The Zone Of Interest

Cast: Christian FriedelSandra HüllerMedusa KnopfDaniel HolzbergRalph HerforthMaximilian BeckSascha MaazWolfgang Lampl
Writer / Director: Jonathan Glazer
105 min.
Here is a story of the Holocaust, but not one single death is visually depicted in The Zone of Interest. It is a story of the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz, but the camera never finds its way inside any of those facilities of mass imprisonment and murder as they are operating in their intended purpose. It's the story of the SS officer who oversaw the camp and developed some of its genocidal "innovations," but importantly, it is not the story of a monster. Are these inherent contradictions, or have decades of documentaries about and dramatisations of the Holocaust trained us to believe that might be the case? The outstanding writer/director Jonathan Glazer has made a series of bold and brave choices here, and the result is an off-kilter and unexpectedly horrifying but exemplary film about that murderous event. It forces us to bear witness, not to the unspeakable living conditions and forced toil and machine-like killing of the more than 1,000,000 human beings who were murdered at the Auschwitz camps, but to the sheer bland ordinariness of one of the many people who imagined and implemented that seemingly unthinkable plan. This man is not portrayed as a thoughtless psychopath or some sub-human, inhumane beast, because it's almost certain that the real Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz over the course of a briefly interrupted period of more than four years, was neither of those things. He was a person, as well as a husband of more than a decade, a father to five children, and a man who wanted to provide the best possible life for his family. This is not to praise him, obviously, but to state simple facts—ones that could also describe a large number of the victims of Nazis' regime of prejudice, oppression, and murder. That is not to compare Höss to his victims, either, except in those simplest and most neutral of terms. He was a human being, a husband, and a father, and Höss also helped to design and implement what is undeniably the most horrific event in modern history. Does that make him a contradiction, or are we just trained to assume that human beings exist along a dichotomy of characteristics? There are good, ordinary people, and there are the evil exceptions. Glazer challenges us to watch a man who was both ordinary and capable of an evil that, by far too many living within Nazi Germany and its occupied territories and even beyond them, was not considered an exception. It was quite literally the rule of this specific time and place that countless people excused, justified, ignored, or endorsed—or in which they actively participated. That's the real horror of this story—one with which we have grappled specifically for about many, many decades and generally for centuries or millennia longer. People who are plain, ordinary, and even boring are capable of unspeakable evil. Just as we must remember the consequences of this event, we must never forget that awful truth of the basic humanity of those who perpetrated it, if only so that we do not excuse, justify, or ignore that potential again.
As played by Christian Friedel, the Höss of Glazer's film is plain, ordinary, and boring. He lives with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their five children, including a newly born baby, in a seemingly idyllic part of occupied Poland, by fields of tall grasses and next to a river. Our first view of the man is with his family, simply taking in the warm light and fresh air during a picnic by the river and swimming in its waters. Nothing seems strange in any way, and even upon the family's return home, none of this feels like anything but ordinary. That's clearly intentional on Glazer's part, because the rest of the film is a constant act of slowly inevitable revelation. The first and only sign that something is amiss with this man, his home, and his job is a low rumbling, coming from somewhere nearby. It possesses the quality of a furnace running, and soon enough, the filmmaker shows us Höss in his SS uniform and, when he reaches a certain spot outside his house, the unmistakable view of a guard tower and prisoner barracks standing over one of the walls surrounding his lavish home. While we'll eventually see white smoke rising from multiple trains transporting prisoners to the camp and black ash pouring out of a tall chimney from another angle, sound becomes the primary way this film communicates what's really happening here. That rumble is a near-constant, but in the distance, we can hear yells and screams of terror, pain, and anguish, caused by or resulting in the crack of gunshots. Again, Glazer never shows us the violence of these sounds, and he doesn't need to. The design here is distinctive and definitive enough to make each new or repeated sound strike with a new or repeated sense of dread. 

What's terrifying about Höss, his wife, his children, the assorted soldiers, and the various visitors who come to his home is how none of those noises—neither of human-made equipment and weapons nor made by humans—affects them in any way. They simply go about their business and pleasure, with Höss having meetings about how to handle the burning of "pieces" and dictating letters to personnel, while Hedwig hosts parties, tries on new clothes, and takes her visiting mother on a tour of her vast garden. Only the family dog, who barks along with guard dogs over the wall, and the kids, whose behaviour and words start to suggest they're learning something from what they hear, seem to have any awareness that something is different in and about this place. Some ash flooding down the river while Höss and two of his children are in it is only a temporary inconvenience, in need of some heavy washing back home. On and on their daily routines go, and it becomes clear Höss and Hedwig accept all of this as the means of having the life they've always wanted. Glazer captures their movements and conversations mostly in static shots from a remote distance (refraining from close-ups, in order to prevent even a hint of attachment to these characters), as some drama unfolds about Höss being transferred and what that means for Hedwig and the children. It's all that matters to them. As they laugh about some holiday they want to repeat and bicker about Höss being moved to Berlin, the screams and the gunshots and that hellish rumble never cease. If there's any solace to be found in The Zone of Interest, it's in one of the house servants sneakily providing food to prisoners in the night (an act that's shot in startling photo negative, because it is the almost-unreal exception in this place), as well as a vision of the future showing what the memory of Höss' life will be. It isn't him - but his deeds—that are destined never to be forgotten.