There are movies that confirm your place in the world, pictures that let you know you’re on the right track, capable of resolving any puzzle put before you. And then there are those that make you feel like the tiniest speck in the cosmos, a sentient but tentative being whose learning has just begun. Jonathan Glazer’s breath-stopping picture The Zone of Interest—playing in competition here at the Cannes Film Festival—is the latter kind. Glazer hasn’t made a feature in 10 years. His last was 2013’s Under the Skin, one of the most unnervingly poetic horror films of its decade, and perhaps any. The Zone of Interest is also a horror film, but a very different kind. It’s a movie about the most haunting atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s also a movie about marital companionship, about wanting the best for your children, about following the rules and working hard and feeling that you truly deserve the best in life. It’s about all the things that most people in the world want, entwined with the unspeakable.
At the movie’s center is a dream house built on nightmares. The house belongs to a family—the movie’s opening shows this little group and some family friends, in placid wide shot, lounging by a stream flanked by lush greenery, laughing, talking, drying their pale, damp skin after a swim. Though we can’t get a close look at them, we can see how utterly secure they are in their happiness, as if the sun above had been created just to shine down on them.
The head of this robust little family is Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) whose hard work and loyalty have earned him rich rewards: he’s the commandant of Auschwitz, and he and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) have been granted a fine parcel of land adjacent to the camp. They’ve got an austerely elegant house that meets all their needs, surrounded by a garden of bright flowers for their children to play in. Hedwig proudly shows off the grounds to her visiting mother, waving at the not-quite-high-enough brick partition that separates the property from the camp. “The Jews are over the wall,” she says, as if relaying an inconvenient but not particularly troublesome fact. “We planted more vines at the back to grow and cover it.”
Watching The Zone of Interest, you can see why Glazer puts so much space between one picture and the next. His filmmaking style is lapidary, yet his movies, particularly Under the Skin and this one, never feel fussed-over. Assured and precise, they’re the type of movies that carve their own space—there is nothing else like them. Glazer has no interest in showing us atrocities. The Zone of Interest is possibly the least overtly traumatic film about the Holocaust ever made, yet it’s devastating in the quietest way. The camera watches, mouselike and still, as this little family goes about their daily business, the older kids skipping off to school, Hedwig bustling around the house. Their dialogue is muted, almost as if we shouldn’t be hearing it. Most of it is so mundane we might wonder why we’re eavesdropping, but every so often we pick up a detail that meshes with historical details we know, as when Höss and a colleague discuss a design for a new, improved crematorium, nodding approvingly as they outline its ease of use: “Burn, cool, unload, reload.”
Everything in the Hösses’ house, including their clothing, looks new and fresh. The Zone of Interest 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. Höss stands in his garden as a building in the near distance—clearly a crematorium—shoots soft flames into the sky, so offhandedly they look like orange smudges. Sound carries, as if on a zephyr, from the camp to the garden: children and infants crying, beseeching cries of women, gunshots. These are just sounds in the distance, and if they’re startlingly immediate to us, the family doesn’t hear them.
Those problems are all far away, and no concern of theirs. Sometimes we’ll get a glimpse of an image—Höss blowing his nose in the sink, his snot mixed with soot, tiny flecks of human remains; one of the children pawing through his small treasure trove of gold teeth—but Glazer and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal linger on nothing. These miniature flashes of horror show that the evil perpetrated outside is following this family inside, though they’re oblivious to its vibrations—except, maybe, for one of the younger Hösses, a daughter, who appears to be having trouble sleeping, or is perhaps traveling in her sleep. (At one point, she mutters something drowsily to her father about “handing out sugar.”) Twice in the film the action shifts from the Hösses’ world to another one, rendered in a black-and-white negative image, of a little girl picking her way around mounds of dirt. Sometimes she’s nestling small white objects into their soft contours; other times she’s collecting bits of something from these inky masses. These are images with a meaning beyond words, half-chilling, half-comforting.
Glazer adapted The Zone of Interest from a 2014 novel by Martin Amis, who died on May 19, just a day after the movie’s Cannes premiere. He has taken some liberties with the novel, changing its fictionalized characters into people who existed in real life. (German SS Officer Rudolf Höss was Auschwitz’s longest-serving commandant, and was hanged for war crimes in 1947.) And, as he did for Under the Skin, Glazer has enlisted singer, songwriter and composer Mica Levi to furnish a spare score that challenges all we know about movie music. Glazer floats Levi’s hypnotic, droning soundshapes atop the movie’s images; sometimes they’re punctured by shouts or cries that we can can barely hear. And the movie closes with a shardlike piece of music—if you could call it that, and we will—that seems drawn from Hell itself, a blend of stylized howls and shrieks that start out soft and ultimately whirl out like a cyclone. It’s the sound of something you can’t quite put your finger on, and it follows you long after you’ve left the film behind. It’s a fallacy to think we can put history behind us.
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