Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” begins with a family sitting by a stream, enjoying an idyllic day.
We observe how the family is close-knit, lives in a beautiful home and, in a jarring reveal, that their house is right next to the Auschwitz death camps. We’ve been watching the family of a highly-ranked Nazi and, when he walks out the door in his SS uniform, he’s on his way to instill torture, misery and death to those inside the camp.
We are in the presence of evil.
Glazer films this with a watchful, painterly eye, as there’s no ironic detachment, little music and very little plot. This is a clinical, observant and slow film, in which the audience gets to share space with a vile man, who we only see when he’s off duty.
He’s played by Christian Friedel and his wife is played by Sandra Huller, both of whom find moments to demonstrate how inwardly vile they are without playing their roles as outright villains.
As we watch the children play, the housekeepers clean up and the meals being prepared, we hear the distant pop of guns being fired and the smokestacks of the camp loosening into the sky. There’s one brief moment where we hear but do not see what goes on in the camp.
Otherwise, this is entirely outside of the death camps, as we only see the rise and practice of Nazism in either a boardroom or the interior of the domestic setting.
"The Zone of Interest" star Christian Friedel on playing an evil Nazi: “I hate Rudolf Höss. I cannot say I understand his actions. But he was a human being, and all these characters were human beings, and I think it’s important to tell these stories.” https://t.co/Qqz8SlYIKE
— Rolling Stone (@RollingStone) January 15, 2024
A chilling scene depicts a room of Nazis marveling at how the cooling and heating system of the extermination oven in the camp works. Another jolt comes from a quick reveal of a soldier using a garden hose to wash off the blood from the bottom of his boots.
The whole film is like that, suggesting the horrors that are just out of view, as a family lives their lives and never discusses what daddy does for a profession.
The third act takes the focus away from the house, and it’s not as effective. There’s also the final scene, which is bold in conception and offers powerful imagery but still doesn’t work.
FAST FACT: “The Zone of Interest” is based on the 2014 book of the same name by author Martin Amis.
Steven Spielberg had a similar problem with how to properly conclude “Schindler’s List” (1993). How does one end such a harrowing meditation on such a grotesque portion of the 20th century? Neither Spielberg nor Glazer have figured it out for their films.
Nevertheless, in its unsettling depiction of the horrors of WWII, Glazer’s film is unique and worth seeing at least once.
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Glazer’s “Birth” (2004) and “Under the Skin” (2013) were equally challenging, strange in their presentation and worked best for audiences willing to endure a demanding experience. As if the film weren’t already hard to take, Glazer opens and closes the film in total darkness for minutes.
Glazer makes art films, and some of “The Zone of Interest” would work best as an art installation. During many scenes in the first and second act, I found myself staring at the furniture, looking closely at the faces of the family members, and really considering what it must be like to be in a place so wrong, so hideous and yet, so seemingly normal and homey.
The home life of the Nazi and his family isn’t an illusion of normalcy but a hideous example of how he and his brood can disassociate themselves entirely from the crimes taking place over the wall. If you’re willing and interested in gazing at the homelife of a monster, Glazer offers us a you-are-there chance to gaze upon the demons of human history.
Three and a Half Stars