The Zone of Interest: a disturbing film of ordinary people involved in, and denying evil

Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest” (2023)

As films about the Nazi Holocaust go, “The Zone of Interest” is one of the most disturbing I have ever seen, not only because the evil is present in the film’s ambient background soundtrack (thus forcing viewers to pay very close attention to the film) but because it portrays the people involved in the mass murder of millions of Jews, Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviets and others as the ordinary humans they’ve always been and not as caricatured monsters. Presented as though it were a “cinéma-vérité” documentary, the film revolves around the day-to-day life of a married couple who strive to create a paradise for themselves and their five children in their villa and its gardens – right next door to the largest concentration camp / death camp complex in Europe in the 1940s. That’s right, this family was living next door to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp network and the couple’s names were Rudolf and Hedwig Höss. Rudolf Höss was the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau from May 1940 to November 1943, when he was transferred to Oranienburg, and again from May 1944 to January 1945 to oversee the gassing of 430,000 Hungarian Jews.

Because of its unusual style of narration, the film succeeds in portraying Höss (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) in as neutral a manner as it is possible to do, and while these characters are unlikeable and so flat that they really are nothing out of the ordinary, nevertheless they hold audiences’ attention all the way through to the very end. That really is a feat as the film has no obvious plot – and therefore no drama – to speak of. All the drama and the tension are in the contrast between the idyllic life the Höss family enjoys in the mansion and its spacious gardens, and in the countryside beyond, and the camp complex beyond the garden walls with its continuously noisy ambience of tortures, beatings, executions, gunshots, screaming, wailing and other, even more horrific sounds and what they may imply. Initially viewers wonder whether the Höss family, the various guests who come and go, and the servants are even aware of the horrors on the other side of their compound, let alone be affected by them, but as the film continues, verbal asides from various characters not only show they are all very much aware of what is going on, and are affected by it, but they are determined to shut out the evil by cocooning themselves in an artificial world and thereby deny its presence. In other words, the paradise with its comfortable villa, its lush gardens and swimming pool, and abundant food on display is necessary to shut out the reality that Höss is responsible for and which allows the Höss couple to live well.

The film relies on Friedel and Hüller to carry the film and they do so very well as the married couple devoted to each other but at the same time subject to the usual spats and arguments inevitable in all marriages. Friedel in particular excels as the dutiful Höss who runs the concentration camp complex like a well-oiled machine, approving the contract for a new crematorium that can operate 24 hours a day and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the camp. When not working long hours or attending meetings and conferences, he takes his children on trips on the river or picnicking in the forest, and he reads bedtime stories and well-known fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel” (itself a disturbing reminder of what goes on in the camps) to his young daughters. A couple of scenes in the film suggest that Höss has sexual relations with young attractive female prisoners. Much later in the film, in its unusual surreal climax, Höss is given an insight of what his legacy to future generations of people will be – the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp will become a museum dedicated to the memory of its victims, with museum employees carefully cleaning the torture chambers and displaying the piles of shoes and crutches that victims were forced to leave behind – and for a brief moment perhaps, Höss can choose whether to continue with what he is doing or walk away from it (and lose everything he has).

Hüller does not have nearly as much screen time as Friedel does and much of that screen time is spent either indulging her children or berating the Polish servants. The attitude of Nazi Germans towards non-German people is clear and repugnant indeed. Meanwhile, the Polish servants get their own revenge on their masters by sneaking out at nights to hide food in the work areas for concentration camp prisoners to find.

The film’s cinematography, heavy on mise-en-scène outdoor settings and the use of panning the camera slowly across a scene, is effective in showing the contrast between the dream life the Höss family leads and the horrific reality in the background with the watchtower and its strolling guard, and bales of barbed wire strung along the walls. The experimental nature of the cinematography and of the film generally allows it to indulge in a climactic scene in which Höss is faced with the enormity of what he is doing and for a brief moment has a choice between renouncing his old life or descending further into the darkness. Of course, if viewers know something of Höss’s life, they know already what he will do, but still the decision he makes will make a deep and very horrific impression on audiences. Mention of the music soundtrack, composed by English musician Mica Levi, should be made for the way in which it highlights what horrors may be occurring in the concentration camps, the depravity of the people involved in running the camp and their denial of the evil and suffering they create.

This is definitely uncomfortable viewing, all the more so given that what the Höss family does is really not so different from what other families and communities do when they are amongst evil and horror that they are in part responsible for. Significantly the film comes out at a time when Israel, relying on the Nazi Holocaust as justification, claiming victim status, and receiving financial and military support from Western governments, intensifies its near 80-year genocide of Palestinians to unspeakable levels of psychopathic savagery and violence.