Cannes 2023 review: The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)

The Zone of Interest is at its heart a family drama, and its portrait of the fine line between human being and monster, and how one can be on both sides of the line at times, is a silent punch in the gut.”

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) has created a veritable Garden of Eden behind her austere Polish home. Sure, the vines haven’t grown tall enough yet to cover that ugly concrete wall in the back, and the droning sound of furnaces burning on the other side is a bit of a nuisance, but otherwise this is her little paradise on Earth. She tries to be an elegant lady, which is why she has ordered that fancy fur coat, but her lumbering step suggests a humble background. Her husband Rudolf (Christian Friedel) is always working, his ambitious and industrious nature having helped him shoot up the ranks of the German army. Luckily he lives right next door to his work, so he has ample time to be a mild-mannered family man towards his children. Overseeing an extermination camp as large as Auschwitz is a demanding job, but it is one that fills Rudolf with pride.

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust film unlike any you have ever seen, and quite possibly the scariest one. Hitting like a laser-guided sledgehammer, his look at the banality of evil on the forefront of human destruction doesn’t need to show any atrocity; a hair-raising sound design, your imagination, and a cinematic history replete with the heinous crimes of Nazi Germany are all Glazer needs to instill bone-chilling terror. It is hard to say what is scarier: the efficient murderous mind of Rudolf or the frivolous complicity of his wife and the mother of his children. Make no mistake, Hedwig knows full well what goes on behind those concrete walls that line her garden: the fires and smoke from the ever-burning furnaces can easily be seen from her mansion’s upper floors. But it is not the crimes against humanity themselves that strike hard, but the way the Höss family act as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

The film takes its title from the 2014 novel by Martin Amis that it is based on; the zone of interest (interessengebiet in German) was a description used by the SS for the immediate area surrounding the Auschwitz camp, which included the Höss family home. Glazer rarely leaves this area, and most of the film is set in and around the Höss mansion, which thanks to the brilliant work of production designer Chris Oddy looks exactly like what you would imagine to be the home of an efficient killing machine. Stark lines are captured with a sharp precision by Glazer, who frames and blocks the film down to the millimetre. The austerity of the frames, almost drained of humanity, mimics the efficiency and heartlessness of the Nazi extermination complex. It is away from the home, when the family ventures into the nature surrounding the camp, that they look most like a real and loving family, out on a swimming trip without a care in the world. Rudolf is a true believer without being a caricatured fanatic; it makes him the scariest Nazi in cinema since Amon Göth. But it is Hedwig’s carefree disinterest in what goes on next door that stays with you the longest.

Glazer’s gaze is very detached and non-judgemental: he simply shows the family going about their lives and trusts his audience to bring in the necessary baggage to pass judgement. It’s not all darkness-in-broad-daylight though, and he allows himself some directorial flourishes. A couple of times he inserts scenes of a young local girl leaving apples, shot with a thermal imaging camera that makes her look like a negative, almost like an inversion of the evil that makes up the rest of the film. Late in the film Rudolf is descending a stairwell when he suddenly has the urge to throw up. As he looks down a dark corridor leading off from the stairwell, the film suddenly cuts to the present day, where cleaners are at work inside the camp that has now been turned into a museum. Does Rudolf get a glimpse of the future here?

It is moments like these that turn The Zone of Interest into a dark masterpiece of art; this is not just an eerie Holocaust film in which Jews are only in the periphery, this is more than that. From the first few minutes, in which a black screen is underscored by Mica Levi’s oppressive and almost formless electronic score, the viewer knows they’re in for something special (her industrial techno piece over the end credits is nothing short of astonishing). This is continued in the impeccable and exemplary sound design which conjures up images of evil in our minds without actually having to show them, like an ambient genocide. The Zone of Interest fits all of this together into a frightening jigsaw puzzle that at times is oddly comical; the family discussing the mundanity of life while lives are snuffed out on the other side of the wall is so baffling that it almost feels like pitch-black comedy. But The Zone of Interest is at its heart a family drama, and its portrait of the fine line between human being and monster, and how one can be on both sides of the line at times, is a silent punch in the gut.