Director – Jonathan Glazer – 2023 – UK, Poland – Cert. 12a – 106m
A drama about the everyday, domestic lives of the Commandant of Auschwitz, his wife, and their family – out in UK cinemas on Friday, February 2nd
How do people sleep at night? If they do bad things? Well, some people who do bad things are tormented by them. They sleep badly. Their conscience, however repressed by them, disturbs them. The others? Well, they seem to sleep soundly.
The Zone of Interest is about people who, as part of their daily routine, do or at least consent to, even inaugurate, unspeakable things. These people are a respectable married couple and their extended family. The focus here is on the ordinary, everyday activities they pursue rather than the unspeakable activities. A nice bathing trip to the river; a later panic when there might be an infection in the river and family members are bathing in it. (The bad stuff seeps into the everyday, routine, speakable stuff, it seems.) Mum taking the little one round the garden and telling her the names of the flowers. Mum running an efficient household, with an army of servants. Mum trying on a second-hand, fur coat. Dad trying to prevent his government job posting him elsewhere, because his wife rather likes the setup where they are and really don’t want to move, thank you very much.
Rather like the film’s title, in one sense, that doesn’t tell you what the film is about. And yet, in another, it does. Under the Nazi regime, ‘The Zone of Interest’ (‘Interessengebiet’ in German) referred to the 40-square-kilometre area around the Auschwitz concentration camp, a term which efficiently and precisely describes the place whilst simultaneously not giving away any specific details. Over the years, there have been many movies about the Holocaust; those that go anywhere geographically near the Death Camps tend to go inside them, playing out their dramas on those locations.
Documentaries on the subject likewise tend at some point to physically enter the locations, among them German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock, reconstruction 2014), made by the British government after the first Allied cameramen went in and shot footage of what they found there – ultimately shelved for political expediency – or the equally frightening Getting Away With Murder(s) (David Wilkinson, 2021), which takes a fresh view on the atrocities from the perspective of the early 21st Century and starts off with a Lest-We-Forget-style explanatory tour round one of the camps.
By way of contrast, The Zone of Interest is largely, however, what you might call a house-and-garden movie. You never enter the camp. You see the tops of its buildings over the garden wall. You see servants performing tasks – cleaning the husband’s boots, wheeling a wheelbarrow. You see smoke rising from the place in the distance. Sometimes there are sounds of things happening: you get the general idea of unrest and the restoring of order, although the specific details aren’t clear.
You see the husband, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), holding a meeting in his house with a fellow officer and two plain clothes engineers discussing a proposal to make the working of the camp more efficient, increase the throughput (i.e. extermination) of people. You see the wife Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) divvying out clothes – “one item each” – to various members of her in-house, servant team. Somehow, the fact that you never see first hand what’s happening beyond the wall makes the whole thing worse.
** SPOILER ALERT RE THE SHOOTING OF THE FILM **
Some production background (from the extremely informative production notes for the film): this was shot on location, close to Auschwitz, insofar as UNESCO World Heritage Site regulations would allow (There’s a certain distance from the camp within which nothing is allowed to happen, no exceptions.) So the Höss residence was built out of an abandoned building just outside that area. What you see beyond the wall is the real Auschwitz. I didn’t know this when I watched the film – I have so far watched it twice. Armed with this knowledge, my third viewing, in due course, will therefore feel very different.
** SPOILER ALERT ENDS **
The piece was shot with multiple concealed cameras, with some scenes heavily scripted and others improvised. The cast never knew where the cameras were. This gives a fly-on-the-wall feeling of verisimilitude to the performances and the small scale, domestic dramas that play out before the camera(s).
Towards the end, on a landing between flights of stairs in a building where an official function is taking place, having descended one staircase and about to descend another, Rudolf Höss pauses, retches and experiences a bizarre vision. In his mind’s eye, he sees and navigates the present day Holocaust memorial museum. Mountains of shoes of the annihilated. Corridors lined with their photographs. This off-kilter sequence ought not to work, yet somehow is profoundly moving. Is this his conscience trying to get through? Will he subsequently have problems sleeping at night? We’ve seen him and Hedwig sleeping together in their separate beds, and they don’t seem troubled (except for domestic issues – what if you get transferred elsewhere to do a different job?, she wants to know). The ability for self-deception by a human being, or a human couple, or an entire human society, is both an extraordinary and a terrifying thing.
That same description – extraordinary, terrifying – might, in a way, also be applied to this film, The Zone of Interest. It poses difficult and troubling questions about our basic humanity, and there are events currently taking place in parts of the world – including the UK – which demonstrate all too readily that Othering of designated groups of human beings is alive and well in the present day, often whipped up by extremists on one or other end of the political spectrum. The Zone of Interest does something even more unsettling than that: it reduces these events, through the lives of their complicit perpetrators, to the level of the banal. The film speaks to us about some very difficult issues: it is a masterpiece and deserves to be widely seen.
The Zone of Interest is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, February 2nd.