The Zone of Interest: Loosely based on the Martin Amis novel, Jonathan Glazer’s film is both beautiful and terrifying
In 2015, Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul came to Cannes and won the director the Grand Jury Prize. This year Jonathan Glazer’s incredible work The Zone of Interest is in competition. While the former is set in a concentration camp and seen from the perspective of an inmate in the inner circles of this particular hell, The Zone of Interest shows concentration camp life from the other side of the barbed wire. But it’s no less hellish and almost as unbearable to watch as Nemes’ masterpiece.
The film opens with a dark screen playing for a few minutes with Mica Levi’s otherworldly and menacing music (Levi also wrote the score for Glazer’s “Under the Skin”). Before a single image is shown, a sense of foreboding sets in. But the opening tableau depicts a Germanic idyll: a family picnics by a slow-flowing river, girls dressed in organza pick flowers, their blond hair braided like their mother’s, while the male family members cavort and swim.
The drive home at dusk is like a Magritte painting before the car pulls up in front of a modernist house. The following day shows a garden full of flowers and the rowing boat that the family gave their father for his birthday. So far so beautiful. But dad is the senior commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (the excellent Christian Friedel), and he is ready for work in full SS uniform. His office is directly in front of the garden gate, and the garden tended by the inmates is separated from the camp by an enclosing wall.
The family goes about their business while distant shouts, gunshots and screams can be heard in the background (impressive work by sound designer Johnnie Burn). Nobody reacts to this: when Höss and his eldest son ride out, angry orders are heard. Höss slows down and says to his boy: “Do you hear that?” A bittern”. Nothing from the camp is allowed to enter their world.
Before going to bed, Höss does what fathers do all over the world: lock the doors and turn off the light. Normalcy is everywhere and nowhere, as we also see blood being washed off his boots and a nearby chimney roaring and blazing.
Even scarier than the commander is his wife Hedwig (a phenomenal Sandra Hüller). “Rudi calls me the Queen of Auschwitz!” she says happily to her mother. She is over the moon with the life they have created for themselves and their five children (“Everything We Want Is On Our Doorstep”). She spends her days chatting with friends who pick out inmates’ belongings and whose heartbreaking conversations involve finding diamonds in toothpaste.
The only member of the family with a shred of decency is Hedwig’s mother, who perhaps for the first time understands the magnitude of the horror right outside her door.
Glazer doesn’t settle for the simple narrative of this story, which is loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis, who passed away this weekend. His film is visually stunning. Whenever the family is shown, the image is crystal clear, fresh and new, but at other moments – when Höss is reading fairy tales to his sleepwalking daughter – the film turns black and white, like a moving x-ray.
At first we are unsure whether this is some kind of dream sequence. While Höss instead tells the story of how Gretel shovels the witch into the oven, these beautiful scenes turn out to be all too real. In another scene, where distant screams are heard, close-ups of Hedwig’s beautiful flowers are shown, but the screen suddenly turns scarlet. If the subject wasn’t so scary, this would be a movie to fall in love with.
Today, Glazer also shows Auschwitz how the cleaning ladies go about their work. They may be the descendants of the women who cleaned for Hedwig Höss. Since the end of that war, “the banality of evil” has been a term commonly used to describe the horrors of the Nazis and their camps. In his beautiful, terrifying film, Glazer portrays this with intelligence and great skill.
The Zone of Interest screened at the 76th Cannes Film Festival
https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/film/the-zone-of-interest-movie-review-jonathan-glazer-martin-amis-auschwitz-b1082646.html The Zone of Interest: Loosely based on the Martin Amis novel, Jonathan Glazer’s film is both beautiful and terrifying