The Zone of Interest (2023) Academy Award for Best International Feature Film 2024 | Grand Prix – Cannes Film Festival 2023

March 11th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Wri/Dir: Jonathan Glazer | Cast: Sandra Huller, Christian Friedel, Ralph Herforth, Max Beck | UK 107′

Another daring and distinctive outing from the English auteur/commercials director, and his first non-English film, centres on a Nazi family living in an immaculate villa boasting an idyllic flower-filled garden.

On the other side of the wall smoke rises from the ovens of Auschwitz concentration camp. As birdsong fills the air the camera focuses on the crimson petals of a delicate dahlia while screams of torture ring out in Mica Levi’s chilling score. Beauty and horror shared in one chilling frame.

Music leads us into Glazer’s brave and bracingly original fourth feature, a valuable addition to the Holocaust sub-genre. Inspired by the 2014 novel from Martin Amis it takes an another, unique, look at the genocide this time focusing on a dissociative family in total denial of their neighbours. While they briskly build a life with a growing family, thousands are losing theirs in the most inhumane way possible beyond the wall.

In many ways a holocaust of sorts is still going on all over the world today. The film explores an ongoing debate about the extent we are all prepared to go to to protect and further our own lives and interests at the expense of others. The Zone of Interest asks: Who is beyond our wall, and who would we sacrifice to preserve our way of life?

Filmed in Poland and immaculately lensed by Lukasz Zal (Cold War), geometric framing and pin-sharp images offer a clinical, realist take on daily life for butch camp commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his priggish wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) who spends her days complacently primping her garden: the perfect hausfrau with a heart of stone. Meanwhile Rudolf struts into his tidy living room to discuss with his sturmbannfuhrers the best way to incinerate 700,000 Hungarians.

A decade in the making and based on comprehensive research The Zone of Interest delves into the lives of Rudolf Hess (1901-47) and his wife who were just ordinary people who loved and took care of their family, but that’s where their empathy finished. Hess was no anomaly; somewhere along the line he and his fellow Nazis all became serial killers. The Zone of Interest is not just about the banality of evil, it takes the concept further to question our own individual capacity for violent words and deeds and points towards the possibility of each one of us being these people. And in this way the film connects subconsciously to us, the audience.

An early scene captures an intimate testament of loss and callous gain: Hedwig twirls around in a beautifully fashioned sable coat, just one of the personal items stolen from an Auschwitz victim. In the pocket a rose red lipstick is dabbed on tentatively and then relegated to her dressing table. As Hedwig and her staff gather round the breakfast table silk lingerie possibly still warm from the bodies of its victims is then divided casually amongst the women as their gossip about food and shopping.

Gradually more sinister elements surface in this Eden which play on our imagination in the same vein at The White Ribbon. A this is very much and interactive experience with its unsettling score that leads us into doom evoked by the blood-curdling overture. They are a family going through the motions in their lush riverside setting but clearly all is not well in Paradise. 

Cinema is full of stylish films about the Holocaust: most recently Son of Saul and The Conference. This one, focussing on the ’Interessengebiet’ (or area around the Auschwitz camp), is far from ‘gemutlich’ but provides chilling food for thought and a tribute to Martin Amis, whose novel sparked Glazer’s interest, and whose death was announced on 19th May 2023, just after the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere. MT


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