TIFF 2023: The Zone of Interest
If you were to identify the most fascinating filmmaking careers of the two-decade-old century, British writer-director Jonathan Glazer would find himself high on the list. Despite working sporadically, Glazer’s four features chart an evolving sensibility and style that can beguile and repel in equal measure. His live-wire debut Sexy Beast set a tone that he quickly swerved away from, maintaining the dreamy symbolism but dropping the freneticism in favor of a statelier pace for follow-up Birth, a film which — to its great benefit — takes an absurd premise (dead husband might be reincarnated as a small child) at serious face value. Almost a decade later Glazer returned with 2013’s Under the Skin, hailed by many as a modern masterpiece but a film which left me colder than I had hoped: admirable, but alienating in a manner that defied adoration. However, it turns out Glazer has defied my expectations yet again, and this dichotomy of admiration and adoration only becomes more crucial to unravel. I can’t reasonably say I love The Zone of Interest, a sophisticatedly harrowing film that provoked physical manifestations of disgust and anxiety in a way that few films ever have. But yet: when the dust settles, there’s a real possibility that Glazer’s piece will stand as one of the most important artistic works of the decade.
Loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest observes the domestic life of a German family who have made their home mere meters away from the walls surrounding Auschwitz, where patriarch Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) serves as the concentration camp’s commandant while his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) oversees their house and children. This home is where the bulk of the film takes place; we — very intentionally, and in stark contrast to many a film about the Holocaust — aren’t shown the inside of the camps. Instead, the atrocities are depicted almost as background details: barbed wire mars the skyline, smoke thickens the air, muffled gunshots ring out on a regular basis. Of course, these aren’t mere background for us, because how could they be? You’re sickened by them, and become even more so when you realize that you too sometimes struggle to discern what is what in the complicated soundscape. There’s a point in the film where we hear screams in the distance: the sense of relief when the source turns out to be a children’s pool party quickly turns to revulsion at our inability to tell the difference.
It feels almost impossible to discuss The Zone of Interest without mentioning the phrase “the banality of evil,” simply because few works of art have ever manifested the idea (coined by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem) so blatantly. Shot in a frequently static, almost sterile manner — including the incorporation of multiple fly-on-the-wall style cameras inside the Höss’s home — Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal shy away from any of the filmmaking techniques typically used to guide the audience towards an emotional determination about how they should feel about a given character or situation. It’s a difficult line to walk; by presenting an “objective” lens, so to speak, there is of course a risk of creating a situation where your audience may unwillingly feel sympathy with the worst humanity has ever had to offer. But Glazer impressively threads the needle: you never once forget these individuals are Nazis; rather, the horror stems from the fact that our clear perception of what it means to be a Nazi is not shared by the characters on screen. To them, it’s just a job, a means to an end that allows them to have the life they’ve always imagined — which is why the most minor moments have the greatest impact. At one point Rudolf is dictating a letter over the phone to his secretary, and signs off “Heil Hitler, etcetera, etcetera.” It’s a throwaway line for him, yet unspeakably violent for us: that’s the banality of evil.
Now, if this objective lens was all Glazer was working with, the film would likely still be an immense achievement. But what elevates it to a work of art that burrows insidiously inside your brain are the moments where he chooses to break with form and push the more experimental boundaries he tested in Under the Skin. All propelled by Mica Levi’s pulsing and unsettling score, there are scenes shot with thermal-imaging cameras and sequences of pure abstract color and sound, interspersed with the day-to-day of the Höss family. These — along with a punishing break from cinematic reality and temporality late in the film — are the crucial flourishes that I still can’t fully wrap my head around but have stayed with me long after seeing the film. I walked out of my theater shell-shocked, overwhelmed by emotional and physiological reactions I struggled to process. Can you love a film like this? I don’t think that’s for me to answer, and in some ways the work feels almost separate from the concept of a “movie” in the colloquial sense, but I feel confident in asserting that The Zone of Interest is a staggering artistic achievement, more than worthy of your admiration.