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Chilling 'Zone of Interest' imagines life next door to a death camp

Sandra Hüller plays a mother who lives next door to Auschwitz in <em>The Zone of Interest.</em>
Sandra Hüller plays a mother who lives next door to Auschwitz in The Zone of Interest.

The Zone of Interest begins on a lovely afternoon somewhere in the Polish countryside. A husband and wife are enjoying a picnic on the banks of a river with their five children; they eat lunch and then splash around in the sunshine. It all looks so peaceful, so inviting. But something seems strangely amiss once the family returns home.

They live in a beautiful villa with an enormous garden, a greenhouse and a small swimming pool. But before long, odd details intrude into the frame, like the long concrete wall, edged with barbed wire, and the ominous-looking buildings behind it. And almost every scene is underscored by a low, unceasing metallic drone, which sometimes mixes with the sounds of human screams, dog barks and gunshots.

It's 1943, and this family lives next door to Auschwitz. The husband, played by a chillingly calm Christian Friedel, is the camp commandant Rudolf Höss, who's remembered now as the man who made Auschwitz the single most efficient killing machine during the Holocaust.

But director Jonathan Glazer never brings us inside the camp or depicts any of the atrocities we're used to seeing in movies about the subject. Instead, he grounds his story in the quotidian rhythms of the Hösses' life, observing them over several months as they go about their routine while a massive machinery of death grinds away next door.

In the mornings, Rudolf rides a horse from his yard up to the gates of Auschwitz — the world's shortest, ghastliest commute. His wife, Hedwig, played by Sandra Hüller (from Anatomy of a Fall), might sip coffee with her friends. At one point, she slips into her bedroom to try on a fur coat; it takes a beat to realize that the coat was taken from a Jewish woman on her way to the gas chambers.

We see their children go off to school or play in the garden, and some of their more violent roughhousing suggests they know what's going on around them. At night, the fiery smoke from the crematorium chimneys sends a hazy orange light into the bedroom windows; this is a movie that makes you wonder, quite literally, how these people managed to sleep at night.

Glazer and his cinematographer, Łukasz Żal, shot the movie on location near the camp, in a meticulous replica of the Hösses' real house. They used tiny cameras that were so well hidden the actors couldn't see them; as a result, much of what we see has the eerie quality of surveillance footage, observing the characters from an almost clinical remove.

In its icy precision, Glazer's movie reminded me of the Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose films, like Caché and The White Ribbon, are often about the violence simmering beneath well-maintained domestic surfaces. It also plays like a companion-piece to Glazer's brilliant 2013 sci-fi thriller, Under the Skin, which was also, in its way, about the total absence of empathy.

Mostly, though, The Zone of Interest brings to mind Hannah Arendt's famous line about "the banality of evil," which she coined while writing about Adolf Eichmann, one of Höss' Third Reich associates. In one plot turn drawn from real life, Rudolf is eventually transferred to a new post in Germany; Hedwig is furious and insists on staying at Auschwitz with the children, claiming, "This is the life we've always dreamed of" — a line that chills you to the bone. In these moments, the movie plays like a very, very dark comedy about marriage and striving: Look at what this couple is willing to do, the movie says, in their desire for the good life.

Here I should note that The Zone of Interest was loosely adapted from a 2014 novel by the lateMartin Amis, which featured multiple subplots and characters, including a Jewish prisoner inside the camp. But Glazer has pared nearly all this away, to extraordinarily powerful effect. He's clearly thought a lot about the ethics of Holocaust representation, and he has no interest in staging or re-creating what we've already seen countless times before. What he leaves us with is a void, a sense of the terrible nothingness that the banality of evil has left behind.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.