‘The Zone of Interest’ Review: Glazer’s Surreal Holocaust Tale Gets Under the Skin

Peter Paras revies The Zone of Interest, another masterpiece from director Jonathan Glazer, which aims to challenge the viewer with its specific depiction of the Holocaust.
User Rating: 10

Since the very first Academy Awards ceremony, dramas have been a staple of awards seasons. One of the can’t-miss areas for voters? Films about the Holocaust. Still, despite nearly a century of Oscars, Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited follow-up to the groundbreaking sci-fi tale Under the Skin (2013) is like no Holocaust film ever experienced. If you’re familiar with his work, which often fuses documentary sequences with highly conceptual art installations, this should come as no surprise. For everyone else about to enter The Zone of Interest, the Scottish filmmaker’s latest triumph of the wills is undoubtedly polarizing. A reaction I’m sure Glazer wouldn’t want any other way.

Housing yet another incredible performance from Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Hüller, the story concerns a real-life Aryan family circa the 1930s who quite literally live next door to a concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland. The family’s father, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), is not just a Nazi but the head S.S. Commandant of said camp. While he toils away, discussing the most efficient ways to exterminate up to 700 Jews a day, his wife, Hedwig (Hüller), frets over their home, children, and precious items “left behind” by those burned in ovens.

The title refers to the roughly 15 square miles that housed camps in the “Interessengebiet” or “interest zone.” Most viewers will know of such genocidal tactics as another term, The Final Solution. Glazer, who wrote the script based on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis, has fashioned a litmus test for modern audiences. Not just about the horror of the Holocaust but how too many of us learn to ignore tragedies, some happening in our own backyard. We all too easily tune out atrocities.

See Also: ‘All of Us Strangers’ Review: A Masterpiece in its Study of the Need for Human Understanding

Glazer, along with frequent collaborator on production designer Chris Oddy (Under the Skin), went so far as to almost shoot the film at the actual house where the Höss family lived some 80 years ago. Ultimately, Oddy constructed very specific rooms, lawns, and the outside of the camp to look practically brand new, which is as they would have been for the Nazis. Compartmentalization is an important aspect of how Glazer’s films work psychologically. Whether the viewer is experiencing the black goo of Under the Skin’s alien world or a perfectly manicured garden in Poland, a feeling of claustrophobia is always present. The characters in his films often can’t escape their own mouse traps. Traps they often enter willingly. In the case of Hedwig, when news hits that Rudolf has been relocated to another city, she vehemently doesn’t want to leave.

Imagine living right next door to a concentration camp. Like the worst case of tendonitis ever, something wrong is just out of reach: a faint scream, a gunshot, a black cloud of smoke exiting a chimney. Yet Hedwig views the idyllic home she’s worked on as the kind of paradise she refuses to abandon. While the characters are a far cry from the cartoonish Nazis seen in the Indiana Jones series, these are not likable people. Their coldness, their indifference, is far more chilling. Even Ralph Fiennes’ Oscar-nominated turn in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List has moments of charm despite his sadomasochistic pathology. No, the greatest evil on display with no onscreen violence throughout the 104 min is the unwillingness to care.

The costumes by Warsaw-born Malgorzata Karpiuk (Quo Vadis, Aida?) often constrict the characters, highlighting how important appearances can be in a fascist regime. Yet often, a dress or a fur coat intentionally doesn’t quite fit because most of the clothes acquired by Hedwig were not originally hers. In one scene, Hedwig and her mother discuss whether a Jewish woman they knew was now at the camp. They wonder who got her fabulous curtains. Meanwhile, while the children of the Höss clan might seem dressed appropriately for the era until, the sight of father and son in Nazi uniforms transpires. Later, Rudolph’s grandiose oversized S.S. jacket works as visually thematic for how the machine of the Führer is the priority, not the people, not even the Germans.

Both cinematographer Lukas Zac (Cold War) and composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) push the boundaries of unrealness, often employing techniques not seen in period dramas. One such motif includes scenes shot as a black & white negative with accompanying sound design that feels alien. These parts demonstrate one of the most effective qualities of The Zone of Interest, namely, how an impeccably crafted film about a specific dark period in human history can feel surprisingly relevant in the 21st century.

Too often, Oscar-bait period flicks are well-made even though they rarely offer insight for the viewers of the era in which they’re released. Or worse, they pander like Driving Miss Daisy‘s “racism was bad in the past, but we’re enlightened now” lie. Glazer and his cast and crew aren’t just shining a light on a specific familial tale but on 2023, too. Would most Westerners be OK with all the smartphones (and chocolate!) if we lived next to the exploited workers used in the fields, the assembly line? Sadly, the answer is probably yes.

The Zone of Interest is like no film I’ve seen since, well, Under the Skin. That is the highest compliment I can give. It’s a flat-out masterpiece I’ve seen twice. If you can handle the subject matter, get to a theater ASAP or find some way to fully experience what Glazer has to offer here.

The Zone of Interest opens in select theaters on December 15, 2023.

10
Perfect
Written by
Peter Paras is pop culture writer who has been reviewing films for the past fifteen years. Raised in Chicago—but an Angeleno since the start of 21st century—he has plenty to say about films, television, videogames, and the occasional YouTube channel. He’s a frequent guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe, as well as TV Campfire Podcast. His work has been published at Why So Blu, Game Revolution and E! Online. His favorites include: Sunset Blvd, Step Up 2 The Streets, Hackers, Paris Is Burning, both installments of The Last of Us, Destiny 2, and Frasier.

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