“What I wanted to film was the contrast between somebody pouring a cup of coffee in their kitchen and somebody being murdered over on the other side of the wall.” That’s how Jonathan Glazer describes his intentions in The Zone of Interest, the Auschwitz drama that got a wild reception from critics at Cannes. The shock of Glazer’s picture is not in the graphic terrors it depicts, but in what it purposefully doesn’t show. He gives us the person pouring their coffee, but only hints at the terrors beyond the wall. And yet, his film is so psychologically searing it borders on the unwatchable.
The Zone of Interest, which A24 will release later this year, is theoretically based on the late Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, and it happened to premiere at Cannes the day before Amis’s passing at the age of 73. One is tempted to say something about this coincidence, but Glazer appears to have taken pretty much just the setting and the title from Amis; the movie has almost nothing to do with the book, which has an actual plot and characters. It’s a similar approach to what Glazer tried in his previous film, for which he turned Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin into a demented, practically experimental horror-sci-fi art film starring Scarlett Johansson. (Under the Skin was ten years ago; Birth, his previous feature, was 2004. Glazer takes his time with these projects.)
The new film follows, through calm, quotidian wide shots, the daily life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family. It opens with a lengthy, bucolic image of a picnic beside a placid lake. We might marvel at the beauty and peacefulness of this setting — the kind of thing fond summer memories are built on. Over the course of the picture, as we watch birthdays and tea parties and catch snippets of casual conversations, we also hear the constant churn of the death camp behind the walls, occasionally punctuated by distant gunshots and screams. Sometimes, in the evenings, we might notice the plumes of smoke, while the Höss family continues about their business. Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), Rudolf’s wife, spends much of her time cultivating and perfecting her “paradise garden,” taking great care with the gorgeous flowers, bushes, and vines, and Glazer makes sure to give each plant a beautiful, loving close-up as she talks about the care they need.
It’s not so much that what’s happening in Auschwitz is ignored, but that it comes up in the most blood-chillingly mundane ways. Women talk about trying on dresses and coats that once belonged to Jewish families. “I’ll go on a diet,” says one when remarking that one coat doesn’t fit her. “Guess where I found this diamond?” someone asks at one point. “In the toothpaste.” They gossip about a Jewish neighbor who used to have book readings, and about how she outbid them once on some curtains. They wonder if she’s “in there.” At night, the boys stay up late in bed, pointing flashlights at their collections of teeth the way you or I might have once read a children’s novel.
Glazer produced the film in unorthodox fashion, with multiple locked-down cameras rolling simultaneously in different rooms, and the actors free to move about and stay in different spaces without a crew present. (The layout of the Höss residence was reportedly based on extensive research into their actual house; this really was how they lived.) The frames still manage to feel highly composed, as if the actors have been blocked to within an inch of their lives; Glazer has clearly boned up on his Haneke. But the images also have the quality of surveillance footage, which adds to the unsettling mood and sets our minds racing.
This kind of formalist approach, cross-breeding narrative cinema and conceptual art, can be hard to maintain without slipping into tedium. But Glazer knows to develop the idea without abandoning his rigor. The evil beyond the walls (and, really, the evil within the walls) makes itself known in almost psychosomatic ways. Hedwig’s mother, who is staying with her daughter, finds herself unable to sleep. When Rudolf finds bone fragments and ash drifting down the stream where his kids are swimming, he fears for their health and makes sure they get a good washing. Later, he has a mysterious bout of nonstop vomiting.
One of Rudolf’s daughters constantly sleepwalks. From her sojourns Glazer cuts to impressively creepy night-vision shots of a mysterious girl wandering the area, placing what appear to be pieces of food in the dirt. She finds a tightly folded-up piece of paper, which contains some music — a composition by a prisoner that she then plays on a piano, each note conveying a line of grim poetry. One world is constantly bleeding into the other.
In some ways, the buzz of domesticity we’re watching is a machine as efficient as the death factory thrumming in the background. When Rudolf gets a promotion to the head office in Berlin, he and Hedwig quarrel. She doesn’t want to leave. Why should she? She’s spent all this time building a beautiful garden, it’s a great place to raise the kids, and they’ve made so many lovely memories here. (“This is our Lebensraum,” she says, using the word for “living space” that was used to justify Imperial Germany’s expansionism in the early 20th century and became a buzzword for Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s.) It’s the kind of argument spouses have had since time immemorial, and it’s so terrifying here because it feels totally real. The everyday cadences of the film, the trifling conversations about flowers and kids and neighbors and hand-me-down clothes and where to live, are clearly meant to be relatable. In its own sly and subtly devastating way, The Zone of Interest pulls us into its circle of evil.
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