Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust Film The Zone of Interest Is More Hollow than HollowingMovies Reviews Jonathan Glazer
The Zone of Interest is certainly the first film in the Holocaust genre to feature a woman who fights to stay in Auschwitz. Based on the the 2014 Martin Amis novel of the same name, the film follows Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), the wife of Nazi commander Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), who has designed the Nazi Barbie dream house for her family, complete with lush gardens and a pristine swimming pool. The constant cacophony of horror coming from just beyond the wall doesn’t bother Hedwig and Rudolf, who sleep in separate beds, but seem to be a happy couple, more or less. They are so used to the loud pops of gunfire and the flurries of ash that they don’t even take note. Only once does Hedwig so much as mention the hell right next door, when her mother asks Hedwig if her servants are Jewish. “No, all the Jews are on the other side of the wall,” she responds.
The only people who aren’t in complete denial over the stench of death hanging around are Hedwig’s mother, who can’t stomach the sickening background noise for more than one night, and Hedwig’s beautiful, but indistinguishable, Aryan children, if only subconsciously. Hedwig’s mother leaves without so much as a goodbye, and the kids’ behavior starts to get a little bizarre. One of the boys cruelly locks another in the greenhouse; one of their girls starts sleepwalking. None of this fazes Hedwig. Her feathers are only ruffled when her husband is transferred away from the “pleasure garden,” but the self described “Queen of Auschwitz” won’t be pushed out that easily. Hedwig refuses to leave with him, insisting on continuing to raise their kids at Auschwitz. He leaves, she remains with the children and the death march continues.
More hollow than hollowing, director Jonathan Glazer’s Edenic nightmare is better when taken metaphorically. There are no people to grasp onto here, only concepts. The photography from Łukasz Żal (Cold War, Ida) is both flawless and disturbing. When paired with Mica Levi’s disconsolate electronic score, the effect is bone-chilling.
Although when one is working with metaphor, a certain degree of character depth is still expected (not that Glazer is exactly known for his well-written characters). His heavy-handed hints at a Hansel and Gretel connection do not do the film any favors. None of the performances are particularly memorable, which is a real shame considering the immense talent being wasted here; won’t anyone use the full extent of Sandra Hüller’s darkly comedic talents, as she showed in Toni Erdmann? Any of the actors, including Hüller, could be replaced, and it would still be the same movie, so long as the actors were speaking German. The macabre tableaux and lurching music may be enough to sustain a video installation piece, but not 106 minutes of narrative. The Zone of Interest doesn’t go much farther than pointing out that life under fascism was actually pretty swell for the fascists, and that their idyllic lives came at the expense of mass exploitation and death.
The lack of any development past this realization starts to feel flippant around the first hour, and disrespectful by the end. So much of the runtime is spent examining the exquisite beauty of the rich, but Glazer doesn’t have the stones to ever fully juxtapose that with the wretched squalor of the damned, choosing instead to only gesture at it, and then make a vague “statement” at the film’s end.
Cate Shortland’s Lore is a prime example of a previous Holocaust film that has found a higher achievement in its exploration of the elegance of Nazi wealth, its inevitable proximity to genocide and the adverse mental effect that has on innocent Nazi children. Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul is a gritty look deep into the bowels of the camps and the mass suffering that took place inside. What these two films have in common is that they draw a connection between the larger concepts of wealth, violence and mass death to the reality of human experience. The Holocaust happened to real human beings, and ignoring that by reducing the event to a monotonous video project is more dismissive than it is penetrating. The Zone of Interest connects these concepts to nothing, and remains just that: merely conceptual.
After 2013’s Under the Skin, Glazer returned to the film scene in 2019 with two unsettling short films (“The Fall” and “Strasbourg 1518”) that explore the connection between brutality and groupthink, a theme that is also present throughout The Zone of Interest. Perhaps this film would have fit better as the third short in that trio.
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writer: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel, Medusa Knopf
Release Date: December 8, 2023
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.