The Zone of Interest review – Jonathan Glazer adapts Martin Amis’s chilling Holocaust drama
Focusing on the everyday domesticity of the Auschwitz commandant’s family might only reflect the horror indirectly, but the film pulls the banality of evil into pin-sharp focus
Asingle, satanic joke burns through the celluloid in Jonathan Glazer’s technically brilliant, uneasy Holocaust movie, freely adapted by the director from the novel by Martin Amis, a film which for all its artistry is perhaps not entirely in control of its (intentional) bad taste.
How did the placidly respectable home life of the German people coexist with imagining and executing the horrors of the genocide? How did such evil flower within what George Steiner famously called the German world of “silent night, holy night, gemütlichkeit”?
The film imagines the pure bucolic bliss experienced by Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) who with his family lives in a handsomely appointed family home with servants just outside the barbed-wire-topped wall. His wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) is thrilled with the Edenic “paradise garden” she has been allowed to supervise at the rear, complete with greenhouse: she revels smugly in her unofficial title “Queen of Auschwitz” – and with just that line alone, The Zone of Interest has probably delivered enough nausea for a thousand films.
The Hösses love to go fishing and bathing in the beautiful lakes and streams of the Polish countryside thereabouts, although at one stage Höss discovers what appears to be bone fragments and dark particulate matter in the river that has washed downstream from the camp and curtly orders his children out of the water and back to their lovely home for a wash.
But really they live in complete denial in an enclosed world. Family life continues in all its unimaginable dysfunction, scene follows scene in unbearable affectless detachment, with the children being attended to, the servants instructed, the Nazi wives gossiped with (they chat about a nice dress salvaged from some “little Jewess”) Hedwig’s mother is welcomed into the house, and all the time screams, shouts and gunshots are continuously audible from over the wall. They are used to it. Meanwhile, the SS officers discuss the most technically efficient means of mass extermination; we never enter the camp itself, though Höss indulges himself with a female prisoner in his office.
Perhaps the most stunning shot created by Glazer and his cinematographer Łukasz Żal is the pin-sharp, deep focus view from the Hösses’ charming front garden down the path to the camp wall, behind which the chimney is visible against a vivid, hallucinatory blue sky: Höss likes to tour the horrendous compound on horseback. It really has the scalp-prickling quality of a bad dream or a fairytale.
But the horror of what is happening begins to surface in aberrant behaviour: a child sleepwalks and Hedwig’s mother is more disturbed by this menage than she will admit; troubled by the memory of once having worked for a Jewish woman that Hedwig briskly agrees may indeed be in the camp a few hundred metres from where they are talking in the beautiful garden.
Their grotesque family life comes to an end when Höss is ordered back to Berlin as a deputy inspector of the camps, but Hedwig demands to be allowed to stay behind with the children in the commandant’s quarters because this is the best place to raise the children.
The film, with its superb score by Mica Levi and sound design by Johnnie Burn, has undoubted power but might well revive the debate about conjuring slick movie effects from the horrors of history: I found myself thinking of Jacques Rivette’s objection to the barbed-wire tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1960).
Glazer’s movie is however, at least arguably, in the tradition of representing the horror indirectly, like Claude Lanzmann and Michael Haneke. And the film does try to accommodate Jewish testimony, though the final coda sequence in the modern-day Auschwitz museum may absolve the film of flippancy, but does oddly represent a kind of loss of nerve – as if the movie finally can’t bear to stay within the prison of historical irony and has to flashforward out of there to restate its humane credentials. Yet there can be doubt of Glazer’s focus on an evil which creates its own banality, the banality which allowed the mass murderers to go about their business.