By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Jonathan Glazer, thought-provoking films, history films that resonate with today’s world
Jonathan Glazer has made four feature films in 24 years. His work as a music and commercial director is exemplary and influential. Early in his career, he made a music video for the band Unkle called “Rabbit in Your Headlights” which shows the amazing French actor Denis Levant as a destitute man walking on a road in a tunnel, constantly getting hit or run over by cars. It is a precedent for the themes in The Zone of Interest. I have loved and greatly admired Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin, but his work here confronts the audience in a way that is essential. The Zone of Interest is his most important creation. It goes beyond the banality of evil to the complacency of evil or the psychological machinations we all go through in order to ethically exist in today’s world. War and atrocities are happening constantly around us, yet we must persist, often focusing our attention on less significant details in our lives so that we can block out or mentally approach the knowledge of existence in this seemingly hopeless world bent on destruction. Cheerful, no. Incredibly important, yes. Perhaps, even required viewing.
Loosely based on Martin Amis’s book, The Zone of Interest tells the story of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family, who lived right next to the concentration camp. It is methodical in showing us the daily lives of his wife Hedwig, his children, and the people who work in the home. Höss is played by Christian Friedel who is known for the Netflix series Babylon Berlin and who also was in Micheal Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Friedel is superb here and his higher pitched voice is an effective counter to the usual Nazi brutish casting. Haneke is an important influence on how evil is scientifically presented in the film. However, Glazer goes even further with his technical precision. They rebuilt the actual home of Höss right next to Auschwitz with the real home within eyesight. As such, they were able to build cameras right into the home. This gave them the freedom to shoot the actors from any angles and gave them a great deal of footage to select in a methodical manner. In fact, only the actors were present in the home and all cinematographic and technical aspects were taken care of remotely. Hedwig is masterfully portrayed by Sandra Hüller, who has had an epic year between this film and Anatomy of a Fall. She has moved into the upper echelon of actors. Here, she gives Hedwig a depth of relatability with her passion for nature, the home, and her children. There are a few moments where this is drastically challenged but that is the brilliance of Glazer’s direction. Hüller has stated that the freedom of having only the actors in the home was one of the most liberating of her career. It allowed them to fully immerse themselves in the environment and the characters. There are many chilling scenes of Höss simply walking through the home and turning on and off lights. It shows his passion for efficiency and bluntly asks us to examine this same efficiency in how the camps were run.
Once again, Glazer is collaborating with the experimental composer, Mica Levi. Here, the score is minimal but gut-pounding powerful. Exquisitely like a surgeon’s scalpel, it is often used right next to moments of silence, as it awakens the senses to the horrors of what we are viewing. The sound design of Johnnie Burn, here working with Glazer for the third time, is crucial to the experience. Seeing this film in a theater with great sound allows you to hear all the small details from the footsteps of the father walking around the house to the gunshots that are happening offscreen. This is one of the greatest examples of off-screen diegetic sound I have ever seen. Glazer decided not to show us any of the atrocities. We only hear them. It is the sound design that makes things worse for us as we are left with our imagination pulling from all of the footage we have seen in documentaries or previous representations of the Holocaust.
One may ask what the thermal camera sequences of the film mean as they are interspaced like chapter headings. For me, they represent the fairy tale world that Höss and his family lived in that allowed them to block out the facts of what they were living right next to and committing themselves. The use of the Brothers Grimm is appropriate as art and storytelling has long been a manner in which to process the evil of the world. Glazer is pulling from this tradition in his own deeply effective and efficient way.
See it at Sidewalk Cinema! or in a theater near you
Written by: jamric
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