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Review: The Zone of Interest. A new take on historical horror

  • Release year: 2023
  • Director: Jonathan Glazer.
  • Producers: Ewa Puszczynska and James Wilson.
  • Screenplay by: Jonathan Glazer.
  • Cinematographer: Lukasz Zal.
  • Music by: Mica Levi.

Synopsis: a peak into the life of Rudolf Höss’s and his family in Auschwitz, emphasising their daily routine as inhabitants of a house situated right next to the concentration camp that Höss manages.

Shotgun Commentary: almost two hours of slow, psychological torture, which is the point, really, so job well done.

Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel) smoking in his garden. Source: The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023). A24 Films.

Review

The Zone of Interest provides an original take on the hugely narrated Holocaust era of the European history. Rather than making the Jews protagonist, its focus is on the German side, in particular, on the director of the Auschwitz camp and his family. This opens up the possibility to explore the psyche of German Nazis further than the evil surface that is known.

Simple story

The premise is fascinating from a psychological point of view. The narrative is not especially engaging or life changing, but the space, along with the sound, take up all the attention of the audience. The story is quite simple: Höss and his family live next to the concentration camp that he manages, he is given orders to move elsewhere, but his wife doesn’t want to leave the house that she has worked so much on, so they separate and talk on the phone. That is it, no more, no less.

As far as chronicles go, it is simple and to the point. It would have no power or intensity if it weren’t for the small details of dehumanisation that are seen. The best example of this would be how carelessly a group of housewives talks about the clothes and other personal effects they have “received”, as if those pieces didn’t belong to anyone before or had been willingly parted with.

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) trying on a stolen fur coat. Source: The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023). A24 Films.

Wilful ignorance

The pride with which Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), Rudolph’s wife, exhibits her stolen jewels and furs is nauseating, but not nearly as repugnant as her willing ignorance to what is going on not ten metres away from her garden.

That attitude was used by a lot of Nazis during and after the war to sleep well at night. The idea that, if they didn’t pull any triggers, they were not murderers nor accomplices in the massacre of thousands of people. This mentality is revolting, and it is exposed so clearly and realistically that audiences can feel sick while watching it.

The good

Technically, there are three decisions that stand out above all others. The first one, the “skeleton crew” used to shoot the film. The lack of cinematographic lights and extra gear, apart from some cameras, is not only economically clever, but visually brilliant. Glazer explained that this decision was due to the historical nature of the facts. Real life is not artificially illuminated, so historical accounts shouldn’t either. In this case, since there are no tricky moments illumination-wise other than the pitch-black night, which is recorded through thermal photography, it is the best choice.

Höss family enjoying a picnic next to the river. Source: The Zone of Interest
(Jonathan Glazer, 2023). A24 Films.

The second decision, easily regarded as the best one, is the use of the sound. The sound is the indisputable protagonist, narrating off-camera a story that the spectators will never see in the images. This technique works in favour of the film for various reasons. Budget aside, the lack of images for those sounds prompt the viewers to imagine what is going on.

This is a technique widely used for horror films since it makes you think of your worst fears encouraged by the noises you hear. This enhances the horror and tension since half of the content is tailored by yourself specifically for you, turning a mostly visually dull movie into pure psychological torture.

The bad

The third and last notable factor is the decision to add around five minutes of silent images of cleaners preparing the Holocaust museum for visits. This might be a way to connect past and present, or a reminder of what the main character did, but it feels like a nonsensical filler. It drags on the feature, adding no value whatsoever to the experience.

Höss daughters going to the swimming pool. Source: The Zone of Interest
(Jonathan Glazer, 2023). A24 Films.

The temporal jump creates a pause that has no place being there. It takes the audience out of the narrative, and never lets them get back to it since, during the two or three more minutes that The Zone of Interest goes on after that insert, the viewers are more worried about the meaning of that pause than about whatever is going on. This renders the end of the film unnecessary and forgettable, a cruel way to hinder a good piece in its last ten minutes.

Advice to take from this movie:

  • Ignoring the fact that you are a horrible person, doesn’t make you any less horrible.
  • Brainwashing your kids to be just like you is wrong in all kinds of ways.
  • The human ability to ignore other’s suffering knows no limits.
Hedwig Höss showing the flowers of the garden to her baby.
Source: The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023). A24 Films.

What’s your take? Have you watched The Zone of Interest? Don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, or leave a message in my contact page! For more reviews and cinema-related articles, check out the rest of my blog! 😀

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