The Zone of Interest (2023, dir. Jonathan Glazer) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 22, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 106 mins

UK Distributor: A24

UK Release Date: 2 February 2024

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN THE ZONE OF INTEREST?

Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel, Medusa Knopf, Daniel Holzberg, Sascha Maaz, Max Beck, Wolfgang Lampl, Johann Karthaus, Ralph Herforth, Freya Kreutzkam, Lilli Falk, Nele Ahrensmeier

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jonathan Glazer (director, writer), Ewa Puszczynska and James Wilson (producers), Mica Levi (composer), Lukasz Zal (cinematographer), Paul Watts (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Rudolf Höss (Friedel), the commandant of Auschwitz, builds a tranquil family life in a house next door to the camp…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE ZONE OF INTEREST?

Evil is everywhere throughout history, no matter how much we try and sweep it all under the rug. It exists in the barbaric reign of totalitarian dictators across the world, it is present in the pillaging and removal of indigenous tribes from their rightful land, and it very much still around in places like Russia, Iran, and the Middle East. We must never forget what evil looks and feels like, so that we can confront it when we see it for ourselves, and challenge those who wish to turn a blind eye to some of humanity’s biggest atrocities.

This is, as you might have guessed, the biggest thing to take away from filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s haunting wartime drama The Zone of Interest, which presents a unique vision of perhaps the evillest period of the twentieth century (if not of all time) that reminds us all about the dangerous moral consequences of ignoring what is a truly incomprehensible act of human cruelty.

Set in the 1940s, the film’s focus is on the pleasant if mundane life of a family that is reasonably well off, and whose biggest concern is when the patriarch (Christian Friedel) might be assigned to a different location for work, leaving his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their young children alone at a time when they need their husband and father around. It’s all perfectly pleasant on the surface, and for the most part it is… except for the fact that the aforementioned patriarch is Rudolf Höss, the famed Nazi commandant who oversaw the extermination of hundreds if not thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp, which also happens to be right next to where he and his family have built their idyllic life together. So, while this family is going about its business whether it’s doing some gardening, trying on some fancy clothes, eating dinner together, or hosting a pool party, there are countless people being brutally murdered just on the other side of their wall, something which is almost never addressed by anyone we see on the screen.

What makes The Zone of Interest so eerie to watch is how closely it sticks to this family of Nazis, with the film never cutting to any of the inhumane scenes going on within the Auschwitz camp, instead restricting them to muted audio that plays over quiet and uneventful moments in the family’s life. The sound design on this film is astounding, for there is always this mechanical hum on the soundtrack that signifies the cyclic in-out rotation of people being forced into the gas chambers, but it is so subtly overlayed onto the more normal scenes we’re watching that, after a while, you forget that it’s even there. It puts the viewer directly into the mindset of these people who have chosen to ignore what’s happening mere feet from them, most likely out of necessity or perhaps even blind ignorance, but unlike those on-screen you’re always aware of everything you’re not seeing because, also unlike them, you (hopefully) have stronger morals than a Nazi.

Only occasionally does the film venture outside this middle-class family’s bubble, including some interludes creepily shot in thermal vision of a young girl picking and leaving pieces of fruit for the various (and largely unseen) Jewish prisoners, and to stuffy Nazi meetings intended to finalise their merciless execution. Even then, though, we are never truly far away from the horrors happening just beyond that wall. Glazer, a filmmaker who often keeps a pole’s distance between the viewer and the emotional profundity of his work, ensures that there is always an ice-cold tone in even the happiest-seeming of scenes, with an innocent dip into the nearby river being interrupted by the flow of dumped ashes, or the steam from an arriving prisoner train popping up in the background of the earlier-mentioned pool party, or a surprising ending that is perhaps a bit on-the-nose. There is almost never a moment in The Zone of Interest where you feel as at ease as this family does, even amidst the disturbing conduct happening within earshot, because Glazer’s direction, along with a combination of Lukasz Zal’s static cinematography and an appropriately haunting score by Mica Levi, keeps pushing the evil onto you without softening any of its forcefulness.

It is deliberately uncomfortable viewing, one which will certainly struggle to make a connection with audiences – but Jonathan Glazer, especially with The Zone of Interest, does not make films that audiences can enjoy. He is a master of misery, as the bleak overtones of past films Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin can vouch for, and with this he has made perhaps the most importantly miserable film of his career, one which calls out the complacency and conscious denial of the atrocities happening in front of us, a trait that is alarmingly common in an age of social media misinformation and an overload of devastating news stories.

You’ll be devastated whilst watching it, but more aware than ever of when to call out evil as and when we recognise it.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Zone of Interest is a disturbing look at the complacency of Nazi evil with unsettling sound design and ice-cold direction by Jonathan Glazer calling attention to the atrocities that are never shown, in a profound if emotionally detached piece of work that will stay with you long afterwards.

Four of of five stars

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