The Zone of Interest (2023)

Devastating ‘Zone of Interest’ will haunt you

The Höss household was the epitome of domestic bliss. Dad stood to land the job of his dreams, while Mom and the couple’s five children cherished their picturesque home and its expansive backyard garden and pool. Add to that a cache of jewels, toys and fine furs. What more could they want? Well, for starters, how about a conscience?

For Rudolf Höss wasn’t just another working stiff eking out a living. Not at all. In truth, he was none other than the leading steward in the wholesale murder of Jews by the thousands. His base of operation was Auschwitz, where 1.1 million humans fell victim to his systematic slaughter. And just in the camp’s shadow sat the family’s well-appointed villa, where life went on as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring next door.

The cold-bloodedness of it all is what infuses Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” with its unshakable chill, as we observe the Höss family going about its daily business, seemingly oblivious to the muffled screams and sporadic gunfire accompanying the unmistakable smell of death in the air. “What monsters,” you say to yourself. But is there more to it? And what Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) wants you to extract from his alarming film is that the Hösses may not be an anomaly. They in fact may be us, as in the here and now, when political opponents are labeled “vermin” and barely a soul bats an eye.

These are the folks “The Zone of Interest” endeavors to reach by illustrating what happens to the family unit when it allows itself to become desensitized to a point where every ounce of empathy and compassion has evaporated. I’m sure this didn’t happen to the Höss clan overnight. Like now, it’s a gradual process in which ruthless leaders exploit a person’s worst instincts, just like Hitler appealed to Rudolf Höss, who went from upstanding Catholic to heartless antisemitic murderer.

Glazer doesn’t reveal that transformation, but we can easily surmise it merely by watching Rudolf and his family go about their everyday lives assisted by a handful of “prisoners” co-opted into servitude. What’s striking is the mundaneness. Abetted by cinematographer Lukasz Zal and composer Mica Levi, Glazer immerses you in a succession of lovely images of flora and fauna that belie the horror unfolding just steps away.

It’s as seductive to us as it is to Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and his Lady Macbeth wife, Hedwig (the fabulous Sandra Hüller), as united in the concept of family as they are in the principles of fascism. While Hedwig dotes on her kids and garden, Rudolf confers in his upstairs office with a couple of suits selling him on designs for a faster more efficient means of extermination, referring to people as “loads” and “pieces.”

Glazer then counters the cruelty by sharing glimpses of Rudolf’s humanity – such as reading “Hansel and Gretel” (of all stories) to his daughters – if only to dissuade us from completely denouncing him as pure evil. It’s effective, too, as it renders his deeds all the more disturbing.

Then there’s Hedwig. If there’s a blight in this “paradise” it’s the possibility that Rudolf might be transferred to the home office in Berlin to oversee all of Hitler’s camps. This does not sit well with Frau Höss, who refuses to leave her “perfect” life at Auschwitz, where just over the wall a few thousand doomed men, women and children might beg to differ with Hedwig’s notion of the place.

Perhaps she might re-evaluate her stance if she dared peek behind the wall to witness the atrocities. But that would mean piercing her idyllic bubble. Yet, as he does with Friedel, Glazer provides Hüller with moments of redemption, such as joyously sharing a memory of a prewar vacation in Italy.

It’s indicative of the extent Glazer strives to keep his thumb off the scale, leaving it entirely to the viewer to evaluate what transpires. But one factor all can agree on is the courage displayed by Friedel and Hüller in portraying characters who redefine despicable, yet exhibit subtle traces of humanity, especially in their undeniable love for their children. The conundrum is in attempting to reconcile their paradoxical behavior. Good luck trying.

For cynics, it would be easy to dismiss “The Zone of Interest” as nothing more than a gimmick, an awards ploy. But in doing so, you risk rejecting its meaning and purpose. For at its heart, it’s less a movie and more a frightening wake-up call to an apathetic world on the verge of allowing history to repeat itself.

Movie review

The Zone of Interest

Rated: PG-13 for smoking, thematic material, some suggestive material

Cast: Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writer: Jonathan Glazer

Runtime: 106 minutes

Grade: A-

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