‘The Zone of Interest’ review: Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set drama is monumental in its representation of the seen and unseen horror of the Holocaust | Cannes
Exactly ten years after the singular sci-fi achievement that was Under the Skin, writer-director Jonathan Glazer is back in Cannes’ Main Competition with a new, monumental film, The Zone of Interest.
Based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name where the author fictionalized the domestic and daily life of Nazi officers in the 1940s, The Zone of Interest is—like any Holocaust film—much more than an adaptation, it is history anew. In the book, it seems necessary to count on micro-histories and individuals to tackle the sheer enormity of this unspeakable tragedy. While this approach can provide the distance needed to even start telling a story set in a concentration camp, it is still within the safety confines of the written word. Cinema, as well as photography, face a different challenge: the trouble is with the image. How to bear witness without overstepping the representation taboo, this is the main question for every filmmaker who chooses the Holocaust as their subject.
The Zone of Interest shows a happy family of six: a big house, an even bigger garden, a dedicated housewife and her three maids, and the husband’s promotions to keep everything afloat, making sure the children can have anything they’d want. But the periphery of the frame tells another story. There are tall concrete walls, there is barbed wire, a watchtower, and a chimney, all fire and smoke. This is the Höss family, made up of Auschwitz’s commander, Rudolf—played by Christian Friedel whose gentle face was equally arresting in the grimness of The White Ribbon—and his wife Hedwig—Sandra Hüller, whom we have loved even since before Toni Erdmann.
The film is almost entirely in German, shot in Poland in and around the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, an ambitious undertaking for a first non-English language film. But Glazer’s perfectionism and deep respect for the medium can guarantee a quite singular slice of the cinematic imaginary, especially within the tradition of Holocaust films. If you’d ask, where in the wide spectrum between Schindler’s List and Son of Saul does The Zone of Interest sit, I’d say: outside of it, in its own lane. So it’s not exactly another kind of history being told, but the perplexing coexistence of the mundane and the ultimate, highly calculated, cruelty, reminding us that Nazi commanders had no trouble sleeping.
By placing the emphasis on the everyday tasks at the Höss home and the official, detached language held in the commander meetings, Glazer shows tact and respect. All of this is executed in a meticulous, but not suffocatingly sterile visual manner. The frames are so full and crisp, and the details of the image so sharp, that they can wound. All of this abundance does more to draw attention to a lack in the same way that every attempt to represent the Holocaust only underscores how unrepresentable it is.
If László Nemes’s Son of Saul (winner of a Cannes Grand Prix and International Feature Oscar) actively asked the audience to consider the background and the off-screen space with the stylistic insistence to blur and conceal the unimaginable, The Zone of Interest is set on showing us as much as possible with the knowledge that we’ll always search for that which is missing. With the decisive use of depth of field, deep staging, and static cameras, the film invites us to scrutinize every move, every frivolous gesture, every laugh. Łukasz Żal’s (Ida, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) camerawork offers fragments: people walk in and out of the wide-lens frame and with a couple of exceptions, the cameras themselves are fixed, producing static tableaux and constant surveillance. In every single exterior shot, the markers of Auschwitz haunt the image, day or night. In addition to Mica Levi’s exceptional, yet minimalist score whose noisy depths insist on avoiding aesthetic categorizations, there are punctures in the film’s visual style which are strategically placed: the highly conceptual use of thermal cameras and the simple fades to solid colors—black, white, and red— become repositories for hope in a sea of hopelessness and apathy.
Glazer’s film does not represent the unrepresentable—for that would go against the conviction of Holocaust cinema—but offers a new, specifically cinematic way to refuse representation and pay respects. That constant alertness, the way we’re always reminded of what’s behind the household walls, is more than a direct product of research or applying Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil to moving images. Part of the Final Solution (which is bureaucratically present in the film as well) was to eradicate all evidence of what took place, which makes the decision to include absences even more suitable. These are not clues, nor hints; Glazer may be economical in his narrative construction, but the details are telling, enigmatic enough to suggest: ash in the air, in the water, a Sonderkommando tending the garden, a lipstick in the pocket of a supposedly new fur coat, the hand-painted house walls: labor, violence, and pain that all belong to those who are not pictured.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release The Zone of Interest in the U.S.