The Zone of Interest is a recent arthouse darling that comes to us from writer/director Jonathan Glazer (late of such arthouse mind-benders as Sexy Beast and Under the Skin), very loosely adapting the book from Martin Amis. Though the film was a USA/UK/Polish joint production, it’s a German-language film about Nazis. Strap in.
This is the story of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), the patriarch of a well-to-do German family. Even though WWII rages on, that’s far, far, FAR in the background. By all appearances, the family is getting on quite nicely, with a nice big house, happy kids, a beautiful garden, a live-in maid… their life is simply perfect. There’s no marital infidelity, no terrible family secret, no tragic death in the family, everything is simply perfect.
Off the jump, this whole picture requires a massive shift in thinking. You can’t watch this movie like most others are viewed.
The first and foremost crucial adjustment is in coming to peace with the total lack of conflict or crisis. The front half of the movie has no plot whatsoever, and the back half of the plot only barely has any kind of build or structure. It’s no exaggeration to say that on paper, nothing happens. I can’t possibly overstate how dull this movie would read if I tried to recap it on paper.
The visuals are another distinctive point. Practically every single shot in this movie is a static frame. There are virtually no pans or dollys anywhere in the film, and the few we get are slow enough that they might as well be static. There is simply no energy or urgency whatsoever in the camerawork, which in turn leads to visuals that are sapped of all life. Hell, we don’t even get much in the way of color — almost every hue is notably muted.
What’s more, there are only a handful of close-ups and extreme close-ups in this movie. And even in the few we get, the shots are framed and blocked in such a way that we never get a clear view of anything. Through pretty much the entire movie, the camera is kept at arm’s length or greater from the action, which is emotionally distancing in the extreme.
Put simply, this movie is boring. More than that, it is actively, deliberately, OVERWHELMINGLY boring. But here’s the kicker: That’s not a bug — that’s the entire point. Because 20 minutes in, we’re watching Rudolf talking with his colleagues about a new furnace that burns with unprecedented efficiency. Then the blueprints show it’s a crematorium. These are Nazis talking about the extermination of human beings with economical speed, and they’re having this discussion with all the energy and emotion as if they were talking about burning coal.
The immobile and dispassionate camera keeps us at emotionally distanced as the characters are emotionally distanced from the Holocaust. Not only that, but it shows details that might have been overlooked if the camera had kept in tighter. My favorite example is an extended shot in which Rudolf’s wife (Hedwig, played by Sandra Huller) is guiding a friend through her huge garden. And in the background, we can see the concrete wall and barbed wire that separate the immaculate garden from goddamn Auschwitz. We can clearly see the concentration camp looming over them in the background.
This family is living their best and happiest life, literally next door to Hell itself. And the family patriarch is the one directly responsible for the mass atrocities, making his wages and paying his bills by making sure human beings are killed and disposed of at a constant rate around the clock. And nobody talks about it. To them, it’s just another day in paradise.
How could anyone remain so blissfully ignorant of the carnage happening literally next door? Turns out it’s surprisingly easy when it’s the reason why their every want and need is provided for. And anyway, when making it through the day, getting a paycheck, and providing for a family are all hard enough, who has time to worry or complain about anything else?
While the film never goes there, it’s sobering to recall that this concept isn’t exclusive to Nazi Germany. Consider the child labor that goes into making our shoes and clothes. The unpaid prisoners working for slave wages to keep our roads clean. Everyone working for less than a living wage so corporate executives can make another dollar and the customers can save a dime. It’s easy for us in the developing world to take all this good shit for granted without sparing a thought for all the pain and suffering that makes the good shit possible.
But again, the film never goes there. We do, however, get an obliging tribute to all those killed in the Holocaust and a sobering reminder of how evil it was. But even then, the film keeps a sharp focus on those who continue their dispassionate and mechanically efficient work in the shadow of unthinkable atrocity. For better and for worse, it’s the street-level workers who keep the world spinning, even through the most catastrophic scenarios.
I can’t recall the last time I ever saw a movie so oppressively boring that it circled back around to being utterly fascinating. The Zone of Interest is a banal movie about the banality of evil, making its point with insidious patience and ruthless subtlety. Perhaps most impressive, it’s a film that holds up a mirror to the audience, inviting us to consider how we — in our everyday lives — take comfort and profit in the suffering of others and take it for granted without a thought.
This movie is not an easy watch. It takes patience and insight and emotional labor like most other filmgoers will be unwilling or unable to put in. But those with the fortitude to sit through it will find themselves transformed by the bleakest, smartest, most gut-punching work of satire like nothing I’ve ever seen before.