Vague Visages’ The Zone of Interest review contains minor spoilers. Jonathan Glazer’s 2023 movie features Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel and Freya Kreutzkam. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The Zone of Interest is not an easy movie. It’s surprisingly experimental and difficult to sit through, not just because of its subject matter but because of its stylistic approach to storytelling. Even from a purely narrative perspective, it’s a tough sell, being adjacent (literally) to the Holocaust, but revolving around the daily life of a Nazi family. If one is willing to meet The Zone of Interest on its own terms, however, Glazer’s film offers an uncompromising glimpse at the lengths people will go to avoid seeing the horrors around them, as long as they’re able to carry on as normal.
The Höss family lives an idyllic life in the Polish countryside, in a beautiful home by a quiet river and plenty of servants to attend to their daily needs. Their day-to-day existence is so peaceful that it’s easy for them to forget the fact that only a single wall separates them from the Auschwitz death camp, where over a million Jewish people and members of other marginalized groups were murdered. It’s easy to see Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) as a doting father, instead of the mastermind of some of the most destructive killing methods employed in concentration camps — a man for whom the so-called “Jewish problem” was an interesting thought experiment to be solved and executed accordingly. As the Höss family carries on their daily lives, the biggest source of drama is whether or not the patriarch will be transferred to a different camp, since his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) has resolved herself to stay in their Polish home no matter what, unwilling as she is to relinquish her title of Queen of Auschwitz.
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The mundane goings-on of the Höss family are made horrifying by the constant presence of Auschwitz. Hedwig picks out items pilfered from murdered Jews — fur coats and luxury goods for the lady of the house. She treats these things as though they are merely the fringe benefits of a well-connected husband (akin to floor seats at a Knicks game or a Broadway show), rather than the precious few belongings carried through a torturous train journey, only to be pulled out of the cold hands of their previous owners. The Höss family may build a wall, even plant vines to decorate it, but there is no escaping the constant sounds of the camp. Screams and gun shots echo through the air, and ominous plumes of smoke carry human ashes. This is the soundtrack of their daily lives, no longer ghoulish since the family has long since become accustomed to it.
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For this very reason, The Zone of Interest’s sound design is one of its most intriguing qualities, telling a horrific story entirely off screen. Every carefree moment is accompanied by terror, a constant reminder of everything the Höss family chooses not to acknowledge. The development of this macabre background music is an art in and of itself, punctuating casual conversations and childish games with cries of despair.
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Glazer utilizes a fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style in The Zone of Interest, setting up his camera in room corners to capture almost surveillance-like long shots of the focal family in their private life. This technique, although fairly static, creates a forced intimacy with the Höss clan that is both fascinating and disturbing. The Zone of Interest isn’t necessarily an “actors’ film” — by virtue of the narrative style, the cast receives little dramatic material, with most of their screen time devoted to everyday conversations and small talk. But both Hüller and Friedel find moments to shine, creating the chilling from the mundane.
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Glazer’s most interesting filmmaking choice comes towards the end of The Zone of Interest, where he provides a glimpse of modern-day Auschwitz. No matter how much the Höss family may have ignored the goings-on next door, no one can hide from the truth forever. In The Zone of Interest, the horrors are on full display, giving Holocaust victims (and their surviving family members) the dignity of having their suffering properly acknowledged.
Audrey Fox (@theaudreyfox) is a features editor and film/television critic at Looper, with bylines at RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, /Film and IGN, amongst other outlets. She has been blessed by the tomato overlords with their coveted seal of approval. Audrey received her BA in film from Clark University and her MA in International Relations from Harvard University. When she’s not watching movies, Audrey loves historical non-fiction, theater, traveling and playing the violin (poorly).
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