‘The life we enjoy is very much worth the sacrifice…’
Jonathan Glazer. It’s a weird one. He debuted in 2000 with Sexy Beast having made his name directing music videos for Blur, Massive Attack and Nick Cave. Glazer has only released three more films in the two decades and change since that movie: the little-seen Birth in 2004, the critical smash Under the Skin in 2013 and now the similarly adored The Zone of Interest in the year of our Lord, 2024. While Under the Skin was too arty and esoteric for me, I found The Zone of Interest to be incredibly moving and provocative…
Glazer presents us with the day-to-day lives of prominent Nazi Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their seemingly neverending army of children. It’s like the Cratchit family up in there. We follow the Hoss family live out their mostly humdrum lives through the prism of domestic chores, marital bickering and moments of intimacy. The characters are often distant from the camera, almost mirroring the Big Brother house. The kicker, of course, is that this ostensibly normal family are perpetrating and living next to one of the most horrific crimes in the history of humanity. Auschwitz lingers in the background just behind their luxurious and opulent house.
There are essentially two films playing here at once. The one that we can see – a domestic family drama with little plot or action, and the one that we can’t see. The latter can be heard in the incredibly upsetting sound design. The occasional scream. The constant gunshots. The mechanical sounds that could well be that of a furnace sputtering into action. It’s heartwrenching. While the Jewish prisoners are only glimpsed occasionally, and only for a moment at a time, the smoke constantly billowing out of the ever-present towers in the background ensures that the viewer never forgets where we are.
As with Under the Skin, this is a challenging film. But perhaps not for the same reasons. What Glazer does here is force the viewer to confront the terrible truth – most of the people responsible for the holocaust were just ‘normal’ folk. It is the mundanity of evil that makes it so terrifying. In terms of the cast, it’s interesting to see Huller excelling again following her showstopping performance in Anatomy of a Fall and Fridel is suitably sinister as her counterpart, but this film isn’t about the cast. There are few close-ups and long scenes without dialogue. Instead, The Zone of Interest creates an atmosphere, an overriding sense of dread, and it does this through the drudgery of routine juxtaposed with moments of genuine horror – both real and imagined. It’s gruelling stuff.
While I found the jarring conclusion to be slightly anti-climatic (something which is almost certainly a deliberate choice) there is no doubting that this is a film that will stay with me. I write this hours after leaving the cinema and I still haven’t quite shaken the quiet devastation that Glazer’s film inspires. Powerful, memorable cinema.