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The Zone of Interest ★★★★

Availability: In theaters nationally; not streaming at this time. Distributed by A24 and purchased by HBO. Streaming is expected on Max, HBO, or Cinemax, and likely the film will be available before the March Oscars because of numerous nominations, including for Best Picture. See JustWatch here for future streaming availability.


Don’t read beyond the first paragraph. Unless you’ve seen the film.


Filmed with restraint, the magnificent script for this multiple Oscar nominee (including for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture) withholds information, then doles it out discretely, requiring the viewer, from the first scene and at every turn, to question what one is seeing and what it means. For this reason, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW if you have not seen the film. Any review of it spoils the entire experience of viewing “The Zone of Interest.” If you’ve seen the film, read on.


 


Above, the long shot that opens the film.

We don't know what we are supposed to think of the group.


 

It's just another day in the life of a German-speaking family.

 

British director Jonathan Glazer, whose script is only loosely based on the eponymous Martin Amis 2014 novel, opens his film—after a minute or more of almost-black greyness, a vision of nothingness accompanied by a low rumble—with one of many long shots, this one of what appears to be a family or families picnicking by a river, partly hidden by long grasses. We don’t know if we are supposed to fear for them, or if, as different groups pick their way through the brush, we are waiting for something to happen. Nothing happens. It’s just another day in the life of a German-speaking family with a lot of children, servants, and a father in the SS. We’re witnessing Glazer’s effort to force us to understand the scene and to imagine its context.


Right, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and the youngest of her 5 children, admiring her many flowers in her Edenic paradise.










Along with food, garments are delivered to the back door of a house by a man in tattered clothes—again, no close-ups. Hedwig, wife of the SS commandant and in charge of the house, tries on a long, luxurious fur coat, finds a lipstick in the pocket, applies some to her lips, then drops the tube into the drawer of her vanity. A few minutes later she instructs one of the servants in the repairs needed for the coat and jokes with a friend about the size of a dress belonging to a young Jewess. And so we are introduced to the house of Rudolf, commandant of Auschwitz, and his wife Hedwig.

 

Sandra Hüller is compelling in an entirely different role from that in “Anatomy of a Fall,” for which she has been nominated  for an Oscar for Best Actress.

 

This couple—with their 5 children, ranging in age from young teen to infant, and their Polish servants—are the focus of the film. They embody Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”; they couldn’t be more ordinary. Hedwig has constructed a personal paradise literally next door to the camp. She makes a few efforts to block the view—vines over a wall, foliage starting to cover a pergola—but mainly she separates herself from it mentally, despite the rumble from the ovens and the camp buildings that tower above her Edenic compound. (As Hedwig, Sandra Hüller is compelling in an entirely different role from that in “Toni Erdmann” or “Anatomy of a Fall,” for which she has been nominated  for an Oscar for Best Actress.)


The garden, complete with swimming pool (another long shot).

But what are we to make of the buildings on the other side of the wall?


There are a few signs that people around Rudolf and Hedwig may be morally troubled. Hedwig’s mother, who seems to delight in the possibility that the woman she cleaned for may be “over there” in the camps, is proud of her daughter’s elevated social status. But even she can’t abide the sounds of gunfire and wailing. She disappears in the night, leaving her daughter a note whose contents are not disclosed. As she burns the note, Hedwig’s anger is palpable.


The mother leaves, a servant drinks. Evidence of scruples, however, does not eliminate complicity. Rudolf and Hedwig appear to be particularly lacking in ambivalence. Hedwig remains devoted to her paradise, to the enormous garden (complete with swimming pool) she has built in the shadow of the camp. When her husband is transferred, she stays in the house. Having created her Eden, her “lebensraum” in the East, as she uses Hitler’s language to justify her selfishness, she isn’t about to leave it. Nor is she about to confront her moral blindness.

 

Höss (Christian Friedel) is cold to everyone and everything except his horse, to whom he says, “I love you.”

 

Höss (Christian Friedel) is presented more coldly, cold to everyone and everything except his horse, to whom he says, “I love you” —words he doesn’t say to his wife. He also is subject, towards the end, to fits of retching, and we see him undergoing a physical exam. But nothing of his moral stance is revealed, other than his interest in more efficient ovens and a plan to exterminate 700,000 Hungarian Jews (termed “Operation Höss).


For all its opaqueness, “The Zone of Interest” probes the psyche of these two Germans, who offer no outward expression of discomfort, guilt, or trauma (unless that retching means something more than his exposure to noxious gasses and smoke from the camp ovens, which it might). It’s a chilling portrayal not in spite of, but in part because it hints at the inner thoughts of Rudolf and Hedwig. Their outward expressions are enough to condemn them. The Hösses existed in real life. Rudolf was executed in 1947 by the Poles. There’s nothing on screen to indicate the factual background, no statements after the film ends. Only that void again, the abyss into which the Jews have been sent, and where Höss is headed.


Glazer has produced an astonishing Holocaust film like no other, one that fits none of the existing sub-genres. It has no comedy (Roberto Benigni’s 1997 “A Beautiful Life,” Taika Waititi’s 2019 “Jojo Rabbit”); it has no neo-realistic scenes of the killing of Jews (the Hungarian 2015 “Son of Saul”); it exalts no heroic figures (Steven Spielberg’s 1993 “Schindler’s List”); it reveals no vulnerability of assimilated Jews (Vittorio De Sica’s 1970 “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”); it has no trauma of those rounded up and cruelly separated (1982 “Sophie’s Choice”). Instead, it painfully discloses, and then only gradually, the moral bankruptcy of this Auschwitz camp commander, and even more significantly, of his striving, grasping wife. We can’t know everything. But we can, Glazer says, know the truth.

 

 

Date: 2024

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Starring: Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel

Country: United States, United Kingdom, Poland

Language: English, German, Polish, Yiddish; some of the non-English languages are subtitled in English

Runtime: 105 minutes

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best International Feature (England), Best Director (Glazer), Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay (Glazer)

Other Awards: 43 wins, including 4 at Cannes, and 152 nominations, including 9 BAFTAs

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