Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland, will forever stain history in blood with its staggering, heinous slaughter of over a million innocent people at the one camp alone. The Zone of Interest never shows trainloads of Jewish men, women, and children led to gas chambers before being incinerated to ashes in industrial ovens. There are no scenes of emaciated slave workers clinging to life as taut skin clutches frail bones. Writer/director Jonathan Glazer explores the callous banality and cruel indifference of supreme evil with a family portrayal of Commandant Rudolf Höss, his wife Hedwig, and their five children. They lived in luxury directly beside the razor-wired walls of indiscriminate murder, terror, and unimaginable suffering.
In 1943 Oświęcim, Poland, Rudolf (Christian Friedel) mills around his palatial house for an adventurous morning of celebration, meetings, and getting back to busy work. Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) sharply commands their Polish workers as the kids play in the yard. She fawns over their lovely gardens that wrap around to a delightful greenhouse. Bees buzz over flowers as an idyllic pool sits still on a warm day. The crack of gunshots and men shouting can clearly be heard in the background, the oven chimneys bellowing as smokestacks rise ominously above.
Oldest child Klaus (Johann Karthaus), resplendent in his Hitler Youth uniform, leads a blindfolded Rudolf towards the yard. Rudolf laughs and hugs his beloved progeny when they reveal a new boat. They must change and enjoy this gift immediately. Rudolf, his daughters, and youngest son row in the adjacent stream. He bathes in relief from the heat while the little ones joyfully frolic. He fails to notice a brown cloud growing behind him. He picks up a human jawbone as it brushes his foot. Rudolf screams for his children to get out of the water as he grabs his birthday present.
The Mundane Face of Supreme Evil
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Hedwig laughs with the wives of the camp’s SS officers. They gossip until a servant brings in several parcels. She marvels at the bounty of clothes and a lush mink coat. Hedwig runs upstairs to try on the magnificent item. It’s lovely but needs to be cleaned. She orders the quiet messenger to do as such and return. The women mock previous items that were also dirty and bloody.
Rudolf returns home to greet his men for a birthday toast. Everyone lines up to congratulate their respected and lauded superior. He sends them away for an important meeting about camp upgrades. The incinerators could hold more bodies and cool efficiently. The phone rings with startling news from Germany. Rudolf sighs as he wonders how to tell Hedwig.
The Zone of Interest, Grand Prix winner at this year’s 76th Cannes Film Festival, is principally shot in stark contrasts. Rudolf parading around in white linen suits and immaculate shirts are an obvious hint to his merciless job. The first act focuses on the dynamics between Rudolf and Hedwig as clear partners in genocide. She knew exactly what was happening inside the camp but had zero interest. Hedwig threatens to have Rudolf spread her maid’s ashes over a puddle of water on the floor. His vile spouse was beyond complicit. Hüller, superb in her domineering personality, enjoyed the spoils of his gruesome labor. She couldn’t have cared less where their house, clothes, and jewelry came from, or of the death mill churning away in the background.
A Monster in the Garden
Glazer (Sexy Beast, Under the Skin) takes the perpetrators’ perspective but does deviate in an extraordinary way. He cuts to night scenes, photographed with a FLIR imaging camera, of a ghost-white Polish girl on her bicycle braving execution to help the prisoners. She hides apples and berries in the mud for the starving laborers. The difference between her and the glowing chimneys raining ash and human remains is artistically horrifying. We never see her face but understand the fierce courage of resistance and empathy in a soulless setting.
Rudolf and Hedwig are devils without horns. Their mundane existence shows the awful truth and depravity of dehumanization. They could bask in happiness and a clear conscience while causing immeasurable suffering. To Nazis, victims didn’t deserve compassion. They were vermin to be annihilated with extreme prejudice. Scenes of his son playing with the gold teeth of the murdered are beyond grotesque. Rudolf could gently take his daughter to bed, read nursery rhymes, and later dictate a memo to his staff about further killings.
Johnnie Burn (Nope, The Favourite) should win the Oscar for Best Sound Editing with visceral audio that depicts unseen tragedy. The snap and pop of bullets, screams, and crying are omnipresent throughout. Your mind forgets that bothersome noise is actually death incarnate. It is the sound of homicide ignored by egregious villains in summer frocks and tailored suits. The Zone of Interest stands out in its representation of the Holocaust. It boggles the mind these dreadful, malicious monsters existed and caused such devastation.
The Zone of Interest is a production of Extreme Emotions, Film4 Productions, House Productions, Access Entertainment, and JW Films. The film was screened as part of the 61st New York Film Festival. It will be released theatrically on December 8th from A24.