Saturday, January 13, 2024

REVIEW: The Zone of Interest

On first glance, the Höss family of two parents and five children are your typical middle class family. They live in a comfortable home with hired help, a beautiful garden and nearby lake. But look closer and you'll find something far more sinister than this white picket fence ideal. As Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest" tells the story of this family, the bigger picture is one of the most unsettling things you'll see on film.

The truth is, this family is not your ordinary group of Germans and this is no ordinary countryside setting. The head of this household is in fact, a Nazi commandant and on the other side of the wall of their humble abode is none other than the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. As the horrors of the Holocaust are inflicted next door, the Höss family carry on with their daily routine. For Rudolf, his main concern is climbing the ranks of the Schutzstaffel (SS). Meanwhile, Hedwig tends to the garden and plays the dutiful wife and mother. 

That unbothered banality is in fact what makes "The Zone of Interest" so stupefying and downright nauseating at times. While we never see their Jewish victims, their suffering is omnipresent in nearly every scene thanks to the atmospheric sound design and evocative shot compositions. Indeed, there's no dismissing the low rumbling sound of the Holocaust operation - recalling the mechanistic portrayal of Auschwitz in 2015's "Son of Saul" - which is accompanied by the intermittent screams and gunfire. Likewise, the smoke from the gas chambers and the towering structures of the camp further bear witness to the evil at hand. 

And that evil is also expressed within the seemingly peaceful home too. While maintaining his austere tone, Glazer skilfully finds subtle ways to show how the Hösses' domestic life is intimately linked to the Holocaust's crimes. It's evident in the casual way a group of women discuss the stolen posessions of Jewish people over a cup of coffee. Or a mother and daughter sparing a fleeting thought for a Jew they knew personally, before continuing their stroll through a garden mere feet away from Auschwitz. And through many other subtle examples, it rebukes the notion that only those outfitted in Nazi uniform were fully aware of and complicit in the atrocities committed. Indeed, Sandra Huller's Hedwig is as terrifying as her husband, as she callously barks orders at her servants and even threatens murder.

Some years ago, the esteemed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke denounced the vast majority of Holocaust cinema, claiming that tended towards insensitive manipulation in their efforts to appeal to audiences. In his matter-of-fact approach to depicting this Nazi family and their life, "The Zone of Interest" feels like it acknowleges those ethical concerns. It's a stunning film of indellible images and sounds, with an ending that further hits home with present day relevance.

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