The Zone of Interest

A real life horror based on a novel by Martin Amis. Filmed almost wordlessly, sound and seeing (or not seeing) become all here, as is the intense use of colour. We follow a family living a happy rural life, with wild swimming, canoeing, horse rides and bedtime fairy tales. Only this family is living its idyll horrifically next to the killing prison of Auschwitz.

Wife and mother Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) spends her days planting up the garden, mostly to screen out the horrors going on over the other side of the wall. Devoted family man and loving father and husband Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) pops off to work at the camp each day, on his much loved horse. Dreadfully, his work meetings involve designing improved transport and dispatching facilities to ‘improve’ the facilities efficiency and up the numbers of the killing camps. The inhumanity is the real horror here.

This is not the banality of evil, but sheer evil. The normalising of evil, of murder, of dehumanising people. Intriguingly the prisoners are outside the family’s zone of interest — the house workers can be treated badly or shouted at, prisoners beaten and harassed as they’re marched along in work parties, set to raggedly clean and polish boots, used as entertainment. In one of Hedwig and her mother’s throwaway comments, there’s a sense of revenge, of people getting what they deserve. The family themselves have lost their humanity — apart from one daughter who wants to sweeten the life of the prisoners by feeding them sugar. (Although it’s hard to tell if this is real or if it’s part of her wandering dream).

The true horror comes from what we hear, what’s hinted at , the unsettling camera work peering through doors, windows and over the wall — rather than what we actually see. It’s like watching a movie version of the photographs of Nazi soldiers on a ‘jolly’ day out — at killing trenches. Höss is described as a model settler citizen — and yet when we get a glimpse of his interior life, it’s terrifying. The oldest son is pictured studying teeth — prisoner’s teeth! Human teeth! Constantly everyone looks away — from the screams, the gun shots, the furiously pumping chimneys, the bones found in the local river, the ashes dug into the flower beds, the shower over their pool (in a garden presumably designed, created and maintained by camp prisoners). Hedwig’s mother comes closest to truth as she starts to cough, sees the chimneys of the crematoriums flaming the sky at night and realises what is funding the apparently beautiful family home. The full hideousness of it causes her to flee without a word. Yet still people don’t speak up, or stop doing what they’re doing. The blame is always on someone else, on the system. Hedwig even rounds on a house worker and snarls that they should be grateful for the ‘good life’ and better treatment that they get in the Höss family home!

Höss himself is caught up in all the internal party politics and moved to a new site as an overall camp inspector. No longer Commandant of Auschwitz, his relationship with Hedwig also fractures as she chooses the house (next to the camp) over him. He’s also starting to break down physically and psychologically as he imagines gassing a ballroom full of people. Is he merely following orders, as Hedwig suggests, or is he knowingly culpable? Is their guilt and suppressed guilt eating them up from inside?

How could Hedwig choose such a home in such a place, to raise her children? The beauty of flowers or of a baby sniffing a rose, the abundance of food, a birthday or pool party, the freedom of wandering through some lush woods are contrasted with the horrors going on behind the other side of the wall. Jonathan Glazer’s script and Łukasz Żal’s cinematography constantly cause us to pause and think. There’s also subtly in the ‘normalcy’ — the fear with which a house servant prepares the Commandant’s drink on a tray.

Dehumanising comes in the form of stealing and scavenging — Hedwig tries on a fur coat with a lipstick in the pocket. A casual story is told about another military wife determinedly trying on a dress too small for her — but she was determined to have it. They know who these things belonged to, they know how they were obtained. The heartlessness and lack of compassion as a given is nauseating, particularly as Hedwig asks her husband to look out for things for her — chocolate!

Incredibly powerful, really shocking and a memorial to the de-humanising of all those who were murdered, brutalised or suffered during the Holocaust. The film ends with present day footage of an Auschwitz death chamber at the Museum, hauntingly reinforcing the humanity of the inmates with the piles of suitcases, medical supports, and pairs and pairs of shoes heaped up. It also reminds of us of the everyday greed, hatred and exploitation we’ve seen through this ‘exemplary’ family.

Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel both give amazing performances as the couple committing evil acts as part of normal, everyday family life, alongside their hopes and dreams for a post-war future. Equally powerful are the child actors, who are very naturalistic and respond to this horrific situation in childlike ways throughout. Even as they skip off to school in their Hitler Youth uniforms.

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!