“The Zone of Interest” impresses

Christian Friedel plays Rudolph Höss in “The Zone of Interest,” which is directed by Jonathan Glazer. Glazer also directed the critically acclaimed film “Under the Skin.” // Photo courtesy of A24

“The Zone of Interest” is a difficult movie to pin down. It has no overarching plot, no conflict and no character development. It is shot like a hidden camera movie, showing the daily life of a German family without obvious camera movements or even close-up shots.

Except, this is not a normal German family — this is Nazi Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel, ”Babylon Berlin”) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall”). Rudolph has been appointed commandant of Auschwitz, and they are building an idyllic life right on the other side of the camp’s barbed wire.

What is so fascinating about the film is that, as director Jonathan Glazer has stated in interviews, there are two separate movies in “The Zone of Interest.” The first is the humdrum, uneventful movie you see: Hedwig gardening, kids playing and friends drinking tea. 

The other subtly horrifying movie is the one you hear. It is the intertwining of these two separate films that makes Glazer’s film one of the best of the year

The narrative heft of “The Zone of Interest,” despite its fantastic performances, comes straight from Glazer’s directing. There is nothing that particularly “happens” in the movie, but the directing sets up a juxtaposition that is almost too disgusting to take in. 

While the family goes about their day on-screen, the viewer hears screams and gunshots coming from inside the concentration camp. The sound of a train bringing new victims into the camp lingers behind benign conversation. Without needing to see any of the death camp’s atrocities, the hideous irony is sickening from the moment the movie starts. Glazer’s technique pays off magnificently.

The viewer still sees hints of Auschwitz’s horror, though. A plume of smoke from burning bodies covers the house while Rudolph and Hedwig discuss the
logistics of a job transfer. In one scene, Rudolph finds a human jawbone in the river by his house while playing with his kids. Evil surrounds this family, and they ignore it, scarcely noticing even the barbed wire that separates themselves from the most horrifying genocide of modern history.

What is so brilliant about these visual allusions is that they concretely condemn the family’s role in the Holocaust. The Hösses are not “willfully ignorant;” they are complicit. It is a marvel to see this complete castigation accomplished through such subtle directorial choices, like one servant washing Rudolph’s shoes, turning the water red with blood. In another understated touch, Glazer refuses to do any closeups on either Rudolph or Hedwig, quashing any chance for audience empathy. Even the camera is revolted by the couple.

Midway through the film, Hedwig’s mother comes to visit. Slowly, the dissonance between her daughter’s idyllic life and the Holocaust just over the fence becomes too much to bear. Her horror is the one time Glazer lets us see real human feeling, and she leaves. The whole film feels like a trial as prosecuted by Jonathan Glazer, systematically proving Rudolph and Hedwig’s unequivocal guilt. They have no excuse — even Hedwig’s mother cannot stomach the violence.

Later, after Rudolph is transferred to Germany, Glazer lets Rudolph’s surface humanity recede and his monstrosity come fully into view. He and other Nazi officers discuss the most effective ways to murder hundreds of thousands of Jewish people with such dispassionate calm it seems like a corporate budgeting meeting.

It is in the film’s ending that Glazer presents his damning verdict to the Höss’. Before leaving a Nazi officer party, Rudolph stares over a balcony at his compatriots. He later tells his wife, who stayed at Auschwitz because she loves their “perfect” home too much to leave, that he was contemplating killing everyone below his balcony, a difficult task given the room’s “high ceilings.” Those are the last words we hear from Rudolph.

He walks downstairs, vomits and stares down a dark hallway. He sees his legacy. The film flashes forward to present day Auschwitz, slowly moving down the halls of its Holocaust memorial, lingering on stacks of shoes and crutches from Holocaust victims. Back in the present moment, Rudolph slowly turns away, descending the stairs into darkness. If the movie is a trial, the darkness is Rudolph’s eternal sentence.

Jonathan Glazer implicates the Hösses, but he implicates the viewer, too. He asks what atrocities the world — and each individual — chooses not to see. And over the unseeing, he firmly pronounces guilt.