Friday, February 23, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Zone of Interest (2023)

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Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest is unlike any other film you'll ever see about the Holocaust.  Told entirely from the point of view of Nazi Commandant Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family, stationed in an affluent home adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film is startlingly dispassionate in its depiction of the most heinous of war crimes.  Höss takes his family swimming, goes horseback riding, gets a boat for his birthday, throws backyard parties, leads a typical well-to-do suburban lifestyle.  And just over the garden wall plumes of smoke float up from the incinerators next door.  Höss's young son mimics the mechanical furnace sounds they hear all night, his daughter has trouble sleeping and watches the orange glow of the fires through a hallway window, but aside from his wife pilfering the occasional stolen fur coat and his older son examining his collection of gold teeth, this family scarcely acknowledges the unfathomable horrors taking place in their own backyard.
The wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) has become so entitled to this lifestyle she reacts harshly when Rudolph informs her he's being reassigned to Oranienburg and actually demands he go by himself and keep the family at Auschwitz.  After trying on the aforementioned coat she orders one of her Jewish servants to sew up a hole in the lining.  She shows off the house and garden and pool to her visiting mother, who is initially impressed ("You've really landed on your feet.") but later appalled when she wakes up in the middle of the night to the sounds of the furnace.  Hedwig's cold detachment from what it is her husband does for a living is really symbolic of the empathy-free attitudes that led to the Holocaust and so many atrocities like it.  Her complete inability to see its victims as human beings, partly due to the posh lifestyle her husband's work affords her, make her just as evil as Rudolph.

Glazer wanted to make a film about the Holocaust without sensationalizing it, and he's managed to do so in an unexpectedly profound way by showing the family's businesslike obliviousness, but also by depicting its obscenity entirely through sound.  At all times we can faintly hear the furnace, the trains arriving, the distant gunshots, and in one particularly horrifying moment the screams of agony as the camera shows a medium closeup of Höss at work, overseeing the camp itself.  Somehow only being able to hear these things through the Höss family's ears, like sounds from a nearby factory is in its way just as upsetting as seeing them depicted in a film like Schindler's List.  Where Spielberg's masterpiece rightly shows these events from the victim's POV, in this film we're forced to share the experience of the abominable people responsible - cold, detached, unfeeling.  That people like this ever existed (and in some circles still do) is brain-breakingly appalling.

The film is presented almost like a documentary; Glazer mounted cameras and microphones all around the house to capture casual, mundane conversation and create the feel of an everyday family just going about their daily business.  There are also very few music cues (though composer Mica Levi makes what is there count) to relieve the feeling that we're an observer in this house, with these people.  The cinematography is Kubrickian in its chilliness, with mostly static, wide camera angles and environmental lighting, never letting us off the hook that we're watching a movie.  These people were real and they did these things, and we're sharing a space with them.

The Zone of Interest is truly unique in its depiction of one of the most shameful events in human history, presenting the genocide as "just something dad does for work," while mom hangs out with friends, the kids play in the backyard, and the forced household labor does most of the upkeep.  Spending the better part of two hours with such apathetic people while such barbarism toward nameless, faceless innocents takes place next door is truly unsettling.  It is of little comfort that Höss in real life did ultimately get what was coming to him.

I give The Zone of Interest ***1/2 out of ****.

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