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Jonathan Glazer The Zone of Interest Review


The Zone of Interest | Review

The Zone of Interest | Review

Verboten Zone: Glazer Returns with Historical Horror

Jonathan Glazer The Zone of Interest ReviewIt’s impossible to contemplate Jonathan Glazers fourth feature, The Zone of Interest, without referencing Hannah Arendt’s publication on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, which popularized the phrase “the banality of evil.” For it is a film which depicts exactly this in its examination of those who ‘dutifully’ carried out their orders in the pursuit of Hitler’s Final Solution. There have been countless films depicting the horrors of the Holocaust and from a myriad of perspectives, many directly depicting the extreme brutality of the concentration camps and the barbarism of the Nazis.

But Glazer creates something unique with this generally austere reenactment focused on the head commandant of Auschwitz and his family in its depiction of full blown fascism merrily basking in the fruits of its violence. Given time, glimpses beneath their superficiality suggest nothing’s very merry beneath the charade, but Glazer delivers a horror film in the guise of a toxic bloom, its subconscious signals settling into the bone marrow like cancer cells. Clearly not an enjoyable film, devoid of the vestiges of humanity explored in his previous films, like Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and his 2013 masterpiece Under the Skin, but similarly dealing with base explorations of characters attempting to fill a significant void—only this time, Glazer turns his eye to those who have willfully stepped into one they can never escape.

Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) has built a dream for himself and his family. As his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) observes, they finally have accomplished the life they deserve, a picaresque home nestled right against the walls of Auschwitz, the concentration camp her husband has been commandant of. They’ve just enabled their gas chamber, meticulously outlining the endless process of how to eradicate 400-500 humans at a time in a continuous cycle. Rudolf becomes obsessed with this technology, realizing the inception will deem him an even greater success. They comfortably exist in these conditions, with Hedwig gleefully trying her newly acquired furs and other vestiges which are artifacts from the Jews being murdered en masse next door. Her children play with boxes full of teeth, while daddy Rudolf reads them Hansel & Gretel at night, although in this upside down world, the Hoss family is paralleled with the witch instead of the innocent children. Unfortunately, Rudolf is about to be stationed elsewhere due to widespread changes filtering down through the Reich, calling him elsewhere to engage in a mission which will be termed Operation Hoss. Hedwig refuses to relocate with the children, and so she stays on at Auschwitz as her husband leaves.

Upon the project’s inception, Glazer was clear the film would be a loose adaptation of Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, and to be clear, it is a considerable departure as it pares down characters and perspectives. And yet, Glazer retains a sense of detachment which hovers over Amis’ narrative, a necessary reflection of the mindset and desensitization inherent in these characters’ actions. Of course, what’s usually most terrifying is what one can’t see, so the mind can’t formulate familiarity and a logical response to fear. Even to the completely uninitiated, consuming something like The Zone of Interest will trigger sustained autonomous responses watching these sallow Germans meandering about their quaint estate while the screams of murdered humans, constant gunshots, and an unyielding industrial churning infects their commandeered familial zone. Compared to something like Son of Saul (2015) or The Painted Bird (2019), which are grueling, violent spectacles, Glazer’s sense of dread is paired into meager focal points who, unbeknownst to themselves, have become emotional zombies. Andrey Konchalovsky’s Paradise (2016) taps into a similar icy vein, but there was still something to hold onto as far as empathy and hope for the victimized. This is a film about the navigations of perpetrators who are integral yet meaningless. There is no empathy, only dread and repulsion.

Glazer’s manicured snatches of dialogue are also purposefully despicable, Hedwig’s mother-in-law openly griping about the long train ride out of Krakow, ruefully wondering if her old employer is on the other side of the camp wall, disappointed she was outbid on the woman’s curtains. It’s troubling to see Sandra Huller as the self-consumed Hedwig, who gets one of the only scenes reflecting an obvious semblance of emotion, even if it’s utter selfishness when she demands to stay on with the children at Auschwitz while Rudolf is transferred to Oranienberg. Eerily, the home has become her identity, laughingly revealing her children refer to her as the Queen of Auschwitz. There’s an element of arduous cruelty which compares to Austrian auteurs like Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, except where those directors are confronting discernible aspects of humanity, there are no such conduits into really comprehending the Hoss family.

It’s a welcome reprieve when Glazer allows us sequences outside of the camp and the endless sympathy of death. There are a handful of aggressive transitions, where it seems the film itself has devolved into nothing, a bright red screen, as if all meaning has been lost and the film requires resetting itself, Micah Levi’s (of Under the Skin, 2013) macabre score bursting with the sounds of wailing. But it’s a film which feels as if a portal to hell had opened up, and everything and everyone is getting sucked headlong into it, including the audience. A time jump to Auschwitz today, where janitorial staff, in silence, clean the death machine in preparation for tourists, gets spliced into Rudolf’s retching, his body trying to evacuate itself in a way his mind cannot. The only potential zone of interest here is as a clinical investigation towards tangibly comprehending the ultimate degradation of a civilization. And yet we can only stare into this abyss exactly so it may stare back at us in an attempt towards inoculation against reoccurrence.

Reviewed on May 19th at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 106 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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