A single, darkly humorous remark permeates Jonathan Glazer’s skillfully crafted and unsettling Holocaust film, which is loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis. Despite its technical brilliance, the movie may not have complete control over its deliberate use of offensive humor. It explores the coexistence of the seemingly peaceful domestic life of the German people with the unimaginable atrocities of the genocide. The film also raises questions about how such evil could arise within a society that prided itself on its cozy and tranquil “silent night, holy night, gemütlichkeit” culture, as famously described by George Steiner.
The movie portrays the idyllic countryside happiness enjoyed by Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel), the commander of Auschwitz camp. He and his family reside in a luxurious home with servants, situated right outside the barbed-wire wall. Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller), his wife, takes delight in the beautiful “paradise garden” in the back, which she has been given permission to oversee. She proudly embraces her unofficial role as the “Queen of Auschwitz,” and with this statement alone, The Zone of Interest has likely induced enough disgust for countless films.
The Höss family enjoys fishing and swimming in the gorgeous lakes and streams of the nearby Polish countryside. However, at one point, Höss notices possible bone pieces and dark particles in the river that have come from the nearby camp. He quickly tells his children to get out of the water and return home for a bath.
However, they are in a state of complete denial, living in their own isolated world. The dysfunctional family dynamics continue with scene after scene of detached emotion, as the children are cared for and the servants are given instructions. The Nazi wives engage in gossip, discussing a dress taken from a “little Jewess”. Hedwig’s mother is welcomed into the home, while screams, shouts, and gunshots can be heard from beyond the walls. This has become their norm. In the meantime, the SS officers strategize the most efficient methods of mass extermination, while Höss indulges himself with a female prisoner in his office.
One of the most impressive scenes crafted by Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal is the crystal-clear, full depth perspective of the Hösses’ lovely front yard leading to the camp wall, where the chimney can be seen against a vibrant, surreal blue sky. Höss enjoys riding horseback around the horrific compound, giving it a spine-tingling quality reminiscent of a nightmare or fairy tale.
However, the disturbing reality of their situation becomes evident through strange behavior: a child begins to sleepwalk and Hedwig’s mother is deeply troubled by their unconventional family dynamic. Hedwig herself is haunted by memories of working for a Jewish woman who may now be imprisoned in the camp just a few hundred meters away from their tranquil garden. Their warped family life is disrupted when Höss is called back to Berlin as a deputy inspector of the camps, but Hedwig insists on staying in the commandant’s quarters with the children, believing it to be the safest and most suitable place for them to grow up.
The movie, featuring an exceptional score by Mica Levi and sound design by Johnnie Burn, possesses undeniable power but may reignite the discussion about using cinematic effects to depict historical horrors. It reminded me of Jacques Rivette’s criticism of the barbed-wire tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1960). However, Glazer’s film can be argued to follow in the tradition of indirectly representing horror, similar to Claude Lanzmann and Michael Haneke. The film also attempts to incorporate Jewish testimonies, although the final coda sequence at the modern-day Auschwitz museum may absolve it of being insensitive, it oddly represents a lack of courage – as if the movie cannot bear to remain within the confines of historical irony and chooses to jump ahead to reaffirm its humane intentions. Nevertheless, Glazer undeniably focuses on the banality of evil, the mundane environment that allowed mass murderers to continue with their actions.