Synopsis: The commander of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Sandra Huller, Christian Friedel
In the absence of the internet, let alone IMDB, if someone asked me what the best films about the Holocaust are, I would name Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. Watching either is likely as uncomfortable for friends in the Jewish community as it is for me to watch Roots or 12 Years a Slave, but there is no doubt that they are exceptional projects.
The movie The Zone of Interest, based on the novel by Martin Amis, can be added to this list. The film, which won the Grand Prix Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, approaches the subject of the Holocaust from a very different perspective, the point of view of the Auschwitz commander, Rudolph Hoss.
The film opens with Rudolph and his family having a nice day by the water, swimming and playing. It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize they live next door to the concentration camp — literally. The father, Rudolph (Christian Friedel), heads the Auschwitz camp. He leaves his house, passes through a gate and is at ‘work.’ His wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) spends most of her days running the home and their garden. She tries on clothes formerly belonging to prisoners and occasionally applies their confiscated makeup.
What is unique about this film is the fact that the atrocities are so understated. This is a highly subtle horror. For instance, while we don’t see anyone being killed or tortured, we hear things in the background, and we see the barb-wired fences just beyond the family home. The characters talk about the prisoners with absolutely no empathy or compassion. It’s absolutely chilling and uncomfortable.
A vital component of this film is the sound design, and Max Behrens deserves praise for the work he has done here.
I have long praised films like Hounds of Love for not showing violence on screen as it allows the viewer to interpret what may be happening, thus making it more impactful. That is magnified here. We know what’s happening, but we don’t see it. There are hints, such as the sound of gunshots in the background, smoke in the air from the crematorium, and sometimes voices screaming in the distance. This is absolute horror and terror but delivered to the audience in a restrained manner.
Complicit and emotionless, the family and their friends live their daily lives despite what is happening next door. This film isn’t about developing sympathy for the family but displaying pure evil from a unique point of view.
The performances of Friedel and Huller are strong in the film, but it’s the direction and vision of Glazer that elevates The Zone of Interest. The title refers to the 40 km area surrounding the Auschwitz camp on the outskirts of what is now Poland. The eerie score by Mica Levi is ideally suited to the film.
The film was made with the brilliance of Polish cinematographer Lukas’s Zai. Glazer adopted his idea of having cameras throughout the home so the actors could move freely about without interference, capturing a more realistic view of their lives.
From the moment the film begins, Glazer employs subtle techniques that make it stand out. The Zone of Interest sets itself apart from other films that have covered this subject; it is truly unique and has completely captured the atmosphere.
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is not an easy watch, but it’s a film that will and should haunt you.
This is a rarified piece of cinema and easily one of the best films of 2023.