Movie Review: The Zone of Interest

One-liner: Bold direction, subtle handling and documentary realism amplify this unsettling, immense and well-acted World War II drama.

The Zone of Interest is a haunting historical drama based on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis. This has been thoughtfully adapted into a standalone feature by Jonathan Glazer, a visionary writer-director who makes a point of dreaming outside of the box. It’s not all that surprising to find Glazer in pursuit of yet another artful and unconventional entity, having directed Birth and Under the Skin, two attention-grabbing films headlined by Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson playing characters faced with extraordinary situations.

In The Zone of Interest he dials back the surreal undertone of previous works for something much more grounded in history. While there are many examples of holocaust films, very few have dared to venture far into the obscure, instead offering what’s now become a rote retelling of one of humanity’s greatest atrocities. Having had the patience to prepare for this film over the course of many years, the critically-acclaimed director has come at it from a different angle (quite literally) opting to portray, “Big Brother in the Nazi house”. Glazer is not afraid to be unconventional, and this shooting style definitely has a voyeuristic undertone, made all the more provocative by being “behind enemy lines”.

To this end, he has done a masterful job offering a realistic and deeply disturbing portrayal of a family simply going about their lives. Ordinarily this story would be mundane, but being relayed with docudrama authenticity just over the wall from the Auschwitz concentration camp creates a harrowing and unsettling contrast. Glazer is concerned with human complicity and instead of showing the pain and suffering of genocide, opts for a more subliminal approach by shifting the focus to a family under the headship of a Nazi commandant. The Höss family go about their lives in an otherwise idyllic setting where a doting wife maintains a dream home for them, able to wile away the hours in their beautiful garden.

It’s the unnerving sound design and subtle happenings of The Zone of Interest that really get under your skin. The distant wails and smoke rising from chimneys makes for a haunting and disturbing backdrop for this German family who have detached themselves from the reality of the situation they’re living in. From matter-of-fact discussions on new gas chamber designs to being confronted with the likely possibility of losing their beautiful homestead, the cinematography keeps one at a cool distance as they go about their daily lives, capturing snapshots of their disconnected existence.

Glazer is able to take you deep within this domestic situation as deft touches make big impressions. This cool distance and slow-burning alienation is palpable, made all the more real by the fact that the cameras were so well-concealed that at times the actors weren’t sure if they were being filmed or not. This fly-on-the-wall documentary style contributes to the sense of reality, compelled further by accurate wardrobe and production design, transplanting viewers into the life and times of Rudolf Höss and his family’s home without flinching.

This rich visual tapestry takes a few moments to become accustomed to, seemingly operating without manipulation, yet adding layers of meaning to its storytelling as we become better acquainted with a mother and father. One, a homemaker trying to give her children the best future possible, and the other, a military man whose dream of one day owning a farmstead requires that he cast (or even pluck) a blind eye for as long as the war continues. There’s a depth and complexity to these self-deluded characters who have disassociated themselves and come to terms with the idea of ethnic cleansing as a genocide transpires a stone’s throw away from them.

zone of interest movie

“There you go, be gentle now.”

Taking this journey with an otherwise unremarkable family, The Zone of Interest’s engaging by virtue of the breadcrumbs left by this Hansel and Gretel tale as they succumb to the evil that lurks just beyond their footsteps. Happily embracing groupthink and the repercussions of untold evil, there’s a strange tension and sickly undercurrent that festers as they are constantly confronted with the truth, yet willingly subvert doubts in favour of numb creature comforts. Glazer’s film is far from gratuitous, testament to its surprisingly low age restriction based on the subject matter, and yet still has lasting impact value by way of a sharp edit, subtle handling, and well-balanced writing.

As inspired as it is, there are some drawbacks. Returning to his roots, Glazer intersperses a surreal sequence to add another dimension and prevent the film from being too monotone. A welcome break and counterpoint to the heavy documentary style, it does at odds and out of place in The Zone of Interest. Having an artful edge and poetic energy, the sequence adds mystery as a constant curiousity but its mostly dreamlike state muddles the carefully curated and established medium even though it’s not animated.

The Zone of Interest features two excellent lead performances from Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller, but this is not an actor’s showcase. Rigidly adhering to the cinematic treatment, the fixed camera’s hands-off approach means that it’s trickier for the nuance of the performances to truly shine through as Rudolf and Hedwig Höss. Hüller is nominated for an Oscar for her mercurial lead performance in Anatomy of a Fall, having a string of excellent performances in her wake. So even though you know she is operating as proficiently as always, the distance of the medium shots means that some of the finer details of her performance are lost in translation. Aiming for an unfiltered suspended reality, Glazer may have even instructed his actors “not have anything on it” when it came to their choices.

The same can be said for Friedel, who in spite of his character’s heinous actions finds a degree of empathy in the process. Tapping into their roles as a father and mother trying to do the best for their family and children, Glazer is able to pry open a spectrum of complexity for Rudolf and Hedwig. This is refreshing, adding texture and not vilifying or writing them off as the faceless enemy as is common in these kinds of World War II dramas. This gives them more shades of humanity with Friedel’s foppish mannerisms making the character seem blissfully ignorant and offhandedly likeable. While an obvious villain, Friedel has a similar vibration to Simon Pegg, coming across as somewhat vulnerable in spite of his high profile and linchpin status.

An inspired decision in the closing stages shows a moment in time with far-reaching consequences that brilliantly sums up and echoes the poignant central concept of The Zone of Interest. While a rather simple story, it’s the documentary realism and the overarching horror of the unseen that haunts every scene. Taking a bold step to represent the other side, The Zone of Interest makes a riveting family portrait that speaks volumes, writing the screenplay in such a way as to represent ordinary lives with metaphorical heft and far-reaching consequences. It’s this process of sifting the psychological suspense of every moment that makes this historical drama so fascinating. A rather alienating experience, the rich details and subtle handling bristle loudly against an ambient holocaust.

The bottom line: Unsettling