Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest (2023)

The literary world spent this past weekend processing the shocking news that Martin Amis had died at seventy-three. Best known for his novels Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) and his widely admired memoir, Experience (2000), Amis was “the most dazzling stylist in postwar British fiction,” writes New York Times book critic Dwight Garner. In 1991, Amis rattled critics by taking on the most horrendous event of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, in Time’s Arrow, a book that struck NYT critic Michiko Kakutani as “incongruously comic in tone.”

Time’s Arrow tells the life story of a former Nazi doctor—backwards. In the crematories of Auschwitz, observed Kakutani, “smoke is turned into corpses, and the corpses are given life.” Amis created another skewed version of Auschwitz in his 2014 novel The Zone of Interest, and this time, he won Kakutani over. “Zone creates a chilling sense of the banality of evil by depicting Nazis as petty bureaucrats in office cubicles, who chatter away about their work in the breezy, self-absorbed tones of characters in, say, the comic strip Dilbert or television’s The Office,” she wrote. “And while Zone bogs down in the middle, it builds to a haunting conclusion that slams home the horror of the Holocaust.”

Within a few years of the novel’s publication, Jonathan Glazer was publicly expressing interest in directing an adaptation. In his considerably altered treatment, which premiered in competition in Cannes last week, he strips the field of characters down to a single family, that of real-life SS officer and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. Glazer and his team, including cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Cold War) and production designer Chris Oddy, reconstructed the family home—whose grounds butted up against the barbed-wire-topped walls of the camp—and set up surveillance-like cameras in and around it to capture the daily goings on, using only naturally available light. As Time’s Stephanie Zacharek notes, Zone “doesn’t have that muted, vaguely lived-in look that so many period dramas do, as if everything has been softened by the mists of time. In this movie, we’re living in the now.”

While Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children “busy themselves with birthday parties, flower arrangements, and holiday plans, they somehow tune out a steady low-level background soundtrack of screams and shootings, plumes of steam from trains arriving at the camps, and ominous columns of fiery ash belching from distant crematoria chimneys,” writes Stephen Dalton for Film Verdict. “Point of view is Glazer’s virtuosic obsession, folding us into the warp and weft of unfamiliar zones,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Sight and Sound: “an extraterrestrial hunter in Under the Skin (2013), the fixation on a taboo reincarnation in Birth (2004), even Ben Kingsley’s hectoring gangster in Sexy Beast (2000), bullying people into a new reality.” The question that Rapold raises is, “whatever the frissons of Glazer’s perspectival gambit, why this story alone, instead of millions of others?”

Glazer has said that he aims to address “the capacity within each of us for violence. The great tragedy is human beings did this to other human beings. It is very convenient to think we would never behave in this way, but we should be less certain of that.” As Justin Chang puts it in the Los Angeles Times, Zone is “very much about the banality of evil, an apt if overused term that Hannah Arendt coined while writing about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of Höss’s bosses. But the movie doesn’t stop there: It’s also about the convenience of evil, the tolerability of evil, the myriad invisible chains of complicity and commerce that turn evil into a thriving transnational business.” For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “an element of the film’s darkly acerbic design is its portrayal of the Nazi mind-set as a corporate mentality.”

Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson is well aware that some may argue “that Glazer makes his point early and then keeps hitting the same note. To my mind, though, there is something vital in the long immersion; to be steeped so thoroughly in the everyday life of a mass murderer and his nattering family is to remember, quite crucially, that not all actors in the Final Solution were raving lunatics like their Führer.”

Screen’s Jonathan Romney finds that Hüller’s “stolid physical bearing, with a business-like stomp as she walks, chimes tartly with the petulance and fussiness of Hedwig as consummate bourgeois hausfrau, while the callow, delicate looks of Christian Friedl make Höss a strikingly insipid figure, like a boy dressed up to play in SS regalia. Rather than conventionally bringing the Höss couple to life as fully fleshed characters, the film makes us aware of them as people acting out roles within the universe of Nazi protocol, at once morally diseased humans and ghosts within a vast murderous machine.”

At one point in Zone, “we see a montage of flowers thriving in that beautiful garden, each one nurtured by the ashes of dead Jews,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “The sheer sick-making awfulness of this causes the film itself to temporarily fail: the screen fades to red and freezes before eventually collecting itself and moving on. It is one of the most devastating sequences I have seen in the cinema in years.”

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