There’s a moment in The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s (Under the Skin, Birth, Sexy Beast) brilliantly disquieting, provocative adaptation of Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, where Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the Nazi commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, stops at a staircase, almost retching as the camera hovers at a discrete distance. Interpretations will vary but will seem like a minor, even tangential moment likely isn’t. Coming as it does after Höss celebrates what qualifies as his greatest personal and professional success, his involuntary spasms might represent anything from a badly prepared meal, the rot destroying what’s left of his soul, or the last, dying embers of his curdled conscience.
The Zone of Interest opens several months earlier with Hoss, his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children enjoy a bucolic afternoon on an isolated, tree-lined river in Poland. Nothing out of the ordinary occurs during the family gathering: The children play in and around the river, Hedwig cares for the youngest, an infant, while the stoic, taciturn Rudolf occasionally stands apart, presumably lost in the monstrous thoughts that will define his legacy as a monster among monsters, albeit a monster with an ordinary, human face, devoting his talent as a logistical problem-solver to the issues surrounding the mass extermination of the Jews and other undesirables who arrive on train transports multiple times a day.
A not unpredictable case study in – to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase in describing Adolf Eichmann sixty years ago – the banality of evil, Glazer’s adaptation de-fictionalizes Amis’s novel by using the Höss’s family real names (Amis used pseudonyms), focusing on the day-to-day activities in and around the Höss household, a spacious (but not too spacious according to Hedwig) home that sits uncomfortably outside Auschwitz’s gates and walls. Working from footage culled from hundreds of hours taken from fixed cameras set up around the set they constructed for the fictionalized Hoss family, Glazer methodically details the denial necessary for Rudolf, Hedwig, and their children to live lives of comfort and – in their eyes – respectability. In effect, Rudolf and Hedwig have created a cocoon of complicity around the Höss family.
As much a film about what we don’t see but hear (gunshots, screams, the ever-present hum of the camp’s machines of death), The Zone of Interest demands an atypical level of intense engagement from the audience: To imagine the unimaginable, the dehumanizing, industrialized murder of tens of thousands just outside the frame, and in imagining the unimaginable, becoming an active, complicit part of the filmmaking process itself. Glazer hints at the atrocities occurring offscreen through aforementioned sound and image, the latter via the red-brick walls topped by barbed wire surrounding the house and Hedwig’s garden, the puffs of white smoke associated with trains arriving in Auschwitz, and the black, bilious smoke emanating from the crematorium.
Glazer recognizes the immense psychic cost involved with living in a constant, heightened sense of denial, segregating yourself – as both Rudolf and Hedwig repeatedly do – from the consequences of your actions and life choices. Pretense, Glazer would likely argue, can only get you so far and no further. Even when Rudolf and Hedwig reminisce about a spa trip, the laughter that follows seems disproportionate to the humor involved (because it is). Later, Rudolf’s rudimentary paternal instincts emerge briefly when another trip to the river with two of his older children ends abruptly after a gruesome discovery and a sudden rainstorm filled with ash from the crematorium.
There too, Glazer takes a similarly oblique, elliptical, anti-sensationalistic approach, letting the audience discern for themselves the horrors Rudolf has created on the other side of the wall and the minute impingements of those daily horrors on Rudolf and his family. A telling episode involves a visit by Hedwig’s mom to the Hoss home: It goes contrary as planned for the prideful Hedwig. Her eagerness to impress her mother with the residual power, prestige, and privilege of her position as the camp commandant’s wife gradually gives way to revulsion and disgust in her mother.
Glazer emphasizes the incidental, the tangential over what usually passes as dramatic conflict in mainstream narrative filmmaking. Only temporary friction over an impending promotion for Rudolf and a possible relocation for his family would qualify as conflict. Even that source of friction eventually resolves itself, ending with the scene of Rudolf at the staircase. Glazer, however, paradoxically splices a modern-day scene into the Rudolf staircase scene. Once again, Glazer asks audiences to critically interrogate their biases, prejudices, and attitudes towards history, how we consume and interact with history and the Holocaust.
The Zone of Interest opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 15th, before expanding to additional markets on Friday, December 22nd.