Watching The Zone of Interest (2023) is an act of endurance. The latest film by British director Jonathan Glazer depicts the lives of the commanding officer at Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their children, with most of the action set within and around their idyllic home. Viewers must face the intolerable sight of the house existing right alongside the concentration camp, with the camp’s roofs hovering above the adjoining perimeter fence. On the camera’s side of this divide, the children swim and Hedwig attends to her garden. Unlike most films about the Holocaust, representations of the Nazi regime’s victims are only occasionally in the foreground, yet—through distant screams, the flicker of flames, alarm sounds, and splatters of blood—the atrocity is present. Meanwhile, the film’s focus is on those who enact this atrocity: how they eat together, how their children play, and how husband and wife make jokes before falling asleep.
Loosely based on a Martin Amis novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest is only Glazer’s fourth film in 23 years. His retelling takes notable turns away from the 2014 book, in which the Auschwitz commander, named Paul Doll, spies on his cheating wife and her lover before attempting to murder both. Fulfilling the generic expectations of storytelling, Amis uses dramatic action to lead to resolution. By contrast, the film uses the real Auschwitz commander as its protagonist, multiple elements of the novel have been omitted, and the story's development in any recognizable sense is absent. It explores the continuation of a horror that cannot be recognized. This denial is sustained by the film’s anti-narrative mode, pressurizing the viewing experience by refusing any of the devices by which stories can give relief or provide moral reassurance.
In his feature debut, Sexy Beast (2000), Glazer began portraying those who would disturb a settled world. Sexy Beast is set poolside at a Spanish villa, where the idyll of retired criminal Gal (Ray Winstone) is disturbed by the terrifying Don (Ben Kingsley), who has come to force him back to London for one final job. In Birth (2004), Nicole Kidman plays Anna, a woman whose world, desire, and loyalties are turned upside down when a young boy appears in her New York apartment building claiming he is the reincarnation of her dead husband. Under the Skin (2013) saw the director’s work turn even more macabre, using the extra-worldly tropes of science fiction to depict the journey of a seductive alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who abducts men from the streets of Glasgow before devouring them.
Glazer’s disturbed worlds have become weirder and darker with each film. But The Zone of Interest begins with feigned innocence, which we gradually understand as the hateful suppression of the humanity of others. The opening scene is a middle-European pastoral, with bathers by a lake, an orchestra of bird song, and pet dogs roaming among the group of pasty bodies. We see the beautiful life that Höss has given to his family, rewarded for his loyalty to the party (the real-life Höss joined in 1922, eleven years before Hitler came to power). In contrast to Glazer’s three previous films, in which it’s the disturbances of a character—a gangster, a child, an alien—that creates narrative progression, this most recent work is about a totally settled world where the disturbance is internal—where the moral horror can never be acknowledged by any on-screen characters. This sublimation of violent disturbances creates a cognitive dissonance that the audience must endure. The film's challenge to its viewers is to comprehend how inhuman cruelties can be enacted by other humans, and how within the sphere of family life such things can become tolerated and lived alongside.
Throughout, the film gives us space to consider a Nazi officer in his most mundane aspects. There are repeated shots of Höss walking up and down a corridor in the family home, or putting on and taking off parts of his military uniform. In the silence of his actions we grapple with what he stands for. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal arranged to shoot multiple scenes in the house simultaneously with ten cameras. Glazer has stated that the purpose was to “achieve that sense of present tense.” Žal’s cameras produce a documentary style as, again and again, we watch Höss cross his home. The effect is not only anti-narrative but also anti-dramatic. Glazer has said that his formal intention was to remove artifice from the subject matter. This formal absorption within an undramatized present tense reinforces a constant, inescapable, dull reality. Atrocity is present, but we only witness the present tense of the banality adjacent to it.
The film depicts Höss’s attainment of the ideal Nazi life, with his family home planted within German-occupied Poland, where the master of the house reaps the personal benefits of Nazism while enacting its genocidal aims. An important aspect of the authoritarian psyche is revealed in the geographical and ideological space the film creates: that allegiance to the fascist project requires both the extreme dehumanization of others and the constant denial of the violence enacted on other humans. Genocide is present and impersonal in relation to its executors: the violence Höss orders to happen and lives among is one for which we know he is responsible, but he is never shown to kill with his own hands.
Watching the characters throughout the film, we can only remark on their obliviousness. The film asks us to consider how atrocity can be denied even as it is abetted. Early on, the family’s maids are allowed to take clothing and trinkets stolen from the Jews at the camp. Hedwig shows her little ones the flowers growing along climbers fixed to the perimeter walls, where behind the barbed wire lie the camp’s tiled roofs and orange brick chimneys. “This was a field three years ago,” Hedwig says with delight to her visiting mother as she shows her the flowers that grow along the fence. At night the bedrooms of the children are lit up with the fiery glow of furnaces, as the air resonates with distant screams.
Attempting to live an idyllic life while meters away people are murdered every day—this contradiction is the exact split that makes the film such a challenging experience from start to finish. It is the anti-narrative character of the film that sustains the tension in this rift, its present-ness; even when events shift within the film, the characters remain unchanged. Höss is sent away to work in the military offices of another town so that he can better serve the interests of the party. He returns to his family, his plan for the expansion of the camps approved. Upon returning, he has sex with a prostitute. Instead of any of this experience provoking some kind of redirection of the narrative, we merely see Höss facing away from the camera, washing himself in a sink. There is no consequence, no reflection, no narrative movement as such. Where the viewer might wish for the sudden appearance of moral conscience, or consequences for unspeakable actions, the horror of the film is that the existence of a tremendous disturbance, the mass slaughter of humans, just continues.
Allusion and inference are two of the primary methods through which the film makes its viewer engage with what the camera refuses to show. As the shot pans through the empty garden and past the swimming pool, drops of water fall from the outdoor shower—an allusion to the mist showers that poison the prisoners with Zyklon B. At one point Höss tells his senior colleagues how the new gas chamber technology can be cleaned and emptied more efficiently than the current set-up, allowing for quicker processing of hundreds of thousands of people, mass murder reduced to a mere procedure. Later, we have these words in mind when the camera lingers on an emptied drying rack in his kitchen. Things have been washed and put away. In the rhythms of the domestic life that sustains the military commander one sees the plans for a final solution he personally helped design.
Toward the film's end, the unflappable Höss finally seems to be affected by his mission, when he retches without throwing up in an empty corridor. After overindulging at a Nazi cocktail party, even his nausea is contained, the act of vomiting denied. The film then aggressively cuts forward into documentary footage of cleaners dusting the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum visitor center in the present day. It seems like it might end there. Instead it cuts back to Rudolf, comfortable in his office. This portal between two obdurate realities, a slippage in time, does nothing to change what we know has occurred out of shot.
There are obvious risks in creating fictional narratives from historical sources. A plethora of Holocaust-themed narrative films have been produced—Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), László Nemes Son of Saul (2015)—in which the fates of certain characters move upward or downward in a way that is supposed to strike the heart of the viewer. In Herman’s film, it is the son of an SS officer who in a crude, tragic occurrence of mistaken identity dies in a gas chamber.
Schindler’s List is a well-documented example of how conforming history to the form of narrative can distort the meaning of events. In the Płaszów concentration camp, Rabbi Levartow, who is based on a historical figure,is arbitrarily selected to be executed. In the center of the shot, the rabbi flinches as two of the officers’ pistols jam. His life is spared. This moment of narrative relief reframes events. Foregrounding the survival of an individual, among the death of millions, is evidently intended to produce a heightened emotional resonance. But what if such poignancy represented a kind of complacency about examining the horrors that surround such an individual anecdote? To explore this point through contrast, The Zone of Interest’s focus on the perpetrators of atrocity shows the extent to which the project of genocide requires the complete denial of the humanity of its victims. In attending to the part before the whole, the victim rather than victims as such, the individuating tendencies of narrative poignancy risk denying questions about how such dehumanizing projects succeed.
Glazer’s film forcefully engages with this individuating tendency of narrative as an aesthetic and formal problem. Rather than absolving the viewer of responsibility for historical complexity, The Zone of Interest places us in something of a mental and visual bind. One must think about a disturbance we’re not directly shown. Observing the Nazi officer and his family, there is no narrative relief, no redirection of the fascist impulse, and no recompense for victims. The film only provides the mechanical rhythms of domestic life occurring next to mass murder. This lack of narrative development and refusal to use the mechanisms that usually gratify viewer’s expectations places us firmly within two irreconcilable realities.
Yet as we contemplate the screen, what cannot be reconciled breaks apart. It is as if the present-ness of the film itself cannot be allowed to cohere. The visual field is punctured by non-human sounds, powerful throbbing noises (with a disturbed, alien soundtrack by Glazer’s long-term collaborator Mica Levi); the screen starts to bleed in sharp red pigment. These invasions rupture the coherency of the lives of the characters we struggle to understand.
In an interview with Film4, Glazer gives insight into how he thinks about form and the kinds of meaning that can be created by experimenting with it. He remarks that he often thinks of the creation of form as the discovery and repetition of shapes. But from the disruptive formal incursions in The Zone of Interest—Levi’s score, the red screen, and the use of thermal imaging—it isn’t so much a repeated shape as a recurrent switch. With a switch, there are merely two sides, two irreconcilable realities: a fence, a lock, a gas chamber. With the flick of a switch, intolerable sound and sharp light invade the routine of the screen, temporarily disrupting the banal terror. After, we are thrown back into the fascist family Lebensraum: apple pancakes for tea and mass extermination.
The only glimmer of hope in the film is seen through a thermal-imaging camera. The unsparing light of daytime at the Höss home is flipped like a switch in the final third to the secretive activities of a young girl, who leaves apples out for imprisoned laborers. The imagery, stylized through visualizations of body heat and the first-person, task-based activity, makes the screen resemble a video game, evoking a different kind of present-ness. Moving through this visual field, the girl breathes heavily. There were extraordinary tales of human endeavor aimed in opposition to cruelty, but they cannot be formally presented in the same visual mode as the present tense of fascist life. It’s as if they were acts from another world.
Narrative storytelling is a matter of selection. Such acts of selection become more weighted with ethical dilemmas when it comes to confronting the facts of history. In Hollywood’s depictions of the Holocaust, viewers can feast on the poignancy of suffering averted, weeping over one spared life stood next to a mass grave. The Zone of Interest not only avoids the ghoulish sentimentality of such depictions but creates a filmic opposition to such narrative acts. Where cinema often mystifies social forces into spiritual battles of good and evil, Glazer’s directorial eye works in a sharp, attentive way to demystify acts that viewers can barely tolerate, while also not excusing the horrific acts of those with banal lives and equally banal desires.
When the screen pulses red, the form of filmmaking is broken open. Our eyes are drawn to the psychic spaces between the trajectories of received historical memory. The Zone of Interest not only reimagines the way we comprehend extremely violent aspects of history, it also breaches the images through which that history has already been told. It opens up a negative space to reconfigure our conception of history. This formal incoherenceabrades the capacity of the image to reduce social reality into neat, consumable sequences, easily digestible stories, and social panaceas. The violence of our reality is intolerable. Yet we cannot avert our eyes. Stare into the decoherence. From there draw some moral sense.