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'The Zone Of Interest' review: Jonathan Glazer's thorny garden built on ashes

Christian Friedel smoking a cigarette behind a gate
SF Studios

A gentle reminder to Polish those glass surfaces at the museum so that everyone can see clearly what has occurred is pretty much the only nice thing that actually occurs in writer-director Jonathan Glazer's haunting historical drama The Zone Of Interest (also known as Strefa interesów in Polish), which adapts Martin Amis' novel of the same name. Set in the titular area that refers to the surroundings of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film follows both quietly and loudly the domestic life of Auschwitz's commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) who in 1943 live right next to one of the camp's entrances with their kids, with only a wall keeping them from seeing the genocide that is unfolding, only hearing it constantly. Meanwhile, we also see an unnamed girl wandering to the area in the dark of the night and hiding food for the prisoners to find.

Glazer's contribution here is undoubtedly a provocation but not one without a point or plenty of thoughtful questions along the way. It's a slice of life movie that soon becomes a slice about the separation of life and death where a thin façade is the only thing that removes these average monsters, for lack of a better term, from the monstrous acts, though only because they deliberately choose to exist in that ugly fairy tale. As classic fairy tales often coalesce with horror tropes, what is quite evident is that Glazer chose that the horror is unfilmable, even incomprehensible. Instead, you're sitting with utter normalcy, the Höss family's utterly meaningless problems and their beautiful green garden built on ashes, destruction and an unimaginable amount of sorrow.

But what raises that vision a cut above the rest is the real commitment in the filmmaking to ask tough questions again and again. Glazer and DoP Łukasz Żal create classically picturesque frames but leave room for the architecture or black smoke that ruins the aforementioned façade; Małgorzata Karpiuk's costumes with their lighter shades try to divorce the family from the pitch-black darkness that opens the film; all the while Chris Oddy's production design makes the illusion conceivable as the greenery distracts you from the blood red, the opposite colour, that these characters should have on their hands.

All these elements and especially the set details are asking how much it does it take for you to detach yourself from said genocide. If you're focused on the fresh flowers instead of death, does it make you feel complicit? If you look at the clear water and not the smoke, does it make you feel complicit? If you admire a wardrobe choice and you don't question if the piece was stolen, does it make you feel complicit? If you listen to Hedwig's mundane worries or the kids' laughter and not the horrifying screams and firing squads, does that finally make you feel complicit? If you look away from the horror in your head even for 10 seconds in order to adore the filmmaking, are you now complicit? If we're not thinking about the cries for help and what's going on behind the wall, we're absolutely complicit.

The biggest part of building and breaking that illusion is the film's extraordinary soundscape, designed and supervised by Johnnie Burn. Painful screams of children and adults, yelled orders from the guards, motor engines, trains, endless gunshots and other indescribable sounds blend together to create a rotten existence. It begs yet another question: how is anyone able to ignore that and go about their day afterwards? Composer Mica Levi's sparse score adds fuel to that fire with synths and clusters that sound like a combination of the war machine and people taking their last breath. How many of those clusters does it take for you to try to turn the sound off?

It almost feels criminal to say that a director's vision and the themes that they're presenting are loud and clear whilst not being interested in the performances of the movie's leading actors—Friedel and Hüller, that is—but that just goes to show how thoughtful, how original, how indelible The Zone Of Interest is. Perhaps the greatest performance is that of the family as they seem recognisable with their ability to tune out the noise. Being able to do that or being able to justify the deafening noise is what makes genocide possible in the first place. At that point, we're just left with the pitch-black darkness until we recognise it, shine a light on it and help those who are being oppressed, even if all you have are apples.

Smileys: Directing, sound mixing, atmosphere, production design, sound editing

Frowneys: Nothing too underwhelming

Zoning out is not allowed.


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