The Zone of Interest

If they were in America, Rudolf (Christian Friedel, THE WHITE RIBBON) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, who just got a best actress nomination for ANATOMY OF A FALL) would say they were living the American dream. They’re in a big new house near a river where they can swim and fish. They have a bunch of kids and a dog and their backyard is huge, with an elaborate garden, cobblestone paths, a huge greenhouse, a nice deck, and a small swimming pool with a slide. They even have servants. All because Rudolf’s doing so good in his job. And they live right next to work, so he doesn’t have to commute at all, he’s home right after work to spend time with the family. The kids love him (they got him a canoe for his birthday), and he and Sandra get along well, they make each other laugh, they talk about the trips they’ll go on after all this.

It’s the biggest possible “all this,” though: World War II. And I think you’ll share my objection to Rudolf’s job. He’s the commandant of Auschwitz. A very bad person. The conceit of writer/director Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH, UNDER THE SKIN)’s gut punch of a movie is to matter-of-factly depict the mundane activities of this family as they go through their daily activities without a thought to the suffering they’re causing and benefiting from on the other side of the wall.

A few times we glimpse prisoners cleaning Rudolf’s boots or being marched through the reeds. Mostly we hear them: distant, indiscernible yelling, screams, crying, constant muffled gun shots. We hear churning machinery, trains arriving, we see black plumes coming out of the chimneys. All the while the Höss family have parties, gossip with friends, look at the flowers, take smoke breaks on the deck. Since our eyes go to where the action is, even we may focus on the backyard party in the sun and not the barbwire and watch tower visible in the top half of the frame.

It’s striking how naturalistic it all is. It has very little music, and I read that they did the mix in mono because when they heard the Atmos surround it felt sensationalistic. I also read that they built cameras into the house so they could shoot without crews as the actors improvised normal household activities. Yeah, that makes sense.

The kids run around playing like real kids. These look like people from a different time and place, but also like us. Rudolf seems like a loving dad. In one scene he’s wading out in the river fishing, wearing his tank top with the SS logo, enjoying himself, suddenly he steps on something, realizes it’s a human jawbone or something. He gets the kids out of the water, rushes them home, scrubs them off in the bath tub. Man, he is not happy with his employees. Another time he dictates a letter about how they’re cutting the lilacs wrong and it’s gonna ruin things for everyone. He also writes a letter praising someone’s contributions to the camp and trying to convince them not to transfer this guy. Couldn’t have done it without him. He has opinions about how they need to run this place. Doesn’t want them to fuck it up. Takes pride in his work.

One of the best subplots is about Hedwig’s mother coming to visit. Hedwig proudly shows her around, points out all the different flowers, talks about how hard they were to grow. Mom keeps saying how lovely it is, how proud she is of her girl, she’s really landed on her feet. “And that’s the camp?” Hedwig says yeah, we grow vines over the wall to make it look nice, tries to keep talking about her garden. Mom wonders aloud if Mrs. Silberling, the lady whose house she used to clean, is in there. Says it sounding curious, like it would be interesting to know, not like there’s malice intended. Man, this is so familiar to me, the older generation being able to rationalize what society has come to, never question it, and keep a positive attitude. But maybe it’s just an act. She keeps coughing and looking up at the chimneys.

Not everyone can ignore it. It seems to me the dogs and horses keep being distracted by things they hear. They recognize the sounds of suffering that the humans have taught themselves to overlook. There are a few interludes of locals who do care – I mistook the high contrast, night vision type scenes as dreams, but it turns out they’re the real story of a young woman Glazer met as an old lady while researching. The actress wears the real woman’s dress and rides her bicycle. Look it up, it’s an interesting story.

The biggest conflict for the couple is that Rudolf does such a good job of mass murder that he gets promoted to inspector of all the camps and has to move. To his shock, Hedwig makes him ask if the family can stay at the residence in Auschwitz while he works in Oranienburg. It’s really diabolical the way this movie made me wince at how selfish and materialistic she’s being even though her genocidal war criminal husband deserves so much worse than his wife being unreasonable. There are signs that even he knows that, and I think that’s important. He might have misgivings, but they don’t stop him. That doesn’t exonerate him, it makes him even worse. As you can imagine from the premise, the genius of THE ZONE OF INTEREST is that it shows these actual historical monsters not as unimaginable villains who will be vanquished, but as that other thing they also are – petty, pathetic, boring, normal people. They are following beliefs that have become acceptable in their country. They support their government and fear who they think are their enemies. They love their families, they protect their possessions, they believe they work hard and are good people and deserve success. This is not to humanize them, it’s to remind us that the point of never again isn’t just stop them from doing it again. It’s also don’t become them.

It’s kind of crazy that it can be rated PG-13 since the atrocities are off screen – the very reason it’s so powerful. I think approaching this topic from such an original angle not only makes it a profound record of the Holocaust, it also makes it feel almost painfully timely. There’s this part where Hedwig is trying on a fur coat, finds some lipstick in the pocket, sits down at the mirror and puts some of it on. I was slow, I thought she was checking if this old thing still fits, juxtaposing her casual vanity with the horrors we hear going on outside the window. But then I caught on that of course this, and many of the other material items they’re so attached to, were stolen from the people they put into those camps. And I couldn’t help but think of videos circulating social media in the last month of IDF soldiers laughing and showing off what they’ve looted from houses they’ve destroyed in Gaza, or a wife bragging about all the makeup her husband sent home for her. THE ZONE OF INTEREST is important history, but it can’t help but also be an urgent warning about current events, whether it was meant that way or not.

I know this isn’t really the type of movie you can recommend that easily. For what it’s worth, when I first heard about it I thought it sounded amazing and also I wasn’t sure I could even watch it. Seeing the trailer in a theater was the first time I had a glimpse of what exactly it was and felt like maybe I could take it. And I could. For me it wasn’t as gut-wrenching as THE ACT OF KILLING, for example. But it’s similarly haunting and hard to stop thinking about. I think it’s a masterpiece. I sure won’t forget it any time soon.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 29th, 2024 at 7:13 am and is filed under Reviews, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “The Zone of Interest”

  1. Yeah, I would put ZONE OF INTEREST solidly in the category of “really impressive, really glad I saw this, highly recommend, may not be up for ever watching again.”

    I saw this alongside someone who had absolutely no idea what to expect – they’d been told by a friend to see it with no foreknowledge, so they avoided reading anything online, seeing the trailer, etc. I on the other hand felt like I had a pretty good idea of what this would entail, having been aware of the novel when it first came out and then very intrigued when I read that the director of UNDER THE SKIN was adapting it – and it still felt unique and disturbing.

    The scene with the mother looking at the camp wall and musing about whether her neighbor was in there, and how bummed she was not to get the curtains when the family was taken from their home – that is some bleakly funny shit. Made me think about part of Primo Levi’s memoir, THE PERIODIC TABLE, where he describes being interned at a concentration camp but marched every day through the streets of the adjoining town, alongside other scientist inmates, to work alongside townfolk in a local laboratory. As I recall it, Levi tells the story to undermine the idea that people outside the camps had no idea what they were…

    About halfway through the film, the house lights came up briefly a few times in quick succession, so along with the movie onscreen, everyone in the theater could see each other sitting there. If you told me this was intentionally designed into the movie itself, I’d believe it.

  2. That kinda reminds me of a story that a former boss of mine once told me. A friend of him went on a holiday trip with his family to a holocaust museum. And said friend, who was in elementary school age back then, looked at photos from several concentration camps and suddenly yelled through the whole room: “Dad, look, that guard on the photo totally looks like you!”

    Turned out it was him, by they way. They obviously left the museum as fast as they could. The official story was that the father was one of those Nazis who were in it because they had to, not because they actually believed in it. And he was apparently very happy when he got the job as a camp guard, because these had the reputation of being easy work. You just stand there and make sure that nobody escapes. Definitely beats fighting in Russia. However once he arrived there, he actually did whatever he could to be transferred again, since the job was obviously not that easy peasy.

    I don’t know if this is really the truth. The “you are either with the Nazis or you die” aspect of that time is often overlooked, but of course the “We didn’t know what they were really doing” excuse is getting less and less likely the more you think about it. Just “I really wanted to work at a concentration camp” makes you go “Hmmmmm…”

    My uncle actually had pictures of him in a Nazi uniform. They were just glamour shots, not of him actually “at work” or a rally. He seemed like a good guy though, but of course I only knew him in the last 20 years of his life. Don’t know if my aunt would ever marry a war criminal though. He never really talked about what he did back then, other than the slightly cryptic line “I didn’t know what true evil was until I joined the military” and the often repeated story that it was so cold in Russia that when you took a shit, the dooky was frozen before it hit the ground and stood upright. Shit is complicated sometimes. Let’s hope we don’t have to explain to our kids what the fuck we did at the darkest time.

  3. I appreciated UNDER THE SKIN as a strange, powerful, and important work. I also found the beach scene pretty upsetting. So, that established Glazer as someone who understands and is indeed fascinated with pitiless indifference in the face of poignant and even horrifying things. That scene was as horrific as anything in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, probably even more so. I have to dole out that sort of horror in measured and well-timed doses, as it can be too much looking down into the abyss. With CHAINSAW, at least we have our final girl who gives us the hope and agency within and possibly beyond the horror. Movies that give us only horror without hope are a different kettle of fish. I may get to this one eventually, but the mood will have to be right.

    The other thing is that this banality of evil business can be extended in all kinds of ways. If you want to put yourself into this film’s premise, you could view the film as applying to eating meat or wearing sweatshop clothes or driving a gas car (I do some of all of these) — anything where your convenience or pleasure is coming at someone else’s great cost or suffering.

    I’m curious about the net effect of a film like this. You could imagine it stirring people to more thoughtful action (“how do I not be like these people?”), or you could imagine it just shutting us down psychologically (“man, everything is so fucked up and hopeless”) or being used as rationalization (“thank God I’m not like these monsters”). Lately, I’ve been more into “fun” or empowered horror that has a sense of mirth about it or a strong final girl / protagonist. I know that life can be fucked up and unfair and full of monsters, and I know that I am complicit in evil, but I also need things that inspire me to stay constructively engaged, keeping at it with life, and sometimes somber horror like this has the opposite effect.

    Maybe I’ve used this one before, but I often come back to that “you make me want to be a better man” line from AS GOOD AS IT GETS, and, even though that’s a very cliche kind of line, I need things that make me want to better. Things that make me feel like nothing matters and everything is shitty do not make me want to be a better person, they make me want to disnegage (~ are depressive), which is not so good for me. I’m curious if other people experience this sort of thing differently. I can see where, depending on my mood or if I was somehow not yet in touch with the existence of evil, a healthy dose of that reality could be bracing and challenging. In my present mood, and where I know that there’s a lot of evil and I’m complicit in some of it, I don’t really need the reminder or have my nose rubbed in it, so, I’d probably be better served keeping it moving onto something a bite more empowering.

  4. Venting: Has Nothing to with Actual Movie

    Yesterday, I was walking out of Big G (the projection was all messed up, there was no color. j/k) Across the hall the LED sign says “Zone of Interest” with doors ajar. Fucking score! This week’s episode of ‘sneaking in to the movies’ shall commence! Slip in, take a seat, watch twenty fucking minutes of commercials, twenty fucking minutes of trailers that all look terrible except for the Wim Wenders thing, Nicole Kidman tells me to strap my ass in. I’m like “oh shit! she was in ‘Birth,’ this is all serendipitous!”. The movie starts… And it’s some douchebags in present day. ‘Odd opening,’ I think. Some ‘comical’ shit happens, then the title “You’re a Dick” or whatever.

    They’re running the wrong movie!
    I can’t complain, I’m not even supposed to be here.

    Keeping my wits, I look around and notice the three other people in attendance seem perfectly content. ‘Do they not even care?? Do they just want to see a ‘movie’ and don’t give a fuck what it actually is???’

    THEN it dawns on me. I exit back to the hallway, and sure enough, the LED has transformed to “You’re a Dick” or whatever.

    Shouldn’t they be required to burn sage or something in between showing “Zone of Interest” and “You’re a Dick” or whatever in the same theater? Talk about weird energy.

  5. Not a big Martin Amis fan, but Glazer is three for three with me, and this review settles it, so I will check this out.

    But Samuel Fuller made a whole movie calling bullshit on the people who lived next to a concentration camp and claimed to know nothing about it. You can find FALKENAU – THE IMPOSSIBLE on the Youtube. It’s technically directed by someone else, but it has Fuller talking to camera both in a studio and at what’s left of the Falkenau concentration camp, and it uses footage he shot himself, as an infantryman in the Big Red 1, of the actual liberation of the camp and its aftermath.

  6. Great review, Vern. I really want to see this, and it kind of sounds essential. But it also sounds like it should be written about by someone like you, with a little irreverence, so that the movie can be seen by more than the usual arthouse bluehairs. I still remember taking a friend to see Claire Denis’ anti-imperialist “White Material” (costarring Christopher Lambert!), and him getting pissed off when the lights came on and the audience was revealed to be a bunch of kindly elderly people. They looked like the type of elderly people that would never be proactive about what they just saw and are probably complicit in the type of economic corruption depicted in the movie.

    Zone Of Interest fascinates me because (personal story alert) I have a father who is of very advanced age. He’s long retired, but he spent most of his life as a cop. I was too young to understand what he did back then. But to hear him talk now, about his memories and experiences, makes me realize he would have gladly been a guard at a Nazi camp. The salary and the pension would have been enough of a draw for him – working for politicians who showed performative power would have been an added bonus.

    He was a weak man, and I have spent the last couple of decades losing respect for him. Which has given me a psychological scar of sorts that I can’t really understand. But he did what he did out of self preservation, out of having no skill and no ambition and simply wanting to build a family and provide for them. Which seems admirable, until you figure he was born in the right era, where he didn’t have to make the ethic and moral sacrifices that the Nazis did.

    I don’t think this is acceptable. And I think it manifests in a lot of ways – you can guess my father’s political leaning over the last decade. But I think it’s worth noting – and it sounds like this movie does – how many people are willing to be foot soldiers for a corrupt cause, if only for the pathetic need for self preservation.

    I think a lot about my father’s compromise and cowardice. I think a lot about how, on the fringes of his stories and experiences, you can gather that he was emboldening and fortifying corrupt causes and belief systems, how he acted in favor of a corrupt system. How it could have been worse but also, how bad it was. How many poor and sick people he hurt, how many wayward kids with addictions and marginalized people that suffered under him (he was no wallflower within the ranks).

    And I think about how it put food on my table, it led to the life of reasonable comfort I now live. How it kept me alive and healthy. Now that I am in middle age, and I can look at myself in the mirror, I can see who I am, what I’ve become. And I can see how his moral sacrifice just wasn’t worth it.

  7. This premise feels like it should be a sitcom Rodney Dangerfield watches in the world of NATURAL BORN KILLERS.

  8. Wasn’t “Heil, Honey, I’m Home” the actual sitcom version of this?

  9. @Glaive Robber, I just want to say that is a really powerful story and thank you for sharing. My story with my dad isn’t similar other than reconciling the man he was before I was born and the person I grew up with, and then a growing distance as I moved left politically and well…he did not. I have (at least) two half brothers and I think the divorce from their mother left him a very angry man. There is a strong chance that he was somewhat abusive to them during their younger years and this is something that I never experienced. It’s hard to reconcile lived experiences, especially when you are so close to them.

    In terms of this movie, it sounds like one I need to watch. I think that one thing that often gets lost to history is that people are people. We love, we laugh, and we all (for the most part) experience the same range of emotions and cares. It doesn’t make Rudolf less monstrous, I think humanizing these individuals makes them more monstrous. The mundane is part of our lives and to purposefully go out of our way to bring misery to others is just, I don’t know what words I’m looking for, but those are the thoughts that make me think that the world will probably be better when we finally destroy ourselves (and hopefully the life on Earth is able to continue past whatever shit we’ve done to it).

  10. I posted my snarky bullshit before I read Glaive Robber’s comment. Dads have always been a mystery to me. Mine died when I was just a few weeks old, but I grew up with a stepfather who could have been the illustration next to the dictionary definition of “toxic male asshole.” Drunk, racist, patriarchal, unable to express any emotion except anger. He was out of the picture before I got a chance to talk politics with him but I can imagine what kind of reactionary horseshoe he’d fall for. That kind of garbage was designed to rope in bitter dipshits like him. So for a long time I figured that was just what dads were like and I wasn’t missing much by not not having one. Then I got older and saw the solid relationships my friends had with their dads and I wondered if maybe I might have turned out to be something a little more approaching a whole human being if I’d had any kind of positive father figure in my life. But then I got even older and I’ve seen how so many of my generation’s dads have been real letdowns, getting swallowed up whole by this culture war we got going on that makes so many men see everyone and everything as an enemy. So now I wonder if I got off easy, never having to have my heart broken like that. I’ll probably never figure out what dads are actually about but it seems to me now that as much as they’re there to teach you what being a man is like, they’re just as likely to be there to teach what kind of man you don’t want to be. I got that out of the way early so my heart goes out to all you guys out there who’ve had to watch it happen in slow motion.

  11. Damn, despite the subject matter of this movie, I wasn’t expecting such heavy, heartfelt comments. I’m gonna give my daughter extra hugs tonight.

  12. Jesus this is a heavy comments section. I appreciate it.

    This is exactly the kind of movie we need. Every WW2 movie that has shown Hitler as a methed up wacko and all his followers as goose stepping robots misses the point. Even SAVING PRIVATE RYAN has every Nazi portrayed as a cardboard cutout bad guy. These were all real people with joys, hopes, fears, families, and hobbies — they liked dogs and loved a good joke. But they were also living in hard times with changes happening all around, and they preferred to believe that all of their troubles were caused by the Other. Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, immigrants, etc. All of the same old targets. So when somebody came along and shared and exploited their hatred they were all aboard.

    Sounds familiar.

  13. I completely understand Paul Schrader’s “parlor game” take. That being said, this is my favorite movie of the year.

    Killers of the Flower Moon, and The Killer would be my others.

  14. I don’t know. The reality of the Holocaust, which this movie didn’t portray, is incomprehensibly horrible. (Auschwitz was a large network of camps and death facilitiesn- no such thing as a death “camp”). By the time the death factories came on line, the Holocaust was more than half over. Far more horrible, chilling, and disturbing than this film’s conceit is the reality of the Einsatzgruppen and local collaborators in the east. Watch that documentary.

  15. This film was a precision strike aimed against the ways I’ve buttressed myself against the horrors of the world and the ways in which they materially benefit me as an American living in the heart of the empire. I’ve always been attracted to extreme and fucked up movies and have had my heart broken by cinema a number of times, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. The hopelessness I feel after seeing this film is all-consuming and profound.

    I was a fuck-up growing up, failed out of college, turned my life around and got a degree and now I work for a large corporation that doesn’t sell weapons or anything but also doesn’t do anything that I am proud of; it is a net evil in the world and I contribute to it. I’m able to support my wife and I, and one of the things that makes me happy is the garden I’ve lovingly cultivated in my backyard — I’m so privileged to have a *backyard*.

    Man, why did this movie have to focus on the garden?

    I comforted myself throughout the film that at least these assholes will lose, their project will fail, and they will probably be killed or something. But then the film took that away from me when it cut forward to present-day Auschwitz. They didn’t fail. They succeeded for a long time.

    If there’s anything remotely comforting about the film, it’s the acknowledgement that Rudolph’s being is suffused with a bile that his doctor can’t detect and that he is impotent to expel. I dunno that “comforting” is the right word here.

    Good grief I am fucked up over this, and genuinely at a loss for how to proceed. Sorry for the emotionally indulgent remarks.

  16. Oh, fuck yeah. You know that when there’s hairshirt, self-laothing, despair juice in the air, I’m going to pick up the frequency like the conch shell’s siren sound and then magically appear to smack the shit out of it. So, apologies in advance if I do so indelicately.

    First off, Renfield, you’re a stand-up person for having enough of a conscience and moral compass to care. This already means you have tremendous potential to positivley impact the world, as compared to someone who is a psychopath or just completely inured to the suffering of the world. So, if 90% is showing up, you’re at least 89-92% of the way there.

    Now, as for this film and your reaction to it.

    My attitude is if this film makes you feel like a fucking piece of shit for having a garden, then fuck this film. If you want to sell your house and move to a tiny house or join the peace corps or go teach under-privileged kids to read because you feel a kind of positive calling and energy to try that — then, by all means try it. But this kind of shit that just drowns you in guilt and despair, it’s like reverse cognitive therapy. However staid and clinical it may present itself, it’s clearly hitting you in a deeply emotional and moralized way (which is line with what I said above), so, I will not hesitate to counter-moralize in the interest of disabusing you of the notion that this film presents any kind of specific, coherent, agentic, or actionable worldview. Honestly, to me, it sounds like this film was executive produced by Ari Aster and Rob Zombie had an orgy with BARBARIAN, and then maybe Tony Gilroy did a polish of the script, and then Sam Mendes directed? This is like CRASH (2004) for the A24 millenial/zoomer/very online set?

    When I think of heroes, most of them do not go off into the woods to start an edenic commune where they reject indoor plumbing, electricity, currency, and the notion of contributing something to our economy. Also, most heroes are aware that they, too, will die, and that they will not single-handedly fix all the bad things. They have very much imbided the serenity prayer, and they just keep putting one foot in front of the other, trying to do better or do something constructive where it seems like it might count. Furthermore, many, perhaps most of them who do go off to start an edenic, radically counter-cultural utopian community are completely full of shit, and/or their utopian communities collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, internal conflicts, and the difficulty of sustaining unsustainable extremist aspirations, such as ending death, illness, sadness, or interpersonal disagreement.

    So, if you are actually asking how to proceed, my advice is to take a little time to process your feelings about this film via a walk or coffee with a friend or chatting and arguing with me and others here, and then get off the dualistic merry go round where your only two options in life are the false binary of (1) either completely wholesale remake your own life and then fix all the world’s longstanding problems (2) or wallowing in guilt and despair of the fact that you are a piece of shit for not doing (1), which is impossible. And then, only after that process of confronting false binaries and completely unproductive and unsustainable guilt is fully complete, you have my all-important permission to think of a few incremental or even non-incremental but plausible, sustainable lifestyle changes or accomplishments you would like to pursue (a job change, some kind of political action, doing some tutoring).

    On the other hand, if that was more of a rhetorical question and/or I’m coming in too hot here, I’m sorry for that.

  17. Skani, I appreciate the kind and empathetic words. May respond at greater length at some point.

    Also, RIP Damo Suzuki. Lots of gut punches to field today, it seems.

  18. Sure, thing! Thank you for receiving it that way. I hope and trust something constructive will at some point emerge from the thoughts and feelings as they wax on and paint the fence of your psyche. The human condition — big feels and high stakes, for sure.

    Also, thanks for looking past my typos. “Imbided.” Lol.

  19. So far this year I’ve seen two movies that deal, at least in part, with the Holocaust. ONE LIFE is a small BBC film about the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport that just happens to have a huge performance from Anthony Hopkins. I mean, seriously, you will marvel at how Hopkins can signal guilt, anger, regret, modesty, pride by he how picks up a file. It’s miraculous, and a performance much too big for the movie, which would’ve needed to be SCHINDLER’S LIST to really contain it. And the movie does rather what you expect, leaving you saddened by history but safe in the knowledge that the world contains people who will stand up to tyranny and not just look the other way.

    Then there’s THE ZONE OF INTEREST, which I’m still processing, but really doesn’t do any of that. It leaves you very little to hold on to and practically nowhere to hide. I can identify with a lot of the remarks above, but if it’s a parlour game, it’s a meticulously constructed and utterly ruthless one. Sure, the girl hiding apples is our glimpse of hope, but it’s presented as a nightmare of alienating images and sound. Ben mentioned Primo Levi above, and what I admire about Levi is that he mines these horrific personal experiences to find truth that tell us something not just about the Holocaust but about what it is to be human. I think Glazer does something similar here.

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