Auschwitz: what a nice place to raise a family! The Zone of Interest makes the notorious Nazi death camp look like a Muskoka oasis. Adapting the novel by Martin Amis, writer/director Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) creates a truly unnerving portrait of evil in its most banal form. The stroke of brilliance here is that little of the action that happens on screen is inherently evil. These are day-to-day chores of a working family, but they’re contextualised by the eerie sense of place. One only gets fleeting glimpses of the notorious concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but the views of the countryside are truly gorgeous.
Nazi commandant Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) are finally living their dream after landing in the region where people come and go but few stay. He’s a high-ranking and respected officer. They’re raising their kids in the countryside where it’s (mostly) quiet. As Hedwig tells Rudolph during a row, they’d have to drag her out of there. The irony of that statement can’t help but make a cinephile laugh.
Hedwig, moreover, proudly enjoys her title as the “Queen of Auschwitz.” She’s built her dream house and Glazer photographs it with picturesque wonder. Homes rarely look this inviting outside of Nancy Meyers movies. Under Hedwig’s supervision, the home boasts central heating, a large greenhouse, a pool, and her biggest source of pride: her garden. The garden looks especially soothing. There are flowers of all kinds and they’re all carefully primed and cared for. Vegetables are plentiful: kale, beans, potatoes, (deadly) apples, and even pumpkins. The courtyard is a meticulously manicured and landscaped triumph. Hedwig even has some vines growing up the walls that separate the property between her family and that housing the neighbours. Just ignore the screams, gunshots, and crackling flames coming from the other side.
Adapting an Environment
Glazer takes considerable liberties with Amis’s novel, but zeroes in on his consideration of environment and the normalization of violence. His take on The Zone of Interest embodies the art of adaptation at its finest. What works very well on paper plays even better on screen here.
Amis’s book unfolds the story through three perspectives. Each one tells the same act through a different lens, although events coincide. The Nazi, Paul, is a mean drunkard who thrives on the power of his position. He loves the efficiency of his violence. But in the book, his wife becomes repulsed by the work that puts cake on the table. In the second thread, a younger career-climbing Nazi aims to rock Paul’s confidence by having an affair with Hedwig. They conspire against the commandant. So too does the third narrator, a member of the Sonderkommandos – Jewish prisoners forced to enact the violence of the extermination such as choosing which Jews go left and which go right – who isn’t in the film at all.
Glazer does away with the fractured narrative and the loose semblance of a story through which Amis considers the banality of evil. He’s not really interested in regurgitating the horror that unfolds on the other side of the wall. However, both stories are episodic portraits of everyday people who turned the machinery of the Holocaust. There are no brutal kill shots here. No chilling death marches. No gut-wrenching trips to the showers. The horrors of Schindler’s List and Son of Saul play offscreen here. The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust story, told through lunches, restless nights, and spoiled picnics.
Hüller Is Chillingly Great
If Paul is the novel’s villain and Hedwig its heroine, of sorts, then The Zone of Interest flips the Queen of Auschwitz on her head. Hüller creates a woman of truly chilling coldness and detachment. Hedwig lives in an alternate reality where all is calm and merry. Germany is floundering in the war, but she speaks of a near future in which the Führer’s promise is reality. As with Glazer’s direction, Hüller’s performance is a masterclass in restraint.
Hedwig’s comfort and privilege are her evils. Beyond her immaculately kept garden, spacious dream home, and dinner table laden with goodies while tens of thousands of people starve within spitting distance of her commode, she grotesquely profits from the Jews’ demise. Beautiful furs coats and lace dresses arrive by the trainload. She invites the housekeepers to have their pick. Meanwhile, she seizes the finest things, inspecting pockets and lining for whatever gold, diamonds, or jewels the condemned tried to hide. In an unsettling scene, she admires a bright red tube of lipstick plucked from one of the new arrivals. She sniffs it, wary of any traces of impurity that might taint her lips. She dabs her hand and splats some on her lips. The faint recognition of a smile on her joyless face makes one’s skin crawl.
The Sounds of Horror
While Glazer keeps the camera trained upon the side of the wall where the grass is always greener, The Zone of Interest never downplays the tragedy of its environment. Death permeates every frame. Smoke wafts through the sky so that it’s cloudy on the sunniest of days. Fire rages night and day. The corpses burn so bright that the flames literally and figuratively awaken guests of the country home. Glazer plays with the elements using a fine balance of horror and black comedy. In one scene, for example, a housekeeper races outside to save the laundry. The wind whips up and blows ashes onto her freshly washed clothes. Just watch as she turns and hides her face to avoid swallowing the dead.
Formalist interludes pull the audience away from the summer sun, though, and remind viewers that this story is worse than any horror film. One eerie sequence observes the environment filtered through infrared as a young housekeeper sneaks out into the night. Spots of white begin to pepper the frame as she pokes around labour areas. She’s hiding apples, giving a rare gesture of warmth in a barren land.
Even when the sun shines and Hedwig and company enjoy the tranquil summer days, though, there’s no escaping the violence of this idyll setting. An engaged soundtrack by Johnnie Burn dexterously layers the film with the horrors of war. Foley is the truth-teller in The Zone of Interest as screams, gunshots, rolling trains, and the sounds of suffering punctuate the frames. It’s a chilling feat of portraiture. One can’t dare look evil in the eye with a film like The Zone of Interest. Rather, one observes how it’s here, there, and everywhere–just another part of everyday life.