In The Zone of Interest a commander, his wife, and their four children live a life of bucolic bliss. They picnic by the lake. They doddle by the pool. When he sets off to work, she tends to the lilacs. Sat around the dinner table over würst and kohl, the girls’ hair plaited back like golden brezeln, they seem as if plucked from German romanticism. So why, you begin to wonder, is the light so dim? Why do these people not seem to mind when the dogs bark at night? And why do those barks sometimes sound like screams? 

Ten years after Under the Skin, the brilliant, elusive Johnathan Glazer returns with one of the most haunting films of this or any year. It’s adapted from Martin Amis’ acidic 2014 novel, though to call this an adaptation would be like saying a thunderstorm adapts the wind. Just as he did with Under the Skin, Glazer takes but a sliver of the source text and lets his imagination––perhaps his nightmares––take over. In his novel Amis alternated between the perspectives of an Auschwitz camp Commander, the mid-level officer who seduces his wife, and the antihero Szmul, a Jewish man who heads the Sonderkommando unit. Glazer strips the vast majority of it away: this is not a film that dares get too close to anyone’s perspective, let alone three. 

Focusing exclusively on the character of camp commander Boll (renamed Höss and played by Christian Friedel, with an undercut as unforgiving as his icy stare) and his family (his wife, Hedwig, is played by Toni Erdmann‘s Sandra Hüller) the film takes place almost entirely outside Auschwitz’s barbed-wire walls, but only just––from the garden we spot a watch tower, and at night, in the distance, the incinerator’s roaring flame. Employing a rigorous setup that recalls Ilya Khrzhanovsky‘s DAU project as much as the voyeuristic gaze of a hidden-camera show, the cast act out everyday scenarios seemingly unaware of which of the house’s static cameras are trained on them. Glazer thus creates a startling sense of uncanny realism––heightened to no end by the unsparing quality of the digital imagery, shot by Łukasz Żal (Cold War, Ida). There are no closeups––as if the director can’t bring himself to look these people in the eyes––and only a single camera movement.   

Amongst the aesthetic severity, Glazer lays out the threads of a story that the book explains in detail. We’re in 1942 and Auschwitz is facing an infrastructural crisis: bodies are piling up and there’s nowhere left to put them. In its first-person perspective, Amis’ novel attempted to articulate the thought processes of minds that had turned to pure statistics. Glazer skillfully distills Amis’ ideas into a handful of correspondences (read aloud by the actors) and meetings (in one, a businessman frankly explains, with something bordering on pride, how the two chambers of his proposed furnace can be operated so that the fire never need be put out). Having made a name for himself with the upper brass, Boll is called to a conference of camp commanders to explain his methods. While away, Glazer only glances at a subplot that provided the central arc of Amis’ text.

With its clear, self-evident visual cues, The Zone of Interest is not the subtlest metaphor for the monstrous potential of human self-interest, but it’s a relentless and profoundly affecting one. (“We all discovered, or helplessly revealed, who we were“, Amis wrote, “That was the Zone of interest.“) The film’s sense of purpose is reinforced by Glazer’s tactful refusal to show anything gratuitous––a choice that made me wonder if he had watched this interview. The filmmaker instead allows horrors to play inside the viewer’s head: working in unison with the booming, siren-like throbs of Mica Levi’s minimal yet exceptional score, Johnnie Burn’s sound design (shrieks and gunshots, cracking whips, the distant rumble of a ravenous furnace, the wail of an oncoming steam train) in some ways is the film. Glazer’s one recurring visual flourish––starkly lit night-vision shots of a girl collecting fruit––only works to shred the nerves even further.

It’s a shocking piece of audio-visual art that only further cements Glazer as one of the 21st century’s most original and influential filmmakers. Like many of his contemporaries, he spent the ‘90s making music videos and advertisements (that Guinness one still slaps) before a shift to features that has so far given us Sexy Beast (2001), Birth (2004), and Under The Skin (2013). With each, Glazer delivered one of the era’s iconic openings: Ray Winstone in his yellow speedos; that gorgeous, snowy Steadicam through Central Park; floating geometric shapes that turned into Scarlet Johansson’s iris. That The Zone of Interest offers nothing but a void is a masterstroke. See it huge and see it loud.  

The Zone of Interest premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by A24.

Grade: A

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