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NYFF 2023, The Zone of Interest
NYFF 2023, The Zone of Interest (FLC Press)

Movie Review: ‘The Zone of Interest’ at the New York Film Festival

The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s stylized film about the banality of evil, deservedly won the Grand Prix at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. It is now showing at the New York Film Festival in the Main Slate section.

Glazer’s work examines the horrific human truths behind the Holocaust in a novel way. Highlighting the daily life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family, he exposes the terrifying inhumanity behind those who caused the deaths of millions.

The Zone of Interest: inspired by the Martin Amis novel

Taking inspiration from the titular Martin Amis novel, the filmmaker removes the novel’s romantic entanglements. Instead, Glazer normalizes commandant Höss (Christian Fiedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who in another viewpoint are monsters.

The film opens with a grey screen. It lasts just a few minutes, but the monotony seems interminable. A cacophony of unrecognizable background sounds accompanies the grey. Then, the scene transfers to an idyllic setting. Two pristine-looking, well-to-do families swim and play in a river. The contrast between the grey and the placid greenery unsettles. Yet we feel comfortable seeing the familiar, pastoral scene.

With this opening Glazer sets up the film’s parameters. These manifest the “zone of interest.” The zone veers between the mundane “normal” and the foreboding undercurrents of hellishness that the grey suggested. The stylization also implies overarching themes about the nature of evil. Subsequently, Glazer evolves these concepts to reveal the final message of this stark, unforgettable film that terrifies us about the past and the present.

The daily routines of the Höss family move with precision in the beautiful villa of comfort adjacent to Auschwitz. Presumably, their Jewish servants come from the camp beyond the high wall of concrete and barbed wire. The barrier separates two worlds, the conquerors and conquered.

Christian Fiedel in 'The Zone of Interest' at NYFF 2023 (FLC Press)
Christian Fiedel in The Zone of Interest at NYFF 2023 (FLC Press)

Glimpses into Höss’ position as commandant of Auschwitz

Only briefly, when Nazi officials come to his villa, do we see glimpses into Höss’ position as a Nazi functionary. Selectively, Glazer clues us in to what’s happening. He accomplishes a removed, emotional sterility, de-emphasizing symbols that would otherwise stir our fear and loathing.

We note Nazi uniforms when camp officers celebrate with applause Höss’ birthday. And we overhear a few conversations about improvements to the crematorium to speed up the disposal of shipments. Thus, Glazer intensifies the horror of the killing by never showing scenes of beatings, gassings, burnings. Peace at the villa hovers like a suffocating cloak of darkness.

Additionally, Glazer represents political and economic concepts by revealing the paradisiacal aspects of this Nazi’s mansion. For every amenity the family enjoys, we understand the antithetical exists beyond the high wall. Yet the barracks of brutality remain unseen. Glazer represents the killing factory and slave encampment with sentry towers, smoke clouds and sounds of gunshots and screams. The family’s lifestyle becomes all the more hideous because they don’t care. Indeed, they expect even greater privileges, while others die a “stone’s throw away.”

Normalizing a Nazi’s family and household

As Glazer normalizes these circumstances, he increases the tell-tale signs of camp horror. For example, Hedwig tries on a fur coat. Out of the pocket she takes a lipstick. Surely, the coat represents theft and death in the spoils of the Nazi occupation. Ironically, the horrors we imagine are made increasingly terrible by the family and children’s cold indifference as we watch their banal routines.

When we overhear conversations about improvements to the crematorium, we “get it.” We get, too, when he hear more gunshots and screams and see thicker smoke rise from the chimneys. Glazer intensifies what drives the killing by never showing bloodshed and death. Instead, he employs stylization. As a symbol, a red screen and another cacophony of sound and music flashes on. It lasts for what seem to be interminable minutes.

None of the characters reacts to the concentration camp beyond the wall

None of the people we see responds to the hell beyond the wall. Only Hedwig’s mother, who briefly visits, reacts to the terror of Auschwitz. She comments that a Jewish woman she knew is probably “over there.” Unsettled, she spends time with her daughter but reveals unhappiness and upset. Her glances, though low-key, reveal that she imagines the worst. When she abruptly leaves, Hedwig and Rudolf question it, then forget.

An overriding concern infuriates Hedwig, who is always begging Höss for more privileges. The Nazis are considering transferring Höss to oversee other camps. Unsure whether this constitutes punishment or a reward, Höss appeals to the officials. Claiming he wishes to stay, he begs that Hedwig and his children remain if he himself must be transferred. Understandably, they adore the pool, garden, yards and spacious bedrooms in their fine Auschwitz home. We realize the horrific irony in this. Also, we realize how Hedwig and Rudolf compartmentalize their existence and de-humanize themselves to oblivion.

Importantly, Glazer’s film doesn’t fictionalize the characters. He gives them the names of real people. In real life, Höss kept his position as one of the longest-serving commandants of Auschwitz. His position allowed him to improve the efficiency of the killing behind the genocide of the Jews.

Coalescing past and present

At the film’s conclusion Glazer combines past and present in a memorable finale. He juxtaposes shots of Höss going downstairs to enjoy a party with scenes from the present-day Auschwitz Museum and grounds. Presumably, it’s the same building.

Then we see two woman sweep up the crematorium. Other women wipe the windows to damning museum exhibits. A close-up of the contents of the exhibit paralyses the viewer. In another stylization Glazer shoots Höss’ strange reaction. It is as if he uncannily responds to the historical record of his behavior. Then he proceeds down the stairs into darkness. It’s an astonishing conclusion.

One of the film’s key themes knocks up against the present in The Zone of Interest. We see how corrupt political criminals use material payouts to manipulate unredeemed functionaries into committing murder. The material luxuries swamp the souls of those who might otherwise stand against corruption that kills. Like Höss, the functionaries become inured to the suffering of others. They care only about their creature comforts, not the bloodshed that paid for their lifestyle.

The Zone of Interest is an extraordinary must-see. Tickets to a NYFF 2023 screening are available online.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' (https://caroleditosti.com/) 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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