The Zone of Interest and the Comfortability of Evil

Jonathan Glazer’s return to cinema brutally depicts how complacency walls us off from terrible truths

Stills courtesy of A24.

NOTE: There are light spoilers for some stylistic elements and brief plot points for The Zone of Interest. Proceed with caution.

Inspired by the novel by the late Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest captures with raw immediacy the domestic lives of the Höss family just beyond the walls of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Patriarch Rudolf (Christian Friedel) has developed Auschwitz into a ruthlessly efficient killing machine for European Jews, while wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their five children reap his rewards by living in astonishing comfort. Their days are filled with swims in the pool and parties amidst Hedwig’s thriving garden; they enjoy regular upper-class visitors and daily deliveries of supplies and fine clothes, which are eagerly picked over by the family and their servants. 

Never mind how these items came to be in their possession, or how they know to look for lipstick or diamonds tucked in the lining. Pay no attention to the incessant screams beyond the ivy-colored walls, or the plumes of smoke whose glow provides a night-light for the Höss children. Ash in the nearby river? Just scrub it off like the blood on Rudolf’s boots, or use it as fertilizer for the garden. For the Hösses, these peripheral terrors are as commonplace as storms or sunshine. The family’s acknowledgment of these atrocities and their role in them only extends as far as how they immediately benefit from them; they remain out of sight, out of mind, and always under their control.

This dissonant detachment comes by choice for the Hösses, yet is denied at every turn to the film’s audience by director Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal. Any violence remains out of frame yet constantly heard, clawing at our senses but always out of our reach. We stare at Rudolf as he surveys his invisible creation, a relentless soundscape of screams, train doors, and churning machinery. As Hedwig’s mother-in-law visits, they question whether her neighbor is just over the wall before bemoaning how another neighbor got her curtains in a street auction. At night, an elder Höss child examines a small collection of golden teeth as if they were rocks found in the nearby woods. If not for the screams and gunfire layered among the garden get-togethers or quiet moments of domestic drama, or the near jump-scare moments of Nazi uniforms, one could forgive audiences for thinking the Hösses exist in another time or universe entirely. The sensorial assault, and the characters’ effortless acts to deny it, reveal just how chillingly easy it is to indulge in the lucrative cognitive dissonance uniquely offered to those who benefit from genocide. 

This compartmentalization has reared its head in other films this year, from the ideological justifications behind creating weapons of mass destruction in Oppenheimer to the rampant greed at the heart of the Osage murders in Killers of the Flower Moon. Both films root their respective audiences in the heart of one man’s struggle to justify their actions in the wake of their fatal consequence. However, there’s no such moral guide in Glazer’s film we can attach to; with the film’s ghostly near-first-person perspective, The Zone of Interest stands apart in how directly it interrogates and implicates its audience in unspeakable ongoing horror. 

Hidden cameras installed throughout the Höss villa capture scenes with a cold naturalism. Seemingly placed within the middle of the action without any sense of boundary or composition, lines between voyeurism and authorial intention are blurred–almost like a surveillance system installed by ghosts. Uncomfortably close to these smiling faces, we’re constantly reminded of how we can’t act, especially when those we’re forced to follow deliberately choose not to at every opportunity. We also bear witness to brief moments of humanity, as Rudolf reads bedtime stories to the children, or when Hedwig and Rudolf reminisce about the past or furtively debate their future. When Rudolf’s position is threatened, it’s bloodcurdling how Hedwig tries to come up with solutions that protect her family’s status quo, even if it means potentially abandoning her husband to the doldrums of Nazi bureaucracy. It’s terrible that we see this family actively deny their culpability in crimes against humanity; it’s another terror entirely to witness how they warp their actions around the best of intentions. Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon recognize just how slippery of a moral slope its characters find themselves upon–yet The Zone of Interest disturbingly depicts just how willingly and casually we can walk down a path to hell.

Yet, for all of the Höss family’s efforts and daily distractions, the screams are always within earshot, the last sounds of rebellion or fear from the voices they make their living from by silencing. Johnnie Burn’s sound design ensures that the victims of the Holocaust excruciatingly remain guests within the Höss home. Despite all of the Höss’ efforts to control every aspect of their environment, no matter how sweet the rewards of their actions may be, the horrible truth cannot be repressed.

One element, however, stands out for me in a hesitant yet necessary revisit of The Zone of Interest. The lone respites from our imprisonment in the Höss home are sequences of a young Polish girl (Zuzanna Kobiela) sneaking out in the dead of night to hide apples for camp prisoners to find. Captured with deeply unsettling thermal imagery, the girl and her apples have an alien white glow in the inky dark, creating breathless tension from the threat of discovery. It’s the film’s sole act of resistance, a beacon of hope amidst the film’s oppressive complacency. But in a near-throwaway line, we learn that two prisoners are caught fighting over an apple, and are drowned for their insubordination. How does this color, then, the girl’s attempts to make a difference? As prisoners in Auschwitz, it’s likely these victims were unjustly destined for their fates to begin with–but if she hadn’t planted the apple, would their lives have been prolonged for a few more moments? Do their fates invalidate the others that might be saved (or have been saved) as a result of her actions? Is that incremental resistance, even with its own fatal consequences, better than no resistance at all?

There’s another narrative break that further pairs with Killers of the Flower Moon as one of 2023’s most shockingly self-reflexive endings. As we bear witness to the consequences of the Hösses’ actions at a far nearer point in time, it becomes clear that Glazer’s film is just as concerned with its own culpability in creating a film about the Hösses as much as it is with how it depicts their actions. Like the Polish villager and her fateful apples, does creating a film about the Holocaust from the POV of its perpetrators run the risk of humanizing such bloodshed as much as it admonishes it? Will smashing the boundaries between past and present have as much impact on the future as we might hope? 

Despite how little heed is given to the future by figures like Höss, it’s clear that The Zone of Interest finds further hope in those who preserve the grounds of Auschwitz and other concentration camps today. Where so many others in the film go to great lengths to build walls and create order to deny the chaos around them, these caretakers of the past devote their lives to maintaining an environment that rejects the ability for such denial to thrive.

The Zone of Interest’s total legacy is yet to be seen, but it’s clear that we’ve reached a point in our consumption of pop culture where it’s not enough to condemn the actions of the past and leave our screenings reassured of our moral superiority. It’s too easy to look at atrocities like the Holocaust from the comforts of our cinema seats and dolefully agree that these things should and will never happen again. Domestic and international incidents still unfolding today in Europe and the Middle East to disturbingly increasing global apathy prove that isn’t the case. 

If anything, The Zone of Interest proves itself to be horrifically timely in how willingly we wall ourselves off from our complicity in genocide by any means necessary, however involved we are or how well-intentioned our actions may be. 

The Zone of Interest is now playing in limited release from A24.

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