I wrote in my Top 10 Movies list that Japan had a great year in 2023. I could have mentioned Germany, too. That country turned out Christian Petzold’s bruising literary satire Afire and İlker Çatak’s tense schoolroom drama The Teachers’ Lounge, which is playing at the Modern this weekend. I like both of those movies better than The Zone of Interest. Nevertheless, this chillingly sunny drama is still worth a look as it opens this weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse Denton and the Rave Ridgmar, and not just for its bevy of Oscar nominations.
Based very loosely on Martin Amis’ novel, the film focuses on Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp — don’t confuse him with the Nazi politician Rudolf Hess. The real-life Höss and his family lived in a bucolic country estate that shared a wall with the camp. This movie is shot on the same land that the Höss home occupied, though the filmmakers had to reconstruct the house. While Rudolf conducts business at his home office and occasionally rides off to work on horseback, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their kids swim at a nearby lake, plant a vegetable garden, and play music. Hedwig has a lot of extra dresses that she gives to her neighbors, and nobody asks where they come from, because they all know. Oh, and guess what’s fertilizing that garden. The children at least have an excuse for being oblivious, but it doesn’t seem to occur to the adults that giving the kids human teeth to fondle before going to bed might not be a completely normal thing to do.
I’m struggling not to use Hannah Arendt’s chestnut about the banality of evil, but this movie makes it impossible to avoid. Hedwig’s Polish housemaids manage to snag some of those leftover dresses, but when they accidentally burn the food for lunch, Hedwig casually threatens them: “I’ll spread your ashes over my backyard.” A free dress surely isn’t worth that. Late in the film, Rudolf receives an award from the Nazis’ top brass at a glitzy concert hall in Berlin, and he admits to his wife that he was so bored by the ceremony that he started imagining how he’d gas the people in the auditorium. (“The high ceilings pose a problem.”) Ironically enough, the only person who can’t ignore the deeds at Auschwitz is Hedwig’s mother (Imogen Kogge), who initially pronounces the place a paradise when she moves in, but becomes so disturbed by the noise of gunfire and furnaces operating day and night that she packs up and leaves without so much as a goodbye.
This is the first movie in more than 10 years from British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, and he continually presents the savagery of the concentration camp in such indirect terms. The method is effective as far as it goes, but I must admit that the film worked on me only on the intellectual level. I get that the Hösses think that it’s great living quietly and comfortably next door to one of the 20th century’s great atrocities, but I didn’t feel any resonances beyond that, not even when Hedwig begs Rudolf to fight being transferred so that she won’t have to move out of the home that she loves. I remembered Dostoyevsky’s quote about Man getting used to everything, and then I moved on. This doesn’t drum up the visceral fear that Glazer injected into his great science-fiction film Under the Skin or his gangster movie Sexy Beast.
The best part of the film is the score by Mica Levi, which Glazer spotlights at the very beginning as their tumultuous music plays over a black screen for some minutes, starting the film on a discombobulating note that stays with us throughout. Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal is filming in endless sunlight and manages to make it look cold, the way it does in that stretch of Europe. The Zone of Interest is a ruthless application of craft that’s easy to stand back and admire. It just never invites you into the horror.
The Zone of Interest
Starring Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller. Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, based on Martin Amis’ novel. Rated PG-13.