The Zone of Interest. Written and Directed by Jonathan Glazer.
On general release 2nd February.
What qualifies a film as a masterpiece? Well, if it rattles around your mind for several days afterwards that’s a pretty good sign. The Zone of Interest does this in spades, having already chilled you to the marrow.
If you consider yourself to be an ordinary person – not a genius, not a psychopath – you probably have the notion that you, and all other ‘ordinary’ people, are fundamentally good. Sure, we all have our little foibles, maybe little hatreds, but fundamentally we are good. In a book called Ordinary Men the writer Christopher Browning relates the story of a German civilian police unit operating in Poland after the invasion of 1939. They were middle-aged, middle or working class and too old to be naturally susceptible to Nazi propaganda. They were not the SS. They nonetheless got sucked into committing terrible atrocities against the local population on a huge scale, including the mass shooting of women and children. They were not under orders to do this; in fact their commander offered them the chance to go home. So why did they prefer to remain and continue their vile deeds? One reason cited is comradeship: they thought it better to stay with their colleagues and share in the dirty work rather than run off and leave it to others. In this way, bit by bit, evil can embrace ordinary people. It was in Poland that the inexorable logic of this process reached its extreme.
An early scene in Jonathan Glazer’s outstanding film features a middle-ranking Nazi in matter-of-fact discussion with some German industrialists. They sit in easy chairs around a coffee table on which rests the blueprints for a new rotating crematorium. It will significantly increase the efficiency by which Jews can be burned. The meeting concludes in polite positivity. They are ordinary people, but we are in the depths of hell.
It is a hell foreshadowed by Mica Levi’s extended three-minute wash of electronic score over the film’s title card fading ever-so-slowly to black to reveal, suddenly, a scene of domestic tranquillity – a family picnic next to a sun-dappled lake.
The Zone of Interest focuses relentlessly on this ordinary family life to examine, obliquely but compellingly, the perverse, cruel, enormous and beyond-one’s-understanding nature of the Holocaust. You are unlikely to see such an unsettling film again. The middle-ranking Nazi mentioned above is Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz. He lives in his well-appointed house with several children, local Polish servants and his fiercely territorial wife, Hedwig. She is living the dream. She has designed and had made a beautiful extended garden complete with swimming pool, gazebo and greenhouse. Building a new life in the East is, for her, exactly what the German word lebensraum is all about. She delights in the epithet Queen of Auschwitz.
The garden wall is all that separates this idyll from the slavery and extermination being carried out next door. Glazer is very careful not to show us the horrors, but we sense them through our ears. The sound design by Johnnie Burn features an almost constant rumble of the crematoria chimneys and is peppered by pistol shots, shouts and the shunting of trains. Meanwhile on our side of the divide life continues in its blissful plainness: the baby screams, the dog scampers around, the kids play and Mother comes on a visit. The only significant plot turn is when Rudolf is promoted to be Deputy Inspector of all the camps. Hedwig furiously resists such a move – she cannot leave her paradisiacal garden or disrupt the children’s education.
What the film shows us, deftly and persuasively, is the complete institutionalisation of evil. These people have no moral qualms about their behaviour or their status. There are no hateful rantings against their victims. The enslavement and destruction of others is merely the background to their lives. Hedwig concedes that Jews can be clever – a diamond had been found in a tube of toothpaste, and she airily confirms that a woman her mother used to clean for could well be inside the camp now.
If you seek out Glazer’s work in commercials you will see that he is a sophisticated and flamboyant visual stylist. His memorable advertisement for Guinness featuring a gnarled surfer is one of many stunning pieces of short-form work. In The Zone of Interest the approach is pared back significantly. Exterior scenes are lit by a bland uniform light provided by the Polish summer and the colours are deliberately damped down. The framing is often static and scenes unfold at their own unhurried pace. A shot of white washing hanging on the line is very reminiscent of a scene in Andrzej Wajda’s early masterpiece about the Polish resistance, Ashes and Diamonds. And in contrast to the blandness, while Rudolf reads bedtime fairy tales to his kids there are unsettling night-vision shots of a local girl leaving pieces of fruit around the perimeter of the camp to be hopefully collected by prisoners.
As in his previous tour de force, Under the Skin, Glazer does not feed us a sign-posted narrative or use standard cinematic tropes to manipulate our emotions. Rather, he invites us to join up the dots ourselves and reach our own appalling conclusions – to slowly allow the extent of the horror to seep into our bones. It is a deeply uncomfortable truth: these people could have been us.
The Zone of Interest is a superb piece of cinema and I urge you to see it.
© Graham Buchan 2024.