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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'The Zone of Interest': A Staggering, Unforgettable Masterwork

Over the past several decades, a great number of films have been made about the Holocaust. While some seek to properly show the atrocities of the Nazi regime and concentration camps with respect, there has been a bit of backlash towards films set during this time. This is mainly because most of the recent films that focus on the Holocaust are a bit soapy, and feel like Oscar-bait. These terms certainly do not apply to Jonathan Glazer's latest feature, The Zone of Interest. At a time where most Holocaust films seem to take a sentimental approach, Glazer shows the time period for what it truly is. But the kicker is that he never shows any of the horrors that took place at concentration camps during this time, and instead uses sound and the everyday life of a German family who lives next door to Auschwitz as a way to tell a different kind of story about the Holocaust, while still feeling unsparing and potent. It is a film that must be seen to fully understand, and captures the pure evil that unfolded during this era, and the complacency of those who were right at the edges of it.

Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is the commandant of Auschwitz. He and his family live right in a beautiful home that happens to be right next to the camp. He occasionally takes the kids to a nearby river to fish and swim, his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) spends most of time in the garden tending the lovely flowers that grow there, and servants perform household chores. Rudolf and Hedwig try to live the dream life they have for their family, all while unspeakable horrors are occurring next door.

Jonathan Glazer is a fascinating director, as he tends to take very direct, almost simple approaches to complex ideas. That may sound backhanded, but I actually mean that as a major compliment. Glazer is able to tell stories ranging from a woman who believes her late husband has been reincarnated as a ten-year-old boy to an alien traversing the streets of Scotland and preying on human men while adopting a largely realistic style. But it is the stylistic flourishes that accompany this films that really take them to another level. With The Zone of Interest, he presents the lives of the Höss family with a straightforward lens that shows the routine, almost mundane nature of their daily activities. What he doesn't do, not even once, is show any of the actual violence and torture that is taking place over at Auschwitz. Instead, the day to day life of the Höss family is occasionally accompanied by the sounds of cries and screams from prisoners, which are typically ignored by the family members. The fact of the matter is we don't need to see what is happening to know what is going on, but that doesn't make it any less upsetting. It plays into the idea that the mind can come up with things that are more horrifying than what can be portrayed on screen, and it adds to the unsettling atmosphere that the entire film exists in. Glazer perfectly contrasts the idyllic life that the Höss family is trying to build for themselves with the cruel, inhumane actions occurring at the concentration camp, and uses sound to convey this in such a masterful way. On top of this, the occasional use of black and white negative photography and close-ups on flowers adds to evocative nature of the film, making this one of the boldest, most inventive films I have ever seen.

The sound design and editing is so integral to the film, and it is so masterfully done. Sound designer Johnnie Burn put in a lot of hard work to make sure that the sound is both accurate, and has such a massive effect on the film as a whole. This film features some of the most incredible use of sound I have heard in any film, and I can't believe Burn was able pull off what he pulls off here. In addition to this, Mica Levi has composed a fascinating score for this film, which is used a bit sparingly, but is still quite effective. They initially composed a full score for the film, which was eschewed in order to avoid the film being "sweetened or dramatized" according to Glazer and Burn. Some of Levi's score remains in the film, mostly consisting of abstract soundscapes, which adds to the sense of unease that the film gives off. I wouldn't necessarily call this score Levi's best work, but it is still highly impressive and used so well in the context of the film.

While the film is more of a technical achievement, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the film's two lead actors, Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller. Friedel is impressive, as he spends most of the film with a tough, steely exterior and has this numbness that he brings to the character that highlights how vile he is and how heartless he is toward what is happening at Auschwitz. He keeps this up until a scene late in the film, which I won't spoil here, but it is a fascinating moment for the character that Friedel plays so well. Hüller, on the other hand, plays a woman wanting to have the perfect life no matter the circumstances in a way that is so heartbreaking given what is happening in the film. She is fully aware of what is happening next door to her dream home, but the willing ignorance she displays is both infuriating and depressing. It adds so many interesting shades to the role, and Hüller portrays the character of Hedwig with such naturalism, and she finds the humanity within her. Between this and her phenomenal performance in Anatomy of a Fall, this is a great year from Sandra Hüller, and both films truly showcase her immense talent so well.

The amazing thing about this film is that it goes beyond just being "a Holocaust movie". By that, I mean that it doesn't spoonfeed its audience and hit the familiar beats that other films set in this time period hit. It is more expressionistic, and has a lot more to say about the Holocaust and evil in general than it first appears. The film does illustrate how ruthless Auschwitz and other concentration camps were, as well as how ruthless the Nazi officers who worked there were. But beyond that, the film digs into the complacency that comes with evilness, both from those who are inflicting it and those who turn a blind eye to it. The character of Rudolf is so desensitized to the atrocities he is helping commit, going as far as giving his family items taken from the prisoners and having conversations about more effective execution procedures like its just another thing he has to do for work. Hedwig is also blinded to this, choosing instead to focus on her garden and maintaining a wonderful life for her family. She seems to have some awareness, but lives in denial in order to have her dream life become her reality. Perhaps one of the most disturbing scenes of the film involves one of the Höss children playing alone in his room, and hearing anguished sounds from outside. He investigates by looking out the window, before almost instantly backing up, moving the shutter to block his vision and saying "Don't do that again" to himself. The fact that a young child has already learned to ignore injustice and cruelty is one of the saddest aspects of this film, and gets into the idea of not speaking up about evil because it doesn't directly affect you. The final moments of the film offer some interesting food for thought with these themes, and poses the notion that those who remain quiet in the face of injustice are just as complicit in perpetuating it as those who are actively participating in it. There is a lot that this film puts on the viewer, and it is one that will likely be studied and discussed for years to come.

The Zone of Interest is a film unlike anything I have ever seen, and is an absolute masterwork from Jonathan Glazer. It is a film that I could write thousands upon thousands of words about, and still feel like I am not properly conveying just how powerful and how incredibly crafted this film is. It is a major achievement in every way, especially when it comes to its use of sound. This is a film that demands to be seen, as it is such an important work that will connect with many on a deep level. The Zone of Interest might be yet another film set during the Holocaust, but what it does with its setting and the specific atmosphere that Glazer and company makes it so much more than your average historical drama, and is a staggering, unsettling, and indelible work of cinema.

Rating: 5/5

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