Jonathan Glazer’s latest creation hits your head so hard that it keeps it spinning vertiginously. It throws your set of inner values and principles into disarray, and make you question the very nature of your humanity. It’s a necessary and urgent film, relevant to people of all nationalities and with a topic as current as it was 80 years ago, when the Third Reich was at its height.
The movie depicts the routine of Rudolf Hoess (Christian Friedel), the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, his wife Hedwig Hensel (Sandra Hueller) and their five children (ranging from babyhood to 11 years of age) around 1943 in a large country house. The facilities are very comfortable, however not particularly extravagant. The dining room and lounge are elegant and spacious, the medium-size garden is populated with gingerly pruned plants, a table and a few chairs. This is where Rudolf welcomes other Nazi officers. A guest casually describes how the gas chambers work, with a factory plant to hand: “load, burn, cool, unload, then start all over again”. It sounds as if they are talking about a food manufacturing procedure. This is also where the children play. Where Rudolf and Hedwig enjoy their intimacy, sharing the friendly banter and occasional joke. A quiet lake nearby provides the family with rural entertainment, reflection and a connection with nature. This could be any German family. It is such casualness that is most jarring. These people lead a hair-raisingly mundane existence.
At one point , Rudolf visits the doctor, who asks him: “do you sleep well?”. There is no innuendo in the question. The clinician is not concerned with the conscience of his patient. And neither is Rudolf. As far as he is concerned, he is a decent human being carrying out his job, like anybody else would.
The signs of horror are subtle however constant. A dab of ashes collapses into the sink. The black smoke jostles the white clouds in the sky. Someone occasionally coughs. The gas chambers (where more than one million Jews were murdered in just five years, and hundreds of thousands more were subjected to unfathomably inhumane forced labour) and the torture rooms (where Mengele conducted some of the most shocking and cruel experiments in the history of mankind) stand literally next door to the house, their rooftops and chimneys just about visible. At one point, Hedwig struts down the road, and viewers get a much better glimpse of what stands behind the walls. Despite the pollution, the couple are always dapper, and Rudolf’s white shirt always immaculately clean.
The sordid signs aren’t purely visual. The humming of the burning is conspicuous: at dinner, at gardening, at leisure, during sleep. It presumably followed Rudolf and Hedwig even after the War was finished. The occasional screaming and shooting also a common recurrence. A distant hubbub adds the final touch. Manifold disturbing sounds blend smoothly into some sort of white sound that envelopes the film with a false sense of security. An elaborate sound montage entirely devoid of images both opens and closes the film, ensuring viewers are properly immersed in this astounding real and demonic world, and that the sensory experience is complete.
One day, Rudolf is asked to move to Oranienburg with his family. Hedwig is profoundly upset at the news. She refuses to budge. She wants to stay the place that’s “beyond her dreams” (in her very own words). Rudolf grants her wishes, and gets transferred on his own. He is confident that he will soon return and be reunited with his family, just as they continue to “live thei dream” undisturbed.
What makes In the Zone of Interest different from any movie you have ever seen is that the Nazis are portrayed as regular human beings. They are not screaming at each other. Rudolf is neither unpleasant nor arrogant. In fact, he is a tender and loving husband (even if he occasionally fucks the maid and the odd Jew in the basement), father and animal lover: he bathes the baby, cuddles his wife, kisses and declares “I love you” to his horse. Hedwig is entirely devoted to her children and garden, and she knows each and every flower by their name. What’s there not to like about these people? That someone could forge such sense of normality under such extreme conditions is precisely what makes Jonathan Glazer’s film so powerful. The British director demonstrates that even the most prominent Nazis were human beings, with good and bad qualities, and magnificently fallible in such contradiction.
A quick flash-forward into the present-day Auschwitz (now a museum) makes the film horrifically palpable (particularly if, like myself, if you have visited the place), while also raising pertinent questions about conformity and complicity. This isn’t a movie about one evil people: the Germans during WW2. Hannah Arendt once said to a German friend that a German should apologise for their Nazi past as much as she (a Jew) should apologise for being human. In the Zone of Interest would please the controversial philosopher. This is a universal film with a universal warning: human beings have the unique ability to be simultaneously human and evil. That’s because “evil” is a human invention. We are all human and evil in our essence. Recognising this paradox is the best way to avoid complacence. Only self-criticism can avert WW3.
Glazer might tacitly ask us: have become so desensitised to suffering, so neatly locked inside our small and comfortable bubbles, that we too are ignoring the towering chimneys of human suffering blowing black smoke right above our heads, without even realising it? Have we become snowblinded by war and genocide?
The Zone of Interest premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally. It was the critics’ (myself included) favourite to snatch the event’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Instead it won the Grand Prix (second highest prize). It shows in September in San Sebastian.