The Zone of Interest – Film Review

At its core, the Zone of Interest is an experiment: a thesis. Its statement revolves around the ethics of depicting grave human atrocities on the big screen, especially regarding the Holocaust. What responsibilities do the filmmakers have? Many, such as Steven Spielberg, would have you believe that these atrocities must be depicted and dramatised to show the darkest facets of mankind. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a prime example, a film that many consider a necessary achievement. On the other hand, there are filmmakers, such as Michael Haneke, who are abhorred by this view. They say that the Holocaust was simply too horrible, signifying the complete breakdown of humanity, for anyone to exploit it for cheap drama. Films like the nine-hour Shoah (1985), often hailed as the greatest documentary ever made, tell you that one simply can’t depict the Holocaust as such; the audience should be able to decide themselves. These folks, and more famously Haneke, have criticised Schindler’s List, especially its infamous scene where prisoners are sent to the ‘showers’ where it is ambiguous that the showers might release gas or water, thus providing drama. Emotionally manipulative and wilfully naive is what they say. If I must chime in, I do think Schindler’s List is a very good and necessary, albeit flawed film. But I must agree with the European filmmakers and historians on this scene alone. It is understandable why someone might find it disgusting and cheap.

The beautiful flowers in the film are fertilised by the remains of the dead Jews 

When almost all Holocaust movies fall under the shadow of this question, Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of the great Martin Amis novel of the same name has made it one of its key themes. This is an alien and foreign-feeling film that merely observes the Nazi family of Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their children. And that’s all that this film does, showing us a glimpse into their lives in their wonderful home. Of course, it’s not that simple. We quickly realise that the compound next to their house is actually Auschwitz. We see smoke emanating in the background; we hear the muffled screams of the prisoners dying in anguish. We directly see none of it. This disconnect between the normalcy of the visuals and the sheer horror of the sounds is the driving force behind the film. And thus, the film reveals its stance on the subject. Completely chaste and utterly devoted to its resolve of not showing any atrocity on screen, not even a frame of violence is shown. This is an idea that Haneke, a man dedicated to showing the relationship between violence and spectacle in most of his films, would’ve loved. Even the way the film opens is strange and haunting. After the title card dissolves into the black screen amidst an eerie wailing of synths, we wait for the first shot. Except, the black screen and the haunting noises persist for another 3-4 minutes. Is this a descent to hell? The sounds sure sound like a furnace, along with the dejected screams of millions resigned to their doomed fate. An absolutely horrifying opening that captures the feeling of dread and evil in sound form. When these extremely long three minutes give way to the first actual shot of the film, it’s as if we finally open our eyes, ready to attempt to comprehend what we’re about to see. And what we’re about to see is not a lot. The opening spells it out for us: This film focuses on the score and sound design, not the visuals. 

A shot that is eerie because of its perfection and symmetry

We see this family living in their own paradise. They do everyday family things: Go for a swim, clean their house, they talk about mundane stuff. This is primarily the rest of the film and is something you should come to terms with quickly and start asking the question: Why? The answer to that, many people will say, is that Glazer is showing us the ‘banality of evil’. This is a phrase that you’ll probably see in every review of the film; it seems to be the movie’s central theme. Before I talk further, I’ll define the term. It was introduced by the political thinker Hannah Arendt in her book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an officer of the SS who was in charge of the one-way trains that led millions of Jews to their doom. In his trial, Eichmann was very blase and claimed no responsibility by saying he ‘did his job’. The banality of evil thus refers to the idea that ordinary people commit atrocities without awareness or care. And from the film’s synopsis, you can see why people return to this phrase. This family simply does not care that their paradise is right next to hell. To them, the screams get filtered out as they go about their daily lives. “The vines will grow and cover it all”, says Hedwig. This is in reference to the wall that separates Auschwitz from their house, and all she can think about is how it detracts from the aesthetics of the place. Several moments like these shock us amidst all the boring and ‘relatable’ home life. Yes, all of this perfectly illustrates the banality of evil. However, one can argue it goes against the very concept of it.

For this, the visuals need to be brought up. The film looks surprisingly modern. The film was shot on digital 6K cameras, and the set design is pristine. Another interesting filmmaking technique was that Glazer and the crew weren’t present at the sets. They hid the cameras like CCTVs and remotely operated them. He, in fact, got inspiration from the UK reality TV show Big Brother. Yes, the one Big Boss is based on. The fact that an arthouse film draws inspiration from such a ‘low-brow’ source is insane and tells us the director has no ego and is willing to look everywhere for ideas. With the camera crew bunkered outside some fifty feet away, the actors were left to their senses; the senses of the characters they portray. And we are left with a voyeuristic view, peering into this family that is alarmingly similar to us in their daily routine. The family is supposed to be us. Yes, we can tell ourselves that this could never be us; we would never do something like this. However, the modern look of the film is intentional, as Glazer has stated in the press tour that the film is not about the past, it’s about now. It’s us. Like Auschwitz in this film, the point is that horrible things are happening in your backyard right now. It’s about what’s happening in Gaza, it’s about climate change, and any other crime against humanity that we are lax about. And yet, most of us go about our lives usually. Glazer criticises us and says that there’s nothing banal about this. You are an active participant. And thus, the film can also be read as an antithesis to the concept of the banality of evil. 

The fumes of Auschwitz are visible in the background, always looming

A ’subplot’ (in very loose terms) in the film is thus crucial to this reading; one that I won’t reveal here. However, it must be mentioned that the look of this sequence is entirely experimental, and shot in thermal imaging cameras. Another facet of the movie’s modern and alien feel, the reason for this is not easy to ascertain. Still, it’s a huge shock that forces viewers to ask questions and involve themselves in the storytelling. This is much like the rest of the film, making us ponder specific filmmaking choices and what the film says through them. This is aided by the lack of a real plot. If that seems like a movie that’ll bore you, then let me assure you it will. But if you are willing to sit and ask questions and try to digest the film, then it’ll reveal its beauty and horror. A beauty and horror that can be seen in the flower motifs throughout the film. A beauty and horror that can be heard during the ending credits: A sea of tortured souls wailing and lamenting their misery but at the same time somehow, a catharsis that reminds us that through all the suffering, there can be peace and hope. If we don’t look away.

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