Producers: James Wilson and Ewa Puszczyńska Director: Jonathan Glazer Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Imogen Kogge, Johann Karthaus, Freya Kreutzkam, Lilli Falk, Luis Noah Witte, Nele Ahrensmeier, Ralph Henforth, Rainer Haustein, Daniel Holzberg, Julia Polaczek, Sascha Maaz, Max Beck, Wolfgang Lampl, Medusa Knopf, Stephanie Petrowitz, Zuzanna Kobiela and Martyna Poznanski Distributor: A24
If you’re searching for a literally faithful film of Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, you’d best look elsewhere; in Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation the book’s narrative is basically jettisoned, replaced by an artful portrayal of what Hannah Arendt famously referred to as the banality of evil, a phrase that by now has itself become a rather banal commonplace. Some will find the result a bit of a one-trick pony, but in its indirect depiction of the Holocaust, it carries substantial dramatic power, and its implicit accusation that the silent acceptance of evil means moral complicity with it certainly resounds in our contemporary world.
The time is 1943, and the setting the handsomely ordinary home that Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the SS Commandant of Auschwitz, occupies with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their bevy of children—Claus (Johann Karthaus), Heideraud (Lilli Falk), Inge-Brigit (Nele Ahrensmeier), Hans (Luis Noah Witte) and infant Annegret. The house, along with the garden (complete with greenhouse) and spacious yard with a small swimming pool that Hedwig has carefully nurtured, is separated from the death-camp by a wall topped with barbed wire. One can glimpse the roofs of the structures on the other side, and the guard towers and tall chimneys with black smoke billowing out of them; but it’s mostly the sounds of screams, threats and pistol shots (as well as the smell, one presumes), that intrude as background noise to the family’s bourgeois existence.
But in the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, of course, normalcy has certain perks. The Höss house comes with servants like Marta (Martyna Poznanski), Aniela (Zuzanna Kobiela) and Sophie (Stephanie Petrowitz) recruited from the camp inmates and locals, who must docilely do whatever is commanded of them. Hedwig and her friends have the pick of things taken from new arrivals at the camp—dresses, in one case a mink, and even items like lipstick. (One woman remarks that she found jewels hidden in a tube of toothpaste.) And young Claus cherishes the bag of gold teeth he’s collected while Hans plays with his toy soldiers.
The house also welcomes visitors—officers on the Commandant’s staff come to hear his orders, and sometimes technocrats who discuss plans for making the extermination process more efficient. There’s also a personal visitor—Linna Hensel (Imogen Kogge), Hedwig’s mother, whom her daughter delights in showing around, proud of her landscaping efforts. Linna seems impressed, but perhaps because of the stench her visit does not end happily for Hedwig. Rudolf, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to engage in a bit of infidelity.
And occasionally despite the precautions the world beyond the protective wall breaks through in other ways. When Rudolf takes the older children for an outing at a nearby stream, for example, he’s horrified when he finds some human remains in the water and rushes the children back home for a thorough bath. He also scrubs his genitals after he’s had sex with a prisoner. The obvious point is that however the family might try, it’s impossible to wash off the residue of Auschwitz entirely.
The real crisis comes only when Rudolf is informed that he’s being promoted to an administrative position in Germany overseeing the operation of all the camps. Hedwig is upset at the thought of leaving the homestead she’s cultivated so carefully, and pleads with him to ask his superiors to allow her and the children to remain living at “The Zone of Interest,” as the Nazis euphemistically referred to the camp area. They agree to the peculiar arrangement, and so the new camp Commandant Arthur Liebehenschel (Sascha Maaz), with whom Höss is swapping jobs, will stay elsewhere. Rudolf, meanwhile, reports by phone to his wife about his success in organizing new transports to the camps, especially of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who have recently been added to the Final Solution, and accepts the congratulations of superiors like Generals Oswald Pohl (Ralph Henforth) and Richard Glücks (Rainer Haustein) for his stellar work, though officious camp inspector Gerhard Maurer (Daniel Holzberg) seems less impressed, more interested in securing a steady supply of slave labor than more piles of ash.
The focus moves away from the Höss family only on two occasions. Inserts show a young Polish girl, Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk (Julia Polaczek), engaging in dangerous nighttime missions to place food at work sites where prisoners can find it. These sequences, shot in black-and-white with thermal cameras to give them a ghostly hue, are juxtaposed with scenes in which Rudolf reads excerpts from fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” to his young daughter at bedtime, accentuating the contrast between the good done by resistance workers with the Commandant’s casual separation of his official cruelty and his domestic affairs. During one mission the girl is depicted finding the text of the song “Sunbeams” by Auschwitz prisoner Joseph Wulf and, in later color footage, playing out the melody on her piano as the words are given in subtitle. Wulf, a survivor, later wrote of his experience in the camp.
The other shift comes at the film’s very end. Höss is shown leaving his office late one night and retching as he walks the deserted white hallways of the sterile building, apparently finally realizing the enormity of what he’s been doing before regaining his composure and departing. This is immediately followed by a sequence in the present, following the maintenance staff at the Auschwitz museum vacuuming and sweeping the hallways and cleaning the exhibits of prisoner uniforms, discarded shoes and luggage—the remnants of his SS career.
One can’t help but be moved by those final images, even though like the entire film they have, in the cinematography of Łukasz Żal, the production design of Chris Oddy and the costumes of Małgorzata Karpiuk, an antiseptic, clinical feel that’s italicized by Paul Watts’s stately, formal editing. The naturalistic nonchalance embodied in the performances of Friedel and Hüller—he the spit-and-polish, ever-efficient officer and she the frumpy hausfrau whose bursts of emotion are limited to domestic disturbances—as well as the rest of the cast, including those playing their children and cowed servants, is certainly unsettling (the sole exception is Kogge, whose Linna is clearly distressed by the household she flees); but the real horror lies behind the walls that separate them from the camp, and this Glazer never shows, leaving us to intuit it from the rumblings of Mica Levi’s menacing, often dissonant score and, even more, Johnnie Burn’s sound design of muffled shouts and gunfire. It’s, of course, the contrast between the family’s contented, matter-of-fact mode of life and what we know is happening beyond the little bubble they’ve created for themselves that’s the point of “The Zone of Interest.”
Through its concentration on the household the film invites us to confront the sad reality of how human beings can refuse to challenge, and even pretend not to notice, the injustice swirling around them. It’s a laudable purpose, though one that you might argue Glazer presents in a fashion both repetitious and self-consciously artsy.