The words of Hannah Arendt have rarely seen more disturbing on-screen embodiment than in Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest.” An austere and incandescent Holocaust drama that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, Glazer’s disquieting essay-film takes place almost entirely in and around the comfortable, middle-class home of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, tackling both the banality and quiet domesticity of evil with eerie formal rigor.
Viewed from afar, Rodolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) live an idyllic and unexceptional life. They’re happily married, upwardly mobile strivers, with faith in their government and hope for the future. They follow sports, tend gardens and participate in collective projects for patriotic renewal. And they’re professionally satisfied — her as a stay-at-home mom raising a family of five, and him working right next door, overseeing the most macabre site of mass-genocide mankind has ever devised.
In fact, Glazer ensures that they are almost always viewed from afar by setting his actors loose in a scale replica of the Auschwitz-adjacent house, replete with fixed-position remote activated cameras built into the walls and keeping his crew on the outside. If the resulting aesthetic plays like an AI-generated mix of “Big Brother” by way of Stanley Kubrick, the footage captured is considerably less spicy. The couple complete domestic tasks, welcome visiting family and try to unwind, all from wide and static compositions that cut the overall space into a series of flat lines and sharp angles.
The camp itself is never viewed at all — at least, never from the inside. While a dense thrum of white noise underscores every scene of domestic activity, we only realize this subwoofer rattle is in fact diegetic when Glazer finally allows a fuming crematorium chimney to creep into the background in one brief shot. Because if Kubrick is one obvious point-of-reference for this rigid visual scheme, so too is Michael Haneke – specifically in the myriad ways the Hoss family conducts their bourgeois existence around what is seen and what stays hidden. (That actor Christian Friedel also led Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner “The White Ribbon” only pushes the comparison.)
Eventually, traces of their own barbarity creep in, from the ash used to fertilize the lawn, to the servants who can refuse no request, to (presumably, as the canister remains unseen) the can of Zyklon B polluting a river where the Höss children play. Soon enough, the sounds of torture and mass-death from the neighboring camp make their way both into the house and into Mica Levi’s feedback and distortion heavy score.
What little narrative momentum arrives with the news that Höss will be transferred – promoted, as it were, to oversee the full death camp network from the home office in Berlin – while Hedwig, who proudly declares herself “the Queen of Auschwitz,” wants nothing of it. “They’d have to drag me out here,” she tells her husband in firm tones. “It’s a paradise,” she beams to her mother at an earlier point.
The level of seething irony with which Glazer (liberally adapting a Martin Amis novel, and given sole screenwriter credit) wrote those lines, Hüller delivered them and “Cold War” cinematographer Łukasz Żal brought them to screen cannot be overstated. For “The Zone of Interest” is a fiery film, only one pitched at the hot white stillness at the center of the flame.
And in that quiet fury the film sometimes burns out, breaking its own rigorous formal game by wholly consuming the screen in lighted red and leaving the Höss family’s side to show partisans leaving food for the unseen prisoners during the dead of night. That the latter sequences are shot using thermal vision cameras reflects Glazer’s governing aesthetic to shoot the film with natural light while creating a visual inversion – with the literal embodiments of the local partisans standing in polar contrast with those of the Nazis inside the house.
While “The Zone of Interest” uses the conventions of narrative fiction, it is more of an essay, engaged in the wider conversation of how – if it all – to visualize the Holocaust. Glazer’s choice to not aestheticize the camp — to not recreate violence on-screen –- is prescriptive, and made all the more stark by the inclusion of documentary footage of the present day site.
Similarly, Glazer’s focus on Höss’ growing psychological distress as the film goes on seems in conversation with Primo Levi’s contradictory description of Höss as “an empty man, a quiet and eager fool who… who seems to find in obedience a total satisfaction of his doubts and worries.”
Neither provocation nor counter-point, “The Zone of Interest” is instead a furtherance, a new take on an ungraspable madness we must never let ourselves forget.
Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.