Fresh, original and deeply unsettling, The Zone of Interest is this year’s Oscar-competing entry from the UK. It is one of the year’s best films from anywhere. I saw it in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it has haunted me ever since. I’ll be curious to see how it fares in its commercial release during the 2023 holidays. It is not a Christmas movie. In fact, there’s not a ho ho ho anywhere in sight.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
But even if you’re only in the mood for merry bells and mistletoe, don’t even think of missing this one. Adapted by distinguished British writer-director Jonathan Glazer from the acclaimed 2014 novel by Martin Amis, the film chronicles the domestic life of Rudolf Hoss (a solemn Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (a marvelous Sandra Hüller, also currently starring in the murder mystery Anatomy of a Fall), and their children, whose luxurious family home is nestled between train tracks and gas chambers on the edge of Auschwitz, the notorious German concentration camp in occupied Poland, where Rudolf serves as the commandant. Through the horrors of history, we forget the Nazis had homes too, even if they were built inside the bars of Hell.
The Zone of Interest opens with a group of people sunbathing and enjoying a picnic on a beautiful lake. Mama teaches her children the names of fragrant flowers in her spacious garden—phlox, dahlias, roses—while the servants and guests search for juicy berries. Papa returns to work after lunch in a perfectly ordinary job—routine, even boring.
In the afternoon, while a delicious dinner is prepared, the women try on clothes and cosmetics. Hedwig seems especially pleased with a new mink coat. It takes a moment to realize where their new acquisitions are coming from. Then the reality begins to dawn, gradually, quietly, and without incident. We are spared scenes of monstrous inhumanity, but this is still Auschwitz. The sounds of rifles we sometimes hear in the distance are all part of a normal day.
The women gossip about trivial matters. Instead of toys, the children play with a collection of gold teeth, ignoring the smoke rising from chimneys on the other side of the wall. Instead of the stock market, the men’s conversations center on how long it takes to burn 700 Jews a day and dispose of the ashes. Rooms are filled to the ceiling with the confiscated belongings of innocent people following the massive extermination of all the Jews in Poland.
We are in the final days of the Holocaust, and when the peace and privilege of their everyday lives are threatened by orders from Berlin to move to a new home and transfer to a new, less fortunate position, Hoss begins to worry about his future, and Hedwig becomes fixated on self-preservation. It’s all very creepy and troubling. The film is so well-made, so deliberately cautious about showing actual atrocities, that the imagination works overtime, but the muted voices of prisoners in the background and the endless clouds of smoke rising over the vineyards, the grapevines and the gazebo make for a chilling contrast between what we see and what we know.
Shot on location, The Zone of Interest exposes both the banality and the evil of Nazism, illuminated by the taut, suspenseful performances of Sandra Hüller as the most unremarkable, often clueless wife and Christian Friedel as the most deceptively powerless control freak ever created by the Third Reich. The point of this overwhelming film—that depraved insanity sometimes goes undetected because of its unexpected mediocrity—has a chilling impact that seems, in the terrifying power politics of our world today, more egregiously relevant than ever.