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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

The Zone of Interest

Some films strike like a lightning bolt on a first watch and stay with you, scarring themselves into your psyche and subtly but permanently shifting your movie-viewing paradigm on its axis.

Jonathan Glazer’s masterful and chilling The Zone of Interest has stayed with me, stubbornly, over the months that followed the first viewing.

To describe The Zone of Interest as an adapted screenplay is perhaps misleading (although it has secured an Oscar nomination in that category, along with four others, including best picture and best director).

In fact, the film is very much its own brooding, boldly unconventional entity, sharing with Martin Amis’s book a title and a location – Auschwitz, or more specifically just outside the walls of the camp, in the home of a high-ranking Nazi and his family – but little else.

The walls are a crucial component of this film, which shows the daily details of the life of an upwardly mobile Nazi couple – the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) – and their five children.

The Höss family are raised according to the tenets of the Artaman League, a German anti-urban, back-to-the-land movement that advocated an agrarian ideal and respect for the natural world.

They enjoy wholesome, halcyon picnics by the river (predominantly captured, like most of the picture, in dispassionate mid and wide shots) and idyllic days in the lush, lovingly tended garden of the Höss villa, a source of considerable pride for Hedwig.

We never see beyond the walls that separate her cherished roses and dahlias from the industrial death factory on the other side. But through Johnnie Burn’s incredible, immersive sound design, the ambient noise generated by the horrors within the camp is evoked with a suffocating intensity that matches the choking pall of smoke billowing continuously from the Auschwitz furnace chimneys.

Burn’s remarkable work is not the only aural element that contributes to the film’s brutal power. Glazer reteams with composer Mica Levi, his collaborator on his previous film, Under the Skin.

Levi’s sparsely used score, accompanying eerie night-vision thermal images, jolts us out of the oblivious banality of the Höss household. And their compositions bookend the picture, with what sounds like a chorus of tormented souls.

A gnawing sense of dread permeates the entire film, created through sound and score, but also through telling details, such as the way the father’s work has polluted his children’s play (the older boy locks his little brother in a greenhouse and then teases him by making the hissing sound of gas). Imagine the stress levels of the chilling baby-on-the-beach sequence from Under the Skin, but stretched out to feature length. It’s a bruising watch.

Unshowy but impeccable in the two main roles, both Friedel and Hüller excel. Friedel plays Rudolf as a pedantic, mid-level bureaucrat with a thin, needling voice and a despot’s haircut, whose unquestioning efficiency and commitment to the cause of National Socialism has facilitated his rapid ascent within the SS.

And Hüller’s Hedy chortles over her good fortune as she cherry-picks the choicest possessions of murdered Jewish prisoners, parading her newly elevated status like a purloined mink coat.

Nowhere is the understated brilliance of Hüller’s performance better demonstrated than in the delivery of a single line of dialogue, said to her housemaid: “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Babice.” It could be wielded like a deadly weapon, but Hüller says it conversationally, almost pleasantly.

In Glazer’s last film, 2013’s Under the Skin, the director relied on hidden cameras to track an extra terrestrial Scarlett Johansson’s journey across Glasgow. He does the same here, with 10 fixed cameras dotted around the house, controlled via remote.

An extended title sequence provides a kind of sensory deprivation. A darkened screen gives way to the hellish sirens of Mica Levi’s score, before we awaken, powerless to disrupt Hoss’s hermetic reality.

At the very end, Glazer chooses to flash forward, his intentions made concrete – the evils of today will leave their own scars on history.

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