Has there ever been a Holocaust movie where a character makes an impassioned plea to stay in Auschwitz, rather than to escape such a nightmarish Hell? That is the perverse humor in Jonathan Glazer’s first film in a decade, The Zone of Interest. And it’s that twisted perspective capturing the banality, the ho-hum everyday nature of horrors committed by the Nazis, that Glazer is determined to emphasize without having much else to say. Once that sick joke has worn out its welcome, which it does fairly early, there’s nowhere else to go.
Based loosely on the 2014 Martin Amis novel of the same name, the film follows Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), the wife of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), who lives in an idyllic Nazi Dreamhouse just beyond the walls of Auschwitz. She has built a comfortable little Aryan paradise, with lush gardens she takes quite a lot of pride in, a swimming pool, and plenty of space for their little pure-blood children to grow strong. If it wasn’t for the constant drone of horror ringing in the background, a sound you as a viewer will disturbingly learn to block out as well, you’d never know that a genocide was taking place mere feet away.
But that’s the point that Glazer makes fairly early on and keeps repeating throughout. We see Hedwig and Rudolf go through the everyday rigamarole of married life. She orders the servants around, makes casual comments to her friends about the expensive trinkets they’ve claimed from exterminated Jews, and begs her husband for a return trip to Italy. Meanwhile, Rudolf is stuck in the Nazi version of The Office, having meetings about a new crematorium to be built, admonishing the idiot junior Nazis about plucking flowers haphazardly, and ultimately fighting a move to be transferred elsewhere.
Glazer parallels this with an odd sequence involving a Polish girl stealing food to be taken back to her family. Captured in monochrome and not too dissimilar to Scarlett Johansson’s devouring of Scottish men in Glazer’s Under the Skin, we expect that this is where we will eventually see the shocking violence we have been kept at a distance from. Instead, Glazer offers a weak comparison to Hansel and Gretel, read to the children at bedtime. To be fair, Glazer doesn’t usually flesh out his characters very deeply, allowing for imagery to do the work for him. And in that regard, The Zone of Interest is bleak, chilling, and unrelenting, especially when matched with Mica Levi’s disconcerting score.
The point Glazer reaches for and hits in the first five minutes is that life for the Nazis responsible for the Holocaust was pretty damn awesome, indeed. They had everything and what they didn’t have, they simply took. As Hedwig pleads to Rudolf at the nearby lake they use to paddleboat frequently, this is the life they had been dreaming of since they were 17 years old. And now they have it, living the kind of simple life that Hitler demands of his people. Hedwig appears to be a normal, everyday wife and mother caring for her family, but we see her casual cruelty when stirred to anger. She threatens one innocent maid that she’ll have her husband spread the poor girl’s ashes if she makes another mistake.
Glazer makes his point so early that we expect for there to be some new angle, some fresh perspective. While there’s a bizarre contemporary coda as a last ditch effort, nothing meaningful comes out of The Zone of Interest, leaving us with the sinking realization that this hollow feeling is all Glazer had intended from the beginning.
The Zone of Interest opens in theaters on December 15th courtesy of A24.