(2023, 12A) A24, Film4, Access
The commandant of Auschwitz and his family build their dream life in the shadow of the concentration camp.
Starring: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller
If you hear the plot of The Zone of Interest in isolation, it sounds quite quaint – a young family that has worked to build an idyllic life in the country finds their happiness disrupted when the father has to relocate for work. But when you factor in that the father is Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and that just the other side of the vine-covered rear wall of their back garden is the Auschwitz concentration camp that Höss runs, it becomes one of the bleakest and most haunting movies you’re likely to see in a long time.
Most of the film centres on the family home and director Jonathan Glazer wisely avoids ever actually showing the horrors of Auschwitz on screen, but the film never lets you forget what is going on in the camp. A constant low, oppressive rumble, punctuated by the occasional yelling and gunshots, permeates every scene at the Höss household. A watchtower looms over the garden from behind the wall. Rudolf meets with engineers to discuss the most efficient way of cremating bodies.
But the most chilling part is the casual mundanity of a family life that revolves around the industrial murder of innocents. Deliveries of second-hand clothes and ashes being used to fertilise the rose-beds hint at the unspeakable without ever needing to show any acts of violence. One scene where Rudolf’s wife Hedwig tries on a coat, which would seem pretty dull if you saw it out of context, becomes more and more sickening the longer you think about it.
Nazis. I hate these guys…
Similarly, none of the characters are overtly horrible, but the knowledge of who they are and how they live makes you want to scream at them. Hedwig in particular, played by the excellent Sandra Hüller (who also recently starred in Anatomy of a Fall, and will likely get an Oscar nomination for one or both roles), is remarkably unlikeable for such an outwardly friendly and loving woman. She is very proud of the home and life she has built but clearly has no qualms with the circumstances that brought her there.
The same is not true of everyone. There are hints, some overt and some less so, that several of the people we spend time with are (understandably) uncomfortable being so close to genocide. It is not enough to completely restore your faith in humanity, but it helps to remind the audience that these are not the one-dimensional villains that Nazis in films are often reduced to, but rather normal, complex human beings trying to live normal, simple lives.
Would we recommend?
The Zone of Interest is not a happy film. The closest it gets to light relief is the occasional appearance of the family dog, who lights up every scene he’s in simply by being the only truly innocent and happy character in the movie. But I would still thoroughly recommend it – the filmmaking quality is remarkable, and the subject matter is bleak but important. Just make sure you are in the right frame of mind when you walk into the cinema.
Sam Edwards was invited to a press screening at The Mockingbird Cinema, Custard Factory, Digbeth. It is on general release in the UK from 2 February 2024.