'The Zone of Interest' Review
June 4, 2023
The Zone of Interest premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in theaters this year.
“The banality of evil” is a term that has been (over)used to describe the lens that Jonathan Glazer uses to dissect the Holocaust in The Zone of Interest. The term was coined nearly fifty years ago by the German-born writer/philosopher Hannah Arendt during the post-war trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the highest-ranking Nazi figures behind the Holocaust. Eichmann showed no remorse for his inhumane actions, nor did he have hatred toward the people that he had been ordered to eradicate. He plead not guilty to his crimes, as he was just doing his job as part of the Nazi machine.
Arendt viewed Eichmann as an ordinary cog who refused to think for himself. He was simply motivated by career advancement and didn’t want to disrupt the order of things. That banality would become one of the most dangerous things within the new Nazi regime, as indescribably heinous acts were committed with the same complacency as an everyday person doing their chores.
Glazer hones in on that concept with his radically departing adaptation of Martin Amis’ (who tragically died just one day after the Cannes premiere) 2014 novel of the same name. There is no vilification of the main characters within Glazer’s story, which are the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller). They have five young children and are trying to create the perfect home to raise a family. When not working, the family spends their time swimming in the nearby lake, tending to their garden, or playing games in the house. They seem like a perfect unit, with the only reminder of their underlying beliefs being the concrete wall that separates their yard from the inner workings of Auschwitz.
There isn’t a single moment that takes place within the infamous camp, but its presence is always felt. The family will be sunbathing in the garden when a faint gunshot goes off on the other side of the wall. Both you and the characters know what that sound means, but only you care about the implications of it. For the family, those gunshots are just as much a part of everyday life as the birds chirping in the trees above. They go about their daily lives without a hitch, leaving you stranded in the fear of your imagination.
This provocation through absence is in such stark contrast from other works within the Holocaust subgenre that it sometimes makes you question the approach other filmmakers took. Did Steven Spielberg’s stylizations within Schindler’s List lessen the impact of the horrors, or did it make it palatable enough so that it could be used as a teaching point for a mass audience? A more extreme version of that argument would be Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and the lesser-known Robin Williams-starring Jakob the Liar.
Glazer is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum as Spielberg. His absolute refusal of stylization towards the pivotal acts is based on your preconceived knowledge of Auschwitz. You’ve seen the photos, learned the class lessons, and most likely seen Schindler’s List. Seeing what’s going on lessens its impact, as the horrors you infer in your mind are much scarier than anything within the frame. You want to look away, except there was nothing you were looking at to begin with.
Grand stylizations do emerge from time to time, most notably a pitch-black prelude overture of Mica Levi’s incredible score, and black-and-white negative vision that follows a young girl on a secret mission. Paweł Pawlikowski’s regular cinematographer Łukasz Żal captures the action in staged wide shots, with much of it taking place within the house. Glazer and Żal positioned ten fixed cameras within the various nooks and crannies, operating by remote control similar to surveillance cameras within a mall. They give off a feeling of detachment and unimportance, with Glazer refusing to view the characters going about their daily lives in anything but a neutral light.
Friedel made a name for himself as a burgeoning Nazi in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon back in 2009. While his commandant position would infer that he’s a radical supporter of the ideology, he is the film’s Eichmann, devoted to his role as a means to support his family and get ahead in life. The same can be said for Hedwig, with Hüller - having a wonderful Cannes with both this and Anatomy of a Fall - only breaking from her sternness when she finds out the family may need to move away from the camp.
Sickening in the most calculated way possible, The Zone of Interest is Jonathan Glazer's ode to Stanley Kubrick. He answers the question of how evil can exist unchecked, holding all of your senses in a sterilized vice. Be sure to soak it all in during your first watch, because I doubt you'll ever want to view the world this way again.