THE ZONE OF INTEREST

★★★★★

A MONOLITHIC MASTERPIECE FROM THE ABYSS AT THE END OF ALL THINGS

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
15th February 2024

A mother stands in a beautiful garden enclosed by high walls, holding a baby in her arms. Above them, the sky is a brilliant blue, and all about them are a radiant array of flowers. The mother holds the baby towards the flowers so they can smell them, talking them through which flower is which. Of course, the baby is too young to understand any of this, instead just dazzled by the pretty colours in front of them. The mother points to a white flower, to the lady bird sitting on it. The baby reaches for the flower, its tiny fingers running through its delicate petals. It's a tender moment of quiet connection between parent and child, surrounded by the beauty of nature, in a little world the parent has made for the child to feel safe and to enjoy.

In the distance, we hear the faint sound of grinding metal, of harsh voices, of feet running, of gunshots, of screams, of a terror moving with unrelenting, mechanical precision.

It is the early 1940s. We are in Poland. And over the walls of the serene garden is the concentration camp of Auschwitz, perhaps the most evil place that has ever existed.

At no point during Jonathan Glazer's 'The Zone of Interest', loosely based on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis, do we ever go over that wall into the camp itself. The camp and its atrocities are almost never more than a distant soundscape. It remains forever on the periphery - sounds off in the distance, a plume of smoke on the horizon, a hellish reflection in a window. We barely even see its prisoners, except for the occasional glimpse in the distance or through a field, or those "lucky" enough to be assigned to the house of the Commandant of the camp, this little haven behind high walls and barbed wire. For Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel, 'The White Ribbon'), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, 'Anatomy of a Fall') and their children, once they enter their domestic compound the camp barely registers, other than as a means through which they can live a life of comfort or can benefit off the slaughter of their prisoners. We watch them go about their day - eat together, play together, gossip, throw parties, undertake all the familiar domestic duties of a comfortable upper-middle-class family - with the worst atrocities imaginable nothing more than a whisper in the wind, an occasional distant burst of noise or a sickly grey cloud to interrupt their perfect blue sky. Their zone of interest only extends to their garden walls. What happens outside of them is of little consequence to them.

By sticking to this conceit, Glazer (director of 'Sexy Beast', 'Birth' and 'Under the Skin') attempts to unravel the great riddle of the Holocaust, that being how the German people were able to stand beside an act of genocide without feeling the need to do something. Anyone who has engaged in this question through historical documents or through dramatisation knows that there is no simple answer. Institutions of tyranny have systems in place to prevent their subjects from questioning their actions, threatening to turn their violence against them as retribution, and from our standpoint looking back on this period of history, it comforts us to think that, for most people, their complicity came by force. We don't want to think that any ordinary human being would willingly accept the idea of their government actively pursuing the complete annihilation of another race of people.

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And yet, what Glazer illustrates with cold, uncompromising precision is the ease with which we are capable of just that. Another argument often made is that some were simply ignorant of what was happening, but woven into the subtext of 'The Zone of Interest' is how truly impossible that would have been. In a film where every frame chills you to your very blood, one of its most unsettling textures is how none of the Höss family even flinch at the sound of a scream or a gunshot. With very few exceptions, they never even look up. The violence is right there, ever-present, and they choose not to notice. The decision never to show us Auschwitz could be cleverly explained in a number of ways - that we've seen it so often in film before so there's no need; that no film could possibly capture the true horror of it; that it would be insensitive and exploitative to do so. The true reason though is all the more ingenious, all the more overwhelming and all the more simple - we never see it because, for this family, it doesn't exist.

Discussing the narrative of 'The Zone of Interest' at length almost feels counterproductive, because of how intentionally inconsequential and slight it is. We learn that Rudolph is to be transferred to another post, and that Hedwig doesn't want to leave. Rudolph negotiates for his family to stay while he is relocated. Not long after, he is transferred back to Auschwitz. In a way, Glazer and his collaborators have two seperate films at play here - the one we see, and the one hiding on the edge of the frame. Within the frame is a domestic drama, where a husband and wife are forced to navigate what is best for their family when career and duty get in the way. There are scenes of emotion and of drama, of laughter and tears, of tenderness and love, that on their own would make a fine film. What never leaves us though, thanks to those sounds floating in the wind, is that other film happening on the edge of the frame, right in the sliver of our periphery, one that makes this domestic drama feel strangely small and wholly vile. By virtue of Rudolph and Hedwig being our protagonists, we feel we should be connecting with them, with anyone we're seeing on screen. And yet, for all the brilliance and emotional integrity of Friedel and Hüller's performances, there's the part of you that wants to tear their clean, ordered, inviting home apart brick by brick and batter them to death with them.

Another way in it inverts our expectation of a film set during the Holocaust is how carefully 'The Zone of Interest' maintains an air of objectivity. Cinematographer Lukasz Zak's camera is almost always fixed, the interiors of the house and its grounds shot as if by security cameras. Editor Paul Watts cuts the film as if we were watching an automated security system responding to movement cues in the frame, like some evil version of 'Big Brother'. There's even a conscious repetition of shot and framing, making it clear to us that we're moving through a series of fixed visual points within this environment chosen for maximum ground cover, further removing the human from the equation. Any moment where a more traditional film might let us settle in and ground ourselves in the emotion of the film, it rips us out, not with acts of violence or cheap shocks, but by disengaging with the emotional or the aesthetic. And when even this becomes too familiar, Glazer throws in flashes of further disconnection (dark screens, discordant sound, night vision of a girl with apples), choices that prevent the film from descending into the emotional and remains a pointed, precise intellectual exercise.

This is important to the success of 'The Zone of Interest' that this notion of intellectual rather than emotional engagement is at the forefront, that it doesn't fall into the category of films (remarkable films) such as 'Schindler's List'. It is important with documentation and dramatisation of the Holocaust that we as audience can make that kind of deep emotional connection (as long as it isn't manipulative or exploitative), that we place ourselves in the shoes of those who suffered so, so terribly. The risk though is that we disengage from the reality of it, reducing them to inspirational stories of survival rather than dispatches from something wholly, irredeemably evil. Genocide is a considered, calculated act, one that is undertaken with intention and a conscious disregard for human life. Glazer wants us to think with 'The Zone of Interest', to genuinely consider the actions that were undertaken during this atrocity, where human bodies were described as "loads", where machines were constructed for the sole purpose of mass extermination, where the personal possessions of the annihilated can be offered out to the wives of officers to pick and choose from, where a person could, in casual conversation, refer to the desire to have someone else's entire existence reduced to ash. The fact that 'The Zone of Interest' keeps us at an emotional distance is not to say that it is ambivalent in its feelings towards what is happening, especially the casual manner in which these people go about the small dramas of their lives while millions die on the other side of their garden wall. Rather, it uses that emotional distance to force us, as an audience, into a position where we have no choice but to witness, to consider, to comprehend. In that way, it sits alongside films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom' (1975) and Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' (1997) as a vision of the worst of humanity, where the fire in its belly isn't red hot but a deep, burning cold. It doesn't want us to walk away without scars, because if we walk away without scars, then we haven't been watching.

We are being forced into the shoes of Rudolph and Hedwig, and having to face the question of whether or not those shoes fit us a bit too well.

This notion of bearing witness sits at the heart of 'The Zone of Interest', and at the heart of the relationship between the camera and the audience. The way in which it emulates security footage suggests that someone is observing, someone making sense of the cold manner in which the images move from one to the other. That someone is us, sitting comfortably in our cinema seats. There is an artifice here, but a conscious and vital one - as with 'Salo' and 'Funny Games', it is necessary that we are made aware of our role in this film. We are complicit here; we are active participants. Its unusual rhythms and moments of disjoint force us to make sense of the series of signifiers put before us, the objective tone of the film putting the onus on us to be the subjective interpreter. It is our task to see what the Höss family refuse to see. As I noted earlier, the risk with dramas on the Holocaust is that we disengage from the historical truth of it, that we take it for granted, and by making us aware of our roles as audience, as observers, as spectators to what we see in 'The Zone of Interest', the film is forcing us to never take it for granted, turning the camera back on us. We are being forced into the shoes of Rudolph and Hedwig, and having to face the question of whether or not those shoes fit us a bit too well. We can look back into the past and think to ourselves, "I wouldn't have let it happen," but when we're presented with a comfortable, respectable domestic life occurring against the very walls of the crematoriums of Auschwitz, it's not so easy to assume we would move against the national grain.

It's on this point, this important thematic conceit, that 'The Zone of Interest' becomes so much bigger than the complicity of the German people in the execution of the Holocaust. It was impossible to watch the film and the casual, wilful ignorance of the Höss family and not see a reflection of the world we live in right now, where a genocide on an impossible scale is taking place before our very eyes, and how easily so many of us are able to act as if nothing of consequence is happening at all. As it turns out, it is possible for any ordinary human being to accept the idea of their government actively pursuing the complete annihilation of another group of people, such as is happening right now, as this film arrives in theatres and competes for awards. We want to believe, by watching 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' or reading the endless Holocaust-themed memoirs running like a river through bookshops, that we've learned something from our past. What 'The Zone of Interest' makes clear, with a fury as deep as the rumbling of the earth itself, is that we fundamentally haven't learned a thing. That history is right there in front us, not as dramatisation but as cold fact - piles of shoes behind glass in a museum, words left behind on scraps of paper, the very buildings themselves where millions of innocent people were stricken from the face of this earth for no other reason than for existing. It's right there for us to see, it's right there happening now, all over again, despite us telling ourselves that we would never let it happen again. It's right there, every day, all over the world, in places we hear about and places we don't, the same cycle of violence and deliberate, mechanised inhumanity. It's right there, screaming into the wind.

And yet we lean towards the flowers, taking in their fragrance, letting the petals tickle our noses as we warm in the sun. And it's not because it's hidden from us. It's not that we can't see it. Look, listen - it's right there, just on the other side of the garden wall. It's not that we don't see it.

It's that we choose not to.

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