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The Zone of Interest – BFI London Film Festival 2023 (Film Review)

5 min read

A24

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt reports on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. As the book's subtitle suggests, Arendt famously introduced the concept of the ‘banality of evil' by observing that Eichmann was not a sociopath or a fanatic, but instead, an ordinarily mundane figure who was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology, and believed in success which he considered the strong hallmarks of a “good society”. To put it simply, banality doesn't mean that Eichmann's actions were in any way ordinary, but that his actions were motivated by some kind of unexceptional complacency. 62 years since publication and Arendt's philosophy is strongly felt in 's latest feature , an extraordinary Holocaust film, freely adapted from the novel of the same name by Martin Amis, that uncomfortably pierces deep into this banality by indirectly reflecting the horror through a laser focus on the constructed façade that the oppressors maintained for themselves. Despite Glazer's last feature Under the Skin being released nine years ago, his seven-minute short film from 2019 The Fall (in which a masked mob throws a man down a well before he miraculously climbs back up to freedom) offered a bitesize sample for this new work. But whereas The Fall captured it like lightning in a bottle, The Zone of Interest is a deliberately austere viewing experience, one that is technically outstanding but has the effect of reducing the audience to numbness and emphasising how the mundanity legitimised these murderers to proliferate a mass genocide on an unprecedented scale.

The film shows its experimental colours from the beginning with a black screen that lasts a few minutes as Mica Levi's industrial score menacingly thrums across the auditorium, preparing us for the unsettling atmosphere to follow. It then officially opens with the Höss family having a serene afternoon along the river with Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal carefully establishing the film's language by observing them from a fair distance, especially their faces. We quickly learn that the family's patriarch Rudolf Höss () is the camp commandant for Auschwitz who with his wife Hedwig () and children live in a modest house complete with an idyllic garden and a rotating cast of servants for their every needs. Crucially, the family home is just outside the camp as symbolised by a concrete wall erected around the garden's perimeter, enclosing them from the unspeakable horrors of their own accord which linger over the other side.

But even though Rudolf and Hedwig have constructed a suburban paradise to carry out their mundane domesticity in complete denial, they're not protected from the ominous sounds coming over the wall. Whether it's Hedwig tending the garden or the children getting ready for school their days are punctuated by screams, gunfire, whirring machines, and barking officials that act as a relentless soundtrack to their daily routines. There's one moment in particular where Rudolf is standing in the garden at night enjoying a cigarette, all the while a man is wailing offscreen which the commandant views as nothing more than a nuisance to his evening. And that's the chilling banality at the centre of The Zone of Interest: they're used to it in the same detached affection-less manner that Glazer views these individuals and by choosing to withhold than represent the atrocities, there is a sheer, bristling evenness that testifies to the extremity of the situation.

Building upon the hidden camera tricks utilised in Under the Skin to lure real men into the van driven by Scarlett Johansson's otherworldly figure, Glazer and Żal shot the film with ten fixed cameras placed around the Hoss's labyrinthine homestead (recreated in exacting detail on location in Poland lead by production designer Chris Oddy) and operated remotely by five focus-pullers to shoot scenes simultaneously in different rooms on-set. The effect is something akin to the real-time mundanity depicted in Chantel Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) as Hedwig effortlessly performs the household chores from room to room without the edit shifting the point of view and disrupting the film's dull temporal rhythm. In addition, there are brief mysterious sections shot using thermal imaging where a local child leaves stolen food at night for the Jews put to work in the fields. These moments pop up when Rudolf reads his children a Hansel and Gretel story and the effect is chilling as though the Grimm brother's fairy tale has come to life in a sick twist of what can be called a ‘bad dream'.

But despite these little visual flourishes, there is an unbearable tension to Glazer's filmmaking in portraying the Höss family life next to the actual reality of genocide that threatens to engulf this fabricated setup. Moments such as Rudolf discovering bone fragments in the river that have washed downstream from the camp or when one of his sons curiously peeks out of the curtain to witness an act of despicable evil are terrifyingly heightened by Johnnie Burn's uncompromising sound design. Even as the film briefly enters the realm of drama when Rudolf is ordered back to Berlin after receiving a promotion to deputy inspector of the camps and Hedwig argues over the future of their family by the river, the sounds are still prominent, never going away, always lingering in the background like a ghostly omen.

It's this emphasis on keeping the Holocaust unsaid and unseen yet always heard is what makes The Zone of Interest an undeniably powerful yet unique cinematic experience that lines it in the tradition of films like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) and Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012) – a coughing fit evokes Anwar Congo from the latter. As the coda transports us to the modern-day Auschwitz Museum (the film was created in cooperation with the museum) and cleaners tend to exhibits containing objects that belonged to the victims, Glazer's exploration of Arendt's philosophy come full circle in stark fashion. Because it's only when these atrocities of history are preserved in glass cases we can forensically examine how we got here in the first place; how this banality of evil – one that disguises itself in the every day – demonstrates that, according to Glazer in referring to philosopher Gillian Rose, “We're emotionally and politically closer to the perpetrator culture than we'd like to think we are.”

The Zone of Interest screened at 2023