Jonathan Glazer is back. This news alone should make cinephiles everywhere very happy, because over the acclaimed British director’s 20-year career, he’s only made three features – the last one being Under the Skin from 2013, considered by many to be the best film of the decade. Premiering in competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, his fourth feature The Zone of Interest delivered, subverted and exceeded whatever expectations you might have for the project. It’s a Holocaust movie like you’ve never seen before. A bold, frightening masterpiece looking into the depths of human depravity. Bravo.
The film centers around German military officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children. The family lives in a beautiful house with an enormous garden and a summer pool. Day by day, dad goes to work, mom takes care of the household, the kids go to school. They receive guests, take swims in the river, basically going about their lives like any bourgeoise family. Except Rudolf is the Nazi-commandant of Auschwitz and they live right across the street from a place where thousands of people are incinerated every day.
Before coming to Cannes, I read British novelist Martin Amis’ book of the same name and can confirm that this is much more a case of “inspired by” than “adapted from”, as narratively the film bears next to no relation to the source material. Glazer essentially took out the entire plot of the book and focuses solely on its descriptive elements that set the scene. For the first hour of the film, few things happen beyond a painstaking recreation of this family’s lifestyle. The tone is neutral, surgically sterile. There are no acts of violence and no one is depicted as a raging, snarling monster. When Hedwig receives a huge bag of clothes and tries on a fur coat, you only realize there’s nothing normal about this when she pulls out a used lipstick from its pocket and later jokes with friends about owning things from different countries without having traveled there.
As he did with Under the Skin, Glazer proves once again that he’s a master of visual storytelling. The horrors of Auschwitz are communicated subtly and non-verbally in The Zone of Interest. A maid would pick up the boots someone wore home to wash away the blood stains. Rudolf would notice something in the river and pack up the kids to have them scrubbed in the bathtub. When Hedwig’s mother visits and leaves unannounced, we would not learn the reason except the look on her face as she peeks out the window one night. The audience is to connect the dots for themselves and when it clicks, you can feel the chills going down your spine.
Those still recovering from the alien beauty of Under the Skin will be pleased to know that The Zone of Interest has its share of haunting, purely sensorial moments. Shot with pristine crispness by Lukasz Zal (DP of Ida and Cold War), the film’s look is characterized by an ultra-HD brilliance that conveys the Germanic ideal of perfection. But, without explanation or warning, it would suddenly cut to black-and-white animated sequences that glow like X-ray pictures. These scenes not only add an eerie, ghostly atmosphere to the mix, they disrupt the otherwise picture-perfect quality of the film and hint at the illusion of paradise. For the ending, Glazer splices shots of Rudolf peering down dark corridors with some wholly unexpected footage and the effect is powerfully disorienting.
On a sonic level, The Zone of Interest is also a work of genius. Mica Levi provided the score and it is predictably amazing. While only sparingly and very purposefully used, this music hits a unique spot every time with its strange motif recalling distorted sounds of sirens and screams. The film opens and closes with a darkened screen. While the viewer is left to ponder what they expect to see in a Holocaust movie / what they have just seen, Levi’s shadowy, nightmarish score playing in the background gives you all the clues you need.
Both Friedel and Hüller are superb. We’re used to seeing Nazi’s as mustache-twirling villains, maniacs that look like maniacs. But the truth is in Nazi Germany, so many “ordinary” people directly or indirectly partook in Hitler’s genocide campaign and they did that without thinking they’re the bad guys. Demonstrating the banality of evil, they simply followed orders and did their job. As someone responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands, Friedel maintains his civil manners throughout and never raises his voice. When Rudolf tells his wife that all he can think about at parties is how to most efficiently gas the guests in the room, the sickness of his mind reveals itself not in any violence of expression, but in the complete lack thereof. Hüller impeccably embodies the capable Nazi hausfrau. Upon reading her mother’s note explaining her sudden departure, she betrays nothing but a fleeting flash of distress before calmly burning the piece of paper like a good German should. An expertly understated, precisely calibrated performance.
We’ve seen many iterations of the Holocaust movie which attempt to recreate the historic atrocity via ever-more-gruesome productions. This film feels like a counter-proposal. Without showing a single dead body, Jonathan Glazer captures the casualness of cruelty and offers perhaps the most unsettling cinematic exposition on how mass hysteria of this dimension came to be. For its unflinching vision and staggering artistry, The Zone of Interest is an instant candidate for film of the year and would make for a more-than-deserving winner of the Palme d’Or.