Cannes 2023: Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a Manicured Vision of Hell
The Zone of Interest Review
It’s only around 3 minutes before the end of The Zone of Interest that it dawned on me that writer-director Jonathan Glazer must actually be Jewish and the disparate pieces of the film came together, the three different stylistical modes used in the film made a jagged sense. The penultimate sequence that triggered this eureka moment was the irruption of present-day documentary footage of Polish janitors diligently polishing floors and window displays in what appears to be the museum on the site of the former Auschwitz extermination camp. Throughout, the film was brutally, deliberately dehumanising of its central Nazi characters and I wondered how the three or so German audience members seated in front of me must have felt. Like extraterrestrials?
Quite early on it becomes obvious that The Zone of Interest is a film set at Auschwitz set without a single Jewish character on screen. It follows the family life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), their five Aryan children and their frisky dog. Glazer’s starting point was Martin Amis’s novel of the same name: the zone of interest or interessengebiet was a Nazi euphemism for the 40 square kilometre zone surrounding the camp.
Cannes welcomed and loved Sandra Hüller from her magnificent performance in Toni Erdmann in 2016; here she is bone-chillingly efficient as the commandant’s repulsive wife Hedwig. One of her pastimes is fashion – more specifically helping herself to fur coats, make-up, diamonds, stripped from Jews entering the camp, but her biggest passion is gardening, so she has created a beautiful, perfectly manicured garden of Eden in plot the adjacent to her family’s villa. It incidentally shares a wall with the extermination camp and is on occasion fertilised with ashes from the camp. Not to worry, though, Hedwig reassures her visiting mother, all the domestic staff are local (Poles), the Jews are all on the other side of the wall. Oh, I wonder if so and so is in there, casually remarks the mother, you know the woman I used to work for, I didn’t manage to get her curtains after the was deported… Oh, those were beautiful curtains, agrees Hedwig.
This forensically detached dissection of the collective psychopathy of the perfect Höss family, and the Nazi mindset more generally, is the main narrative thread of The Zone of Interest. Glazer’s gaze is impassive, fixed, at a distance. The film abounds in fixed camera frames, especially of the blooming garden and elegant villa. The detachment and distancing are a deliberate tonal choice, and so is the invisibility of the extermination next-door, except for the smoke coming out of the chimneys behind the garden wall and fiery reflections at night. Camp noises are nonetheless audible, a near constant sonar background of terror and the family have learned to either block them out or to simply accept them as part of daily routine. The matter-of-fact normalisation of living next to crematoria and reaping their benefits daily does not however equal a lack of judgement on the filmmaker’s part. Far from it, the complete obliviousness to the horror next door of the Höss family makes the viewer wonder if these are actual humans or some other species. The Höss children are not spared this dehumanization, and virtually the only member of the family to arose a modicum of sympathy is the neglected frolicky dog, portrayed as the most alive member of the family.
Glazer deliberately chooses formal experimentation to tackle a concentration camp story without showing death or Jews. The Holocaust ‘genre’ was last revolutionised at Cannes back in 2015 – albeit in the opposite direction- by Laszlo Nemes frenzied first-person camera work in Saul fia. Jonathan Glazer’s experimentation, conversely, relies mostly on long static shots and cameras fixed at a distance from the characters, with no close ups, and relativelyt few medium shots. This achieves the distancing effect he intended but also results in visually stunning compositions. The beauty of the flowers in the garden, the tranquility of the surrounding rural area, and the elegant architecture are all integral to this Aryan idyll and it is easy to see why Hedwig is reluctant to leave Auschwitz when Rudolph is transferred to headquarters – the emotive scene in the film is when Hedwig defends her right to stay behind in this paradise she has worked so hard to create. The Nazi ideal of perfection is stunningly embodied in the film’s aesthetic, only disturbed by the background sounds of the machinery of death. For Rudolph Höss is an innovator and his pet project is optimizing the productivity of the crematoria. His career is on the rise, and as his wife remarks, the good life next to the extermination camp is everything they’ve worked for since we were 17.
Roughly midway through the film Glazer inserts a night-vision sequence of an unnamed presumably Polish girl who surreptitiously collects apples during the night and leaves them in work areas for prisoners to find. She briefly appears in a daytime scene without any dialogue except for a voice over reading a poem written by one of the camp prisoners. The sound design of the episodes involving the girl is a grating, ominous horn-like rumble, similar to the opening title noise. The role of this nameless girl is presumably to offer a tiny glimmer of antidote to the surrounding monstrousness, although I am not sure that it enhances the film significantly. The modern-day documentary footage on the other hand is likely intended as a reality check, for the central characters may at times seem surreal in their utter denial of their surroundings. Even so, not for a moment does the film assume their point of view or offer us albeit a glimpse of their inner worlds; the audience’s awareness that they suffer from mass delusion is ever-present and their remain until the end inscrutable.
Jonathan Glazer’s work is not a film that can be enjoyed in any conventional way, of course, but it is worth enduring, because we know that such people, in all their horrifying perversion, really did inhabit and cultivate and enjoy the zone of interest.
It is still early days, but The Zone of Interest runs a fair chance of the best director prize.