restraint, but the things it’s saying are as loud of a warning as they’ve ever been.