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‘Zone of Interest’: Atrocities through a new lens

The+H%C3%B6ss+family+and+friends+enjoy+a+the+pool+in+the+garden%2C+separated+from+Auschwitz+by+a+tall+concrete+wall.
Courtesy of A24
The Höss family and friends enjoy a the pool in the garden, separated from Auschwitz by a tall concrete wall.

A woman tries on a fur coat to see if it suits her. A group of friends sit around with coffee, talking about the weather being too hot. Siblings play together in a pool, splashing water while laughing. An officer discusses in detail him taking a plane that got him to his destination 50 minutes early. A family picks flowers together in the forest by the lake. Meanwhile, the sounds of distant screams and gunshots are heard over a wall — the only thing separating the creator from the atrocities committed.

We soon discover the names of the Höss family who we anxiously follow in Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama, “The Zone of Interest,” which has been slowly expanding nationwide since Dec. 15. Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, goes about his day-to-day life with his wife, Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), and their children. As they entirely ignore the death and torture happening right next door, Glazer explores the different forms that human evil takes. Evil is seen in the mundane wandering of everyday life, the interchangeable conversations that are about nothing at all.

Based on the 2014 novel, “The Zone of Interest” is unlike any Holocaust movie — or any historical WWII drama for that matter. Glazer’s experimental, slow-burn and plotless approach pushes forward cinema’s capabilities by making the viewer complicit with the characters’ lack of action. We never get even a glance over the wall, the unspoken and the unseen, making the film’s atmosphere all the more unsettling and unbearable. We can’t help. We are left to do nothing. Through this approach, Glazer crafts one of the most horrifying movies of all-time about human complicity.

Łukasz Żal’s cinematography creates such vivid imagery, moving through the Höss’ house with a feeling of surveillance. In fact, the film was set up with multiple cameras rolling throughout the entire set at the same time, allowing the actors to improvise and simply exist in the space around them. The use of infrared cameras during night scenes is also effective, representing another unique approach.

One of the best shots in the film is a long take when Hedwig is showing her visiting mother, Linna Hensel (Imogen Kogge), through the garden she’s grown. As Hedwig and Linna walk closer and closer to the edge of the wall and the colors of the flowers dim, their conversation doesn’t change. The lack of acknowledgment or tension is simply terrifying.

While there’s no technical element out of place, it’s the intricately crafted soundscape that makes “The Zone of Interest” fully work. In addition to the visual motif of flowers tying the film’s evils to nature, the constant repetition of gunshots and screaming also speaks to one of the film’s crucial themes: the patterns that humankind has repeated and continues to repeat. It’s often hard to distinguish the sound design from Mica Levi’s ominous and all-consuming score, an intentional design that adds to the disorientation of watching the film.

With such intentionally dry characters, the entire cast does terrifically understated work in bringing these roles to life. Hüller, the Oscar-nominated star of “Anatomy of a Fall,” is the standout as the commander’s wife. But every character completely sinks into the environment around them, with no one single personality standing out. The lack of life, soul and empathy in these characters is sickening to watch.

Glazer’s ice-cold approach is sure to isolate some viewers, but that’s exactly the point. Time and time again throughout history, atrocities like the Holocaust happen while humankind turns a blind eye to the suffering around them. Glazer harnesses the power of cinema to make us reconsider our own choices. Similarly to “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Glazer ends on a note that makes us question what it means to tell stories of genocide and the questions that must be considered when reconstructing history.

There’s no easy way out through Glazer’s unique artistic choices. For example, a red screen blares in the middle of the film for mere seconds — a quick release — before it swiftly returns to the situation at hand: a reminder that history must always be remembered. And by the end, even as the credits roll, Levi’s music blares through until the very last second. These few experimental details never fully allow the audience to catch their breath or stop thinking about what they just watched.

What Glazer achieves in this project is unbelievably important to talk about. Few other movies are able to say so much about the injustices of humankind with so little actually shown. “The Zone of Interest” serves as a stark, sadly necessary reminder of humankind’s tendency to turn a blind eye to horror.

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