The Zone of Interest

Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), centre, at home with family and kids in The Zone of Interest. Image courtesy A24

M, 105 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

So much careful and thoughtful prep has gone into this film, told with such restraint, but the impact is devastating. Is it any wonder, it is a Holocaust movie after all? Yes, but it is so much more than that.

Very loosely based on the book of the same name by novelist, the late Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest is a study of people whose lives were lived in the immediate vicinity of an infamous German concentration camp in occupied Poland during World War II. In focus is the family home of the camp commandant of Auschwitz Birkenau, Rudolf Hoss.

A stern geometric look helps us consider the things that are at issue

It is, if you like, historical fiction, drawing attention to the contrast between what went on within the camp with family and work life outside it, but the point for writer and director Jonathan Glazer is much more than that. How did the Hoss family (almost) ignore what was going on and how did the wider German society seem to accommodate it?

The film’s stark look helps us consider the things that are at issue. The camerawork is steady and still, moving only slightly to capture the action from a different angle. An exception to this stern aesthetic is a travelling shot of garden beds luxuriant with flowering plants, as Hedwig Hoss shows the grounds to her visiting mother. She is proud that she designed it all. The landscaping, the gazebo, the greenhouse. The blooms that crowd her garden are her passion.

Another thrill is receiving unexpected items of clothing, jewellery or perfumes once worn by the inmates next door. Hedwig claims a luxuriant fur coat for herself and shares fashionable underwear with her domestic staff.

While The Zone of Interest is in some ways similar to observational documentary, with cameras being placed at secret locations during the shoot and the cast being encouraged to improvise, the craft that has gone into it is unmistakable. When the stark geometrics of horizontal and vertical lines in the frame change occasionally to a dreamy nightscape that merges with stories Hoss reads to his children at bedtime, it introduces another parallel reality, beyond the grim fairytale that gets a mention, Hansel and Gretel. In scenes shot in black-and-white, we see the figure of a young Polish girl, a character who also really did exist, hiding food in the prisoners’ workplaces after dark.

The film’s wonderful cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, whose talents have been on display in memorable Polish films like Cold War and Ida, can bring beauty out of the harshest places. Many other crew were also Polish.

Focus on the longest-standing camp commandant, responsible for ramping up its methods

The German actor Sandra Huller, so good in Anatomy of a Fall, is cast here as Hedwig, the wife of SS commandant Hoss, and mother to his five children. Hoss, played here by Christian Friedel, was the longest-standing commandant of Auschwitz Birkenau during the war, and directly responsible for ramping up the industrialisation of its ghastly methods.

Clearly, what is being explored here is the celebrated term, the banality of evil, no doubt a cliché now, that was put forward by philosopher Hannah Arendt. That it wasn’t so much collaborators, implicit or overt, as it was ordinary citizens going about their daily business who made it possible for the Nazi regime to carry out its genocidal program. People who believed they were doing their job, that doing what was expected by the powers that be would enhance their careers. For ordinary citizens to be complicit, all they had to do was live their lives, and ask no questions, to consolidate the evils of their social system.

Another timely point driven home in this powerful and devastating film is of course our ability to compartmentalise, separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, the other, and looking the other way when a regime commits gross injustice. It’s of course especially easy to look away when you are, like Hedwig, its beneficiary.

The fulsome score composed by Mica Levy has been used sparingly, and while the camerawork insists on keeping the characters, including Hedwig, at arm’s length, it’s the world of sound created by Johnnie Burn that summons up the brutal backstory. A constant reminder that this is no ordinary tale of domestic dysfunction. We know all too well what is going on on the other side of the high garden wall.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 February 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes