The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer's latest finds a fascinating new perspective on an oft-explored topic
Holocaust and WWII movies have righteously been overdone in cinema; making sure the horrors and lessons of those dark periods of history are not forgotten. Artistically, the setting can feel a bit stale in 2023, with revisits to the period feeling more exploitative than dramatically urgent. Jonathan Glazer, however, is a director that can mine an inconceivable new perspective from a film. He has brought that wit and creative genius to his latest film, The Zone of Interest (2023).
The Zone of Interest is loosely adapted from the Martin Amis novel of the same name. It is the story of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) the leader of the Auschwitz extermination camp in 1940s Poland. However, the story focuses on Rudolf, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller), and his spritely children as they go about their paradisiacal and bucolic lives. Only between games of tag or gardening flowers, do we see hints of the horrors occurring literally just over their garden wall.
Glazer, who brought a creative new lens to genres in Sexy Beast (2000) and Under the Skin (2013) does so again with The Zone of Interest, analyzing how the willing ignorance of atrocities is as horrid as those perpetrating it. Glazer constructs this seeping condemnation without showing any images of violence, prisoners, or even guns; everything is instead implied for viewers to piece together. Glazer purposefully frames his camera so that the sky is always visible, and viewers can always spot a creeping black smoke drifting through the air, emitted from the crematorium chimneys. We see as the children, play with teeth they have found nearby, or sort through clothes appropriated from “a Jewess.”
Glazer’s main character, however, is not any of his actors, but rather his sound design. There are intermittent uses of a guttural soundtrack, but most of The Zone of Interest features no music. The sound mixing is thus crucial in giving hints to the horror occurring nearby. One can catch the faintest of screams coming from the camp lost in gusts of wind, or intermittent dog barks and gun shots scattered through a BBQ party. It is with sound that Glazer wishes to bring about his most reflexive conclusion regarding how these atrocities cannot possibly be ignored.
Glazer retains his documentary-like style from Under the Skin. As with the alien movie, he is not so much guided by plot as he is by sociological observation. Glazer reportedly hid cameras amongst the Hoss house set in order to have his actors guessing as to which angle they were being filmed from, and thus retain an immersion. This will remind film enthusiasts of the methods of fellow British filmmaker Ken Loach, who also finds it imperative to help his actors be unable to notice the filming around them. This draws naturalistic performances from the cast that while not showy in the dramatic sense, are arguably much harder to pull off.
In the end, The Zone of Interest is a fascinating analysis into how the darkness in human behavior can be so easily masked and disguised by its perpetrators, perhaps allowing them to dissociate and thus commit these barbarities in the first place. The psychological, sociological, and artistic interpretations from Glazer into this often-told part of history is a technically-masterful and thought-provoking reflection into the inescapable collective guilt when atrocities are occurring around you.