Unnerving Holocaust film creates atmosphere of pure terror
The unimaginable but well-known historical reality of the Holocaust hangs over and around the film
Nominated for five Oscars, including best director, best film and best international feature film — thanks to its use of German — British director Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust film that eschews the expected depictions of the horrors of the Holocaust; a horror film whose horror is not on screen but in the collective imaginations of its audience; and a work that quietly but surely works to make you feel so uncomfortable and queasy in its depictions of the quotidian details of its central family’s everyday life that it becomes sometimes almost unbearable to watch.
The film begins with two minutes of black screen accompanied by the unnerving audio hellscape of composer Mica Levi that serves as a warning of what is to come — a domestic drama with little in the way of plot but so much in the way of implication and off-screen horror that is impossible for almost anyone raised in modern, postwar society to ignore.
Just as this black-screen audio onslaught reaches the point at which you might begin to squirm in your seat under its oppressively foreboding eeriness, the film begins with a picturesque depiction of a family picnic — children playing in the water and the nearby forest, a pale-white-legged mother cooing to the baby in her arms, the languid summer day shimmering its inviting possibilities on the lake in front of them. The low rumbling offers the only hint that something is amiss, an industrial soundscape care of sound designers Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn. It rubs against the domestic bliss of cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s crisp, widescreen still-camera, as he captures what appears to be just a pleasant day out for an ordinary 1940s family somewhere in picture-perfect Europe.
As we watch the sun set, see the family heading home down a tree-lined road and observe their chocolate box house in the process of shutting down for the night, there is still little to see on-screen that may give any indication of a reason not to be gently cheered by the sight of an ordinary family, living their ordinary life. Even if history reminds us that Europe in the 1940s wasn’t exactly a place where ordinary family life was possible for most, and the smattering of dialogue tells us that this is a German family.
When the sun rises on the following morning, it’s obvious from the bustle in the house that today it’s back to work and when we see the father coming downstairs in his German army uniform, the penny has finally dropped. Even if what we’re watching are not the bad Nazi stereotype acts of a homicidal sadomasochist but a blindfolded visit to the back of the house where his happy brood reveals his surprise birthday present — a still freshly painted canoe. He gingerly lowers his baby into it before heading off on his horse to work — a short canter out of the home and into the gates of the concentration camp that shares a wall with his house.
That camp is Auschwitz and the father and his wife are Rudolf and Hedwig Höss. Höss was the real-life commander of the most notorious concentration camp in history, where more than 1.1-million people died, 1-million of them Jews. He was tried and hanged at Auschwitz for war crimes in 1947.
We never see inside Auschwitz, but Glazer relies on our knowledge of its nefarious name to fill in the gaps of what Höss spends his days getting up to.
We never see inside Auschwitz, but Glazer relies on our knowledge of its nefarious name to fill in the gaps of what Höss spends his days getting up to. Gradually the film, through sound and implication, paints a portrait of the domestic bliss and slight family drama that envelops the Höss house — not so much a literal depiction of Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil”, but of the evil that lurks within the banality of the family’s determined dedication to build a domestic Eden. Complete with pool, landscaped garden and greenhouse, it almost literally stands in the shadow of the constantly rumbling industrial death machine that bellows out smoke just beyond the walls.
Hedwig fills her days with domestic duties, assisted by “local girls not Jews”, and receiving sacks of confiscated items of clothing from the camp, from which she takes her pick. A scene in which she smuggles away a fur coat, with a lipstick in the pocket, is particularly unsettling as we watch her modelling it in her bedroom mirror before rouging her lips with the purloined cosmetic.
On the profits reaped from one of the ugliest, most satanic moments in history, is built the Höss’ paradise and its accompanying delusion of domestic bliss. While we may wish to see it destroyed, the only real threat to it presented in the film, is provided by Rudolf’s transfer to Berlin, which Hedwig furiously fights by insisting that she and the children remain in their Auschwitz paradise while he serves the Reich elsewhere.
Glazer’s pursuit of almost complete visual detachment extends to his decision to use the reality TV technique of filming with remote cameras, which allows his actors to perform almost as if they were not being watched. The trick pays off in the discomforting experience of the audience who soon begin to feel as if we are flies on the wall in a waiting room in hell, where, knowing what horrors lie in wait makes experiencing them impossible to escape.
There are other visual flourishes here — a series of scenes filmed in black and white using thermal night-vision cameras that echo the fairytales Höss reads his children at night and show a mysterious girl planting apples in the woods, next to what appear to be the sites of graves. And finally, brutally the fictional wall is broken, which lands us not in the gas chambers of 1940s Auschwitz, but in their present museum incarnation. The banality of cleaners preparing for the day’s visitors is juxtaposed with the famous symbolic icons of the horrors of the Holocaust that lie in the display cases — the shoes of children, rummaged suitcases, mugshots of the dead.
Other films have taken a similar approach to Glazer’s in their determined refusal to attempt to show or recreate the violence of the Holocaust — most notably Claude Lanzmann’s masterwork Shoah, a nine-and-a-half hour documentary that relies on testimonies and visuals of concentration camps in their postwar state and Hungarian director Lásló Neme’s Oscar-winning drama Son of Saul, which tells its harrowing story of a day in the life of a member of a Sonderkommando, almost entirely in close-ups that focus the drama on the character, while never revealing the details of the evil unfolding everywhere around him.
However, there has never been a film about the Holocaust quite so unnerving and terrifying as this one, which so effectively creates an atmosphere of pure terror through the discomforting juxtaposition of the unexceptional and the unshown, unimaginable but known historical reality that hangs over and around it.
What remains long after the credits have rolled on Glazer’s painstakingly careful rendition of British author Martin Amiss’ 2014 eponymous glimpse into the imagined life of the Höss family is a dirty feeling of implication that afflicts any of us who believe that walls are enough to keep reality at bay and that not seeing is not knowing.
• The Zone of Interest in on circuit.
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