One darkly humorous remark permeates through the film from Jonathan Glazer, a technically impressive and unsettling portrayal of the Holocaust. The movie is loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel and, despite its artistry, it may not have complete control over its deliberately distasteful elements. It explores the coexistence of the seemingly peaceful domestic life of the German people with the unimaginable atrocities of the genocide. How was such evil able to thrive in a society that prided itself on “silent night, holy night, gemütlichkeit” as famously described by George Steiner?
In the movie, Auschwitz camp leader Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel) is portrayed as living a peaceful and idyllic life with his family in a luxurious home just outside the walls of the camp. His wife, Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller), takes great pride in overseeing the beautiful garden at the back of the house, which she has nicknamed the “paradise garden.” She even jokingly refers to herself as the “Queen of Auschwitz.” This line alone is enough to evoke strong feelings of disgust, making The Zone of Interest a powerful and impactful film.
The Höss family enjoys fishing and swimming in the picturesque lakes and streams of the nearby Polish countryside. However, at one point, Höss finds possible bone pieces and dark debris in the river, which he believes came from the nearby camp. He quickly instructs his children to get out of the water and return home for a bath.
However, they exist in a state of complete denial within a confined environment. The dysfunction of family life persists, with one scene after another characterized by detached and emotionless behavior. The children are tended to, the servants are given instructions, and the wives of Nazi officers engage in gossip (such as discussing a dress taken from a Jewish woman). Hedwig’s mother is welcomed into the household while screams, shouts, and gunshots can be heard from the neighboring wall. This has become a normal occurrence for them. Meanwhile, the SS officers discuss the most efficient methods of mass extermination, without actually setting foot in the camp itself. However, Höss indulges in a sexual encounter with a female prisoner in his office.
Glazer and Łukasz Żal have produced an awe-inspiring shot, showcasing the Höss family’s picturesque front garden. The view extends down the path towards the camp wall, where the chimney can be seen against a striking, dreamlike blue sky. Höss is often seen riding on horseback through the horrifying compound, adding to the surreal and eerie atmosphere reminiscent of a nightmare or fable.
However, the true horror of the situation begins to emerge through strange behavior: a child sleepwalks and Hedwig’s mother is deeply disturbed, although she refuses to acknowledge it. Hedwig remembers her past employment with a Jewish woman and casually agrees that the woman may now be in the nearby concentration camp. Their strange and disturbing family life comes to an end when Höss is transferred back to Berlin as a deputy inspector of the camps. However, Hedwig insists on staying behind with the children in the commandant’s quarters, believing it to be the best place for them to grow up.
The movie features a great soundtrack by Mica Levi and sound design by Johnnie Burn, which adds to its undeniable impact. However, it may spark discussion about the use of flashy movie effects to depict historical horrors, similar to Jacques Rivette’s criticism of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1960) and its barbed-wire tracking shot. Glazer’s film can be seen as following the tradition of indirectly representing horror, similar to the works of Claude Lanzmann and Michael Haneke. It also makes an effort to include Jewish testimonies, although the final sequence set in a modern-day Auschwitz museum may absolve the film of any insensitivity, but also oddly shows a hesitation to fully embrace its humane intentions. Despite this, Glazer’s focus on the banality of evil and how it allowed mass murderers to operate is clear.