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“The Zone of Interest” review: Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust film is an unrelenting portrait of the banality of evil

The Zone of Interest
The Zone of Interest

a24 Christian Friedel in 'The Zone of Interest'

There's no shortage of films about the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust, but Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest takes a new and effectively horrifying approach to the subject matter.

Zone follows Commandant Rudolf Höss of Auschwitz (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their family as they live in domestic bliss just over the wall of the infamous concentration camp. We never see the atrocities of Auschwitz firsthand; instead, we hear gunshots and screams during a garden party and see the fiery glow and smoke clouds of the crematorium out the bedroom window. The Höss' world is ordered and idyllic, nothing like the imagery we are so often accustomed to in films that depict this era.

Glazer presents audiences with an anthropological study of this Nazi family. Shooting entirely with natural light and multiple simultaneously running cameras, he presents them with a naturalism that belies their evil. For Hoss and his family are just like you and me: Hedwig frets over her meticulously tended garden and Rudolf reads his children bedtime stories. What makes Zone so stomach-turning is the banality of their evil — the ways they go about their daily lives while crimes against humanity occur only a few feet away.

Hoss takes business meetings about increasing crematorium efficiency and frets over the health of the camp's lilac bushes more than the human lives whose fate he holds in his hands. Christian Friedel is chilling as Hoss in the normalcy with which he instills him. He's no mustache-twirling Nazi out of an Indiana Jones film, but merely a family man overly committed to his job.

The Zone of Interest
The Zone of Interest

a24 Sandra Hüller in 'The Zone of Interest'

Hüller is even more affecting as Hedwig in the ways she breathes to life the woman's complicity. Unlike her husband, she isn't orchestrating mass murder on a daily basis, but she is picking through the clothes and belongings of interned Jews to keep them for herself. She wraps herself in a fur coat seized from an internee, while her children play with the victims' gold teeth — casual routines made all the more sinister by the simplicity in which Hüller carries them out.

There are moments where the film veers too avant-garde: holding on a blank screen for minutes at a time, and some decontextualized night-vision sequences. But they're frustrating blips in an otherwise harrowing cinematic experience.

The Zone of Interest The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.
The Zone of Interest The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.

A24 'The Zone of Interest'

Mica Levi's score is essential to making the audience sit with their discomfort. Its atonal dissonance and choral arrangements that sound more like strangled screams are the stuff of nightmares. If imagining what is occurring in the Hoss' backyard isn't enough to make you feel ill, the more visceral experience of hearing the score will.

The Zone of Interest is a formalized and frightening Holocaust film, largely for the ways it displays the Hoss family as merely human beings. It's a stark reminder of our complicity and the capacity for great evil in the most mundane of circumstances. I'll never forget the experience of watching it, even if I can't ever bring myself to endure it again. Grade: A-

The Zone of Interest opens in theaters Dec. 8.

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