‘The Zone of Interest’ Offers a Disturbing View of Humanity’s Banality of Evil


How should a film depict the Holocaust? 

Usually, movies depicting this atrocity are incredibly dramatic, violent, tear-jerking and tragic. They are depressing, and most of all, emotional. “The Zone of Interest” does none of this. 

The Zone of Interest movie poster. Contributed photo from A24

Instead, it follows Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) living the perfect life with his family. They celebrate his birthday, have backyard pool parties and enjoy the beautiful forests and rivers near their idyllic villa. The reason for this life is right next door: Hoss is the real-life commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. And it never shows anything beyond the concrete walls next to their house.

There is only what is seen and heard from the outside. 

While Rudolf’s wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) is showing off her elaborate garden to a relative, the tops of the buildings that the walls couldn’t cover are seen, chimneys and all. One of their kids passes the time lying in bed, inspecting human teeth. When Hedwig lets her friends visit, they chat about their clothes that once belonged to Jewish women. In any shot of the backyard, the film makes sure to note the silent Jewish prisoners serving the family’s beck and call, as well as how they use one of the barbed wire-covered walls of Auschwitz as a fenceline. In portraying the Holocaust as a slice-of-life drama, “The Zone of Interest” becomes one of the most disturbing movies of the year. 

Director Jonathan Glazer, loosely adapting the book of the same name, makes this premise more unsettling than it already is by removing any emotion or hope, telling this story from a cold, omnipresent perspective. 

The cinematography, done fantastically by Łukasz Żal, depicts the activities of the Hoss family in wide shots, including wide and three-quarter angles, keeping an objective viewpoint. The cameras are left perfectly still, the only movement given being slow, unsettling tracking shots. The camerawork often feels like high-quality surveillance footage – there’s even military-grade infrared shots for the night scenes – where even the scenes of the family being out in the woods carry a creepy, voyeuristic atmosphere. 

The most haunting aspect to the filmmaking, however, is the sound. Even from inside the house, sound engineers Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn make sure that the sounds of what’s happening inside those concrete walls can be heard loud and clear. The chugging of the trains carrying prisoners, the petrifying screams and barking of orders and the echoing pops of gunfire is heard in every scene. 

Sometimes it sounds far away, other times it’s like it’s right against the wall. It is terrifying to listen to, with the movie taking advantage of this by often including a blank screen, leaving nothing but those sounds. 

The same goes for Mica Levi’s score, which, while not as present as the sound design, carries out a cold, mechanical rhythm mixed with a brooding tone that is just as unnerving. 

Paul Watts’ editing adds to the unsettling tone, having most of the shots last for several minutes and creating a passive and slow pace. 

What makes all of this work is with the performances of Friedel and Huller. Deviating from the typical Nazi portrayals, they play their roles under a naturalistic lens, letting Rudolf and Hedwig be average people who happen to think running a concentration camp is their dream life. 

Friedel portrays Höss as a proud man who treats his role of exterminating as many Jews as efficiently as possible with the same excitement as an office job, with his efforts being celebrated to the point of a mass genocide operation being named after him. 

Hüller plays Hedwig as a satisfied housewife, tending to her demented version of the Garden of Eden while trying on dead people’s clothes and ordering her servants around. 

All of these elements work masterfully together, ultimately showing the one emotion that usually isn’t expressed in Holocaust films: Indifference. 

To the Höss family, like the sprawling forests around them, they think something like Auschwitz is a natural part of life. It is a lucrative industry to profit off of, a way to allow them to live in, as Hedwig says to her husband, “paradise.” They have no guilt over what they’re doing. To them, they think they’re making the world a better place. 

Glazer, in defying the usual depictions of this genocide, digs deeper into the psychology behind it. The shock and horror of the film numbs as it goes on, aided by the purposefully slow pacing. After a while, the Höss family’s indifference became, in a morbid way, understandable, making that numbness more disturbing. It’s not that they are ignoring the horror of what’s going on next door, it’s just becoming nothing but background fodder. 

Through creating an inhuman film about one of the most inhuman acts in history, Glazer reveals how human it actually is. 

The idea of “The Zone of Interest” is not a depressing cautionary tale about preventing the Holocaust from happening again, but a dark understanding about how humanity was and is still capable of committing genocide. It doesn’t take evil or manipulation, just apathy.

A trait that every person has.

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Ethan Tarantella
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