Horrific sound design paired with a documentary-like style make Jonathan Glazer’s latest film his most terrifying. Here’s our The Zone Of Interest review.
Rudolf (Christian Friedel) is, in many respects, your typical family man. He loves his children: he takes them swimming in a nearby lake, and reads them stories when they can’t sleep at night. He loves his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, who also in another of this year’s Oscar contenders, Anatomy Of A Fall), who takes great pride in her beautiful garden and her husband’s high-ranking job. He goes fishing when he can.
Rudolf Höss is also the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family idyl is scored by the screams floating over his garden wall.
The use of the present tense here isn’t just to satisfy film writing convention. A huge part of what makes The Zone Of Interest so disturbing is just how current it all looks. Glazer and production designer Chris Oddy have made every effort to recreate the real Höss residence as they themselves would have seen it. Central heating, fresh wallpaper and a tidy glass porch serve as a completely silent reminder that what feels like the distant past is far closer than we might think. Swap out some unfussy period costumes and the house could almost pass for a 21st century new build.
At the same time, there’s something horribly timeless about The Zone Of Interest’s focus. The commandant’s intentionally mundane and naturalistically presented family life in many ways paints them as a blank canvas. When, in a horrible jolt of complicity, we realise halfway through the film that we, too, have begun to tune out the horrors which soundtrack almost everything we’re watching, the lurching realisation that these people are living not as monsters, but as very human people is enough to turn the stomach.
The film, then, is an almost overwhelmingly visceral experience, so it’s interesting to find the BBFC have given it a 12A certificate in the UK – meaning audiences of any age are able to attend if accompanied by an adult. There is, of course, nothing in the film to actually warrant a higher rating. The horrifying violence is exclusively heard and implied, its power coming from what we know and imagine we’re not being shown more than anything appearing on screen. Glazer should be commended, too, for not giving in to shock factor – the nature of the Höss family situation is clear from the start, not set up as a cheap twist part way through the film. The relatively low rating has another benefit, too – if ever a film deserves to be shown as part of a national curriculum, it’s this one.
Undeniably, though, The Zone Of Interest remains an intensely difficult watch. The almost documentary-like naturalism both of the performances and the wide-shot cinematography are impossible to look away from, but the film does stumble slightly when it moves away from its central thesis to show a sub-plot – beginning with a young girl hiding apples in a mud bank – shot at night and using thermal imaging cameras. While the majority of the film feels horribly realistic, Glazer’s more art-house instincts here add just a touch of artifice to a picture otherwise completely lacking in it.
I’m going to put a star-rating at the bottom of this review, though I acknowledge it is essentially meaningless where The Zone Of Interest is concerned. Less a traditional film and more a psyche-altering experience, the 105 minutes I spent in a cinema were some of the most uncomfortable and disturbing I’ve ever had in a screening. I genuinely think seeing it should be compulsory.
The Zone Of Interest is out now in UK cinemas.