Cannes Dispatch: The Obscenity of Evil

New films by Glazer, Williams, Alonso, and Scorsese offer bold answers to a timeless question: how does one film unspeakable evil?
Leonardo Goi

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer).

A man smoking a cigarette, alone in a perfectly manicured garden, the evening light bathing grass and clothes a dim blue, while a chimney puffs smoke in the background. No shot I’ve seen in these first six days in Cannes has jostled itself in my mind with the same heart-shaking force of this, a quiet interlude in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. The man is German commander Fritz Höss, the garden is his backyard, and the volcano-like chimney belongs to the Auschwitz concentration camp crematorium, over which he presides. Criticizing the idea that the Holocaust is unimaginable, survivor Hermann Langbein wrote in his memoir that “nothing was inconceivable in Auschwitz. Everything was possible, literally everything.” So what can cinema do when everything is possible? What can or should film show, in the face of evil?

The most fascinating and perturbing titles I’ve seen so far on the Croisette all tackle those same questions, and Glazer’s does so most boldly. The window it opens on the atrocities of the Holocaust keeps the horrors largely invisible to focus instead on their perpetrators. Adapting Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest, in its barest terms, is a family portrait, following Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their young children as they go about their lives in an idyllic and verdant house abutting the camp. Glazer’s is not the first film to address the Shoah from the perspective of Nazi officials—Andrzej Munk’s Passenger (1963), for one, also homes in on a German woman who served as wardeness in Auschwitz. But where Munk included graphic depictions of all she witnessed, The Zone of Interest functions like the tin-grey wall that rings the Hösses’ abode: the barbarities the commander oversees are only intimated, not shown. All we glimpse beyond the garden, tended by Hedwig with loving devotion, are the dormitories’ rooftops, the chimney erupting all night long, the smoke billowing from the trains shipping new innocents to their deaths. The victims are never seen; they are, however, heard.

The negation that anchors The Zone of Interest is visual, not aural; the bucolic fragments of the Hösses’ routines—Hedwig clipping her dahlias, the kids playing around the greenhouse, guests tanning by the pool—vie with a litany of screams, banks, and gunshots that echo from the camp. In the absence of visual evidence, the soundscape turns into the film’s most terrifying asset. Johnnie Burn’s sound design keeps the Hösses up at night with rumblings that swell the camp into a giant, moribund creature pummeling the house from underground, a crippling dread amplified by Mica Levi’s score: deafening, assaultive moans that hover above the film like the beating organ in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. More than the juxtapositions between the family’s tranquil life and the violence next door—which, after a while, threaten to become less frightening than repetitive—it’s the macabre dance between visual reticence and aural richness that lends the film its arresting power. Glazer understands that the magnitude of the events he’s chronicling defies dramatization, and Łukasz Żal shoots them as a series of glacial static tableaux.

There were times when The Zone of Interest reminded me of Lázló Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015), another Holocaust drama that willfully blurred Auschwitz’s violence. But Glazer is after something very different here. Slowly, The Zone of Interest morphs into a kind of ghost story, with Höss as a growingly haunted protagonist. To be clear, the Nazi official is never posited as a victim—all the contrary. If the early shot of the man smoking at dusk is the film’s most entrancing, arguably the most chilling is an exchange with German engineers to discuss the building of a “ring crematorium” that will ensure a swift solution to the problem posed by the thousands of Jews shipped daily to Auschwitz. Höss remains a coolly calculating robot, and the director gradually turns the tables against him. By the end, all of the absences that structure The Zone of Interest turn into a weapon Glazer can wield against its inhumane lead, until a final sequence that forces Höss—and us—to finally face the consequences of all that evil.

The Sweet East (Sean Price Williams).

Vaulting from Glazer’s take on the Shoah to The Sweet East is a jarring pivot, but cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s solo directorial debut also teems with bouts of violence (and a few swastikas). The film charts the Alice in Wonderland-esque odyssey of a high schooler from South Carolina, Lillian (Talia Ryder), who ditches her classmates on a trip to Washington, DC, for a picaresque journey across the East Coast that kicks off with an active-shooter scenario to wind up, several miles and accidents later, in a secluded monastery. Along the way, Lillian will run across all sorts of sinister drifters, including an antifa collective of self-proclaimed artivists, a small platoon of heavily armed Muslim youths addicted to EDM music, a gaggle of similarly equipped white supremacists, a film crew hell-bent on casting Lillian in a revisionist period piece, and Lawrence (Simon Rex, here a different sort of creep than he was in Sean Baker's 2021 Red Rocket)—an academic with a houseful of Nazi memorabilia and a creepy infatuation with Poe and Nabokov’s Lolita.

At its finest, The Sweet East evokes the thrills of a deranged bedtime story propelled by a childlike and then… enthusiasm. Sure, the men Lillian’s up against are all petulant blowhards—more caricatures than flesh-and-bones people. Yet screenwriter Nick Pinkerton shows a keen ear for their distinct lingos, from OTT outbursts to Fox News–inspired conspiracies, and the script never reduces its freaks to undifferentiated members of the same homogenous clique. The narrative playfulness finds visual echoes in Williams’s own cinematography, which intersperses 16mm stock with video footage and animation segments. It’s a hodgepodge that sponges something of the film’s magpie curiosity, dancing between rival tribes and stealing a bit from each with consistently humorous energy. To call the end result a little patchy would be to play into Williams’s hands; The Sweet East is a snapshot of a shattered and paranoid nation, a mosaic whose tesserae are never less than intriguing.

Eureka (Lisandro Alonso).

The America captured in Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka is so distant from the addled milieu of The Sweet East the two films might as well hail from two different planets. Alonso’s follow-up to his 2014 poetic odyssey Jauja starts off as a black-and-white western starring Viggo Mortensen opposite Chiara Mastroianni, only to reveal that as a film screening in the empty living room of a house in the present-day Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota. Written by Alonso, Martin Camaño, and Fabian Casas, Eureka is a tale in three parts, the second one following Native American policewoman Alaina (Alaina Clifford) and her young niece Sadie (Sadia Lapointe) over the course of a momentous night that ends with Sadie leaving the reservation forever. Only not in human shape. Transformed into a white marabou stork, Sadie migrates to the Amazon; next we see her, Eureka has rewound to the 1970s to track a small tribe wrestling with a gold rush that threatens to upend their lives. A sprawling and fitfully transcendental journey designed in part to align the fate of 21st-century Native Americans with that of all Indigenous people across time and space, Eureka is Alonso’s most ambitious undertaking to date. It is also an uneven ride.

Sadie’s metamorphosis far surpasses the surrealism of Viggo Mortensen’s encounter down the cave in Jauja, but the film’s final section in the Amazon loses some of the specificity that had anchored Alaina and Sadie’s peregrinations in part two. That may all be within Alonso’s plan. By the time Sadie shows up again as a bird—a pivot that jolted me to another recent tale of metempsychosis, Lois Patiño’s 2023 Berlinale Encounters selection Samsara—the film is operating on a spiritual plane: the narrative grows elliptical, the images confounding. Even so, the coda feels more cryptic than cathartic. It’s also not a patch on the strange magic Alonso had mined from that earlier South Dakota segment. Like The Zone of Interest, Eureka too unspools as a ghost story. The evil Alaina witnesses as she travels across the reservation is mostly alluded to; we hear of the meth epidemic, of a spike in suicides. But nothing in Eureka radiates more dread than the constant reminders of all those who’re gone already. Pine Ridge, as shot by Timo Salminen and Mauro Herce Mira in long, uninterrupted takes, is a depopulated, spectral land where the few surviving residents are all stuck in a limbo. So is Alaina, who trudges on with Sisyphean resignation. It is not in the Amazon that Eureka manages to evoke some of Jauja’s psychotropic beauty, but in the snow-capped, caliginous locale the policewoman surveys in scenes that suggest a whole community falling indelibly into the past.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese).

Early into Eureka’s second, lengthiest chapter, Mastroianni returns as a French actress doing some research for a western set around the area. Or so she claims. Sadie suspects she’s a journalist going to give the reservation and its residents “bad press.” I kept thinking back to that exchange as I made my way to a packed Debussy theatre for the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s fortieth feature, Killers of the Flower Moon. Based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, the film exhumes one of the darkest chapters of early 20th-century US history: the mystery of the Osage murders of the 1920s, when throngs of Native Americans were systematically exterminated in a plot to exploit their oil-rich land in Oklahoma. Where Grann found his through line in an agent of a then-embryonic FBI sent by J. Edgar Hoover to shed light on the conspiracy, Tom White (Jesse Plemons, in the film), Scorsese opts for a markedly different approach. He streamlines the source text to focus on the marriage between Osage native Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) and her husband Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), nephew of influential businessman and self-appointed King of the Osage Hills William Hale (Robert De Niro), the mind behind the serial killings.

Speaking with Deadline a few days before the premiere, Scorsese said he felt that his time was running out just as the medium was opening up to him in new, electrifying ways. But if this is a “late film”—the work of a director who knows this may well be one of the last times he gets to sit behind the camera—then Killers of the Flower Moon is less a litany than a thunderous cry, an august master turning cinema into an act of bearing witness. It’s a rabid tour de force, designed to make one reckon with a series of events all the more devastating for the oblivion they fell into. Which is not to suggest the film is in any way preachy. Clocking at nearly three and a half hours, Killers manages to sustain momentum throughout, synthesizing Grann’s findings in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the book’s scorching fury or its investigative acuity. Having read it on my way over to the festival, what intrigued me the most was to see how Scorsese would choose to fill in the gaps that even Grann’s book couldn’t address—and how he’d go about dramatizing some of its darkest findings. Killers doesn’t shy away from the book’s goriest parts, but Scorsese maintains a certain reticence toward them, refusing to turn the massacre into a large-scale, suspenseful spectacle. What the film grasps so perceptively—and what, in retrospect, aligns it so closely with Glazer’s Holocaust nightmare—is the horrifying nonchalance with which the Osage were dispatched by an elite that considered them not as humans but disposable nuisances (“pieces,” Höss called the Jews in The Zone of Interest; “blankets,” Hale and co. here call the Osage).

Adapted by Scorsese and Eric Roth, Killers grants De Niro and DiCaprio numerous one-on-one exchanges; if the obscene greed that fuels it harks back to There Will Be Blood, their tête-à-tête reminded me of a later Paul Thomas Anderson film, The Master. But the film ultimately belongs to Gladstone. It’s Mollie who is the ultimate witness, and the indomitable dignity with which she powers through all manner of betrayals is Killers’s most stupefying note. What lingers as the credits roll are two faces: Scorsese’s, reading out the final lines in a poignant cameo, and Gladstone’s, waking up to the full scope of the evil Mollie suffered. She doesn’t shed a tear; Killers of the Flower Moon is not a funeral. It’s a revindication.

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Festival CoverageCannesCannes 2023Jonathan GlazerSean Price WilliamsLisandro AlonsoMartin Scorsese
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