'The Zone of Interest' - Intriguing Monsters

"The Zone of Interest" via IMDb.

As if the dangerous and unpredictable times in which we are living aren’t already terrifying enough, acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (A24), an adaptation of the late Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, cranks up the fear. It may be set 80 years ago in Poland, but it will feel viscerally resonant and familiar to many people living in the US today.

Initially opening on an idyllic scene – a family enjoying a lakeside picnic – following an uncomfortably long blackout after the opening credits, we are lulled into a false sense of safety and comfort. Once the family returns to their beautiful home, situated on the opposite side of a high wall topped with barbed wire, it becomes clear that this is not a typical homestead.

The father is Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of Auschwitz. The mother, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who looks after their five children, runs the household with an iron fist. They are portrayed as loving parents; reading bedtime stories, throwing pool parties, and swimming in the lake. Creating a seemingly normal home life for their children.

All of this, of course, as the sounds of shouting, gunshots, screaming, and crying, not to mention the rumbling and chuffing of the crematoria, can be heard in the background. The sky is full of black smoke spewing from the smokestacks which also shoot flames toward the clouds.

The juxtaposition is startling and disturbing. Prisoners push wheelbarrows through the yard, delivering food and gardening supplies. Hedwig, whom Rudolf calls the “Queen of Auschwitz,” is obsessed with her beautiful garden, a contradiction to the horrors nearby. The female house staff, rifles through undergarments that formerly belonged to prisoners. Hedwig keeps a mink coat and the lipstick she finds in the pocket, for herself. She hosts an intimate afternoon tea party, gossiping with her guests as if it’s the most natural thing.

But even in the home they’ve created, there is darkness. One of the daughters sleepwalks. Hedwig’s mother comes to visit, but cuts her trip short, leaving in the middle of the night after seeing the flames coming from the chimneys. A swim in the lake with the kids ends abruptly when human remains are discovered in the water.

Further complicating matters is the news that Rudolf is being transferred to another Konzentrationslager after four years of “painstaking work … turning theory into practice.” Hedwig is devastated and refuses to leave. She’s more upset about having to leave their home than the atrocities being committed over the wall (in other words, she’s the Casey DeSantis to Rudolf’s Ron).

Their separation is short-lived. Rudolf’s promotion to Deputy Inspector of Concentration Camps means he will be in charge of the 700,000 Hungarian Jews being deported to Auschwitz and will be able to return there where he is needed.

Interwoven into the movie are scenes shot in black and white negative featuring a young, Polish girl who lives near the camp, sneaking out and leaving food for the starving prisoners at their work sites – counteracting the evil. Additionally, there is a brief scene, set in the present, showing a cleaning crew at Auschwitz which has become a tourist attraction.

Thoroughly unsettling in every way imaginable, including Mica Levi’s austere score, “The Zone of Interest” is one of the best, if not the most difficult, films of 2023. 

Rating: A-


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