This article appeared in the November 30, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Zone of Interest (Brian Glazer, 2023)
In The Zone of Interest, the home of Rudolf and Hedwig Höss is alive with sensory activity. The family’s dog plays with the children, and barks in response to the snarls of prison dogs on the other side of the wall. The flowers bloom thanks to Hedwig’s diligent labors in the garden, and breathe in heavy, ashen air. The baby cries—in delight or horror? What the family senses around them and how they sense it are ambiguous. Living outwardly blissful lives in a house that shares a boundary with Auschwitz, do they see the plumes of smoke that streak their skies with gray? Do they perceive the infernal glow that casts their bedroom in an orange blaze? Do they hear the gunshots that ricochet several times per hour, meters away from them as they cook, clean, and throw parties in their backyard?
Writer-director Jonathan Glazer interrogates the Hösses’ domestic lives and their perceptions like an engineer troubleshooting the sensors on a faulty fire alarm. Although his subjects are historical—Rudolf and Hedwig Höss (played here by Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller, respectively) really lived on the outer perimeter of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, with Rudolf the top commandant in charge—he trains a modern gaze on them, deploying visual and sonic technologies picked from a 21st-century arsenal. During filming, Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal placed several cameras in the set, modeled down to the inch as a replica of the Hösses’ actual home. They coordinated the cameras with a system of cables, relying on focus-pullers working remotely from the basement, and captured scenes in multiple locations throughout the house in simultaneous, uninterrupted takes.
Adding to this strategy of alienation, the film’s soundtrack and visual footage were developed separately—sound designer Johnnie Burn called them “film one” and “film two”—and were merged only at the end, so that each could not influence the other. Consequently, despite its intimate access to the home’s interior, the eye of the camera feels eerie and inhospitable. Small acts of resistance punctuate the clinical vision of quotidian complicity captured by these lenses: we see several scenes in which a young Polish girl infiltrates the camp to hide apples for prison laborers to find. Glazer refrains from giving her gestures heightened narrative status. Instead, he shoots her nighttime escapades with an infrared camera. Through that lens, we see her the way border monitors today see undocumented migrants: as balls of heat passing through restricted areas.
The Hösses’ bourgeois lives have fed narrative interest before, notably in Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same title (of which this film is a loose adaptation), and the 2008 drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which contorted historical facts to glorify values of compassion and friendship. In the landscape of Holocaust films, The Zone of Interest is neither a tearjerker seeking to inspire lofty feelings of universalism (as could be said of Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful) nor a self-consciously courageous confrontation with the facts (as could be said of Night and Fog and Son of Saul). Glazer’s film sidesteps long-standing debates over the unrepresentability of the event, probing instead how people might have perceived these horrors as they took place.
The film takes no great interest in the psychology of the protagonists, their moral culpability, their exemplification of the banality of evil, or the other myriad bafflements that have stumped legal jurists, historians, and philosophers for the greater part of the past century. Instead it asks how a middle-class German couple’s perception of the violence unfolding before their eyes, ears, noses, and hands came to be configured in a specific, monstrous way—a question that turns its attention from the individual in a vacuum to the individual as embedded within a larger social (and physical) architecture. Rather than wondering about isolated people who choose to be cruel and those who choose to be humane, The Zone of Interest conducts an inquiry into our selective experience of sensory data and the ethical implications of that selection.
Glazer’s precise spatial and sonic scaffolding suggests that the Hösses have become exceedingly good at compartmentalizing violence. Hedwig, who has a taste for furs and lipstick, receives shipments of clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics from “Canada,” a euphemism she uses to refer to luxury goods pilfered from Jewish households. There are long sequences in which Rudolf moves from room to room turning lights on and off, shutting and locking windows and doors. Segregating his duties by room, he performs the role of benevolent patriarch in the dining room, draws up genocidal plans in the study, and fucks the maid in the basement. In one early scene in the film, an encounter with the material residue of the Holocaust threatens the tidiness of the compartments they’ve devised. On a fishing trip with his kids down the river, Rudolf finds his family wading through something ghastly in the water: ash and human bones. Revolted, he cuts the excursion short, paddling his children home in a frenzy, where the women spring into action, laundering clothes and scrubbing the kids clean.
Alternately, it’s possible to read these characters as people suffering from a form of hyperesthesia, a neurological condition in which sensory perception is so radically overloaded that the brain no longer registers information but instead destroys it. Twice, Glazer makes use of the same minimalistic, expressionistic gesture. In the first scene, Rudolf considers the violence he is implicated in, wearing a stoic look; the screen fades to white. In the second, Glazer shows the image of a red rose; the screen fades to red. These sequences mimic the process of increasing the sensitivity of photographic film to light. When the film is oversensitized, it can no longer record light information: the negative burns, and the photograph comes out monochrome. At a cocktail party filled with high-ranking personnel, Rudolf confesses to his wife over the phone that he is too preoccupied with the logistics of how he would gas everybody in the room to enjoy the occasion. A final explanation, at least for him, is that his work has turned his ways of reasoning and feeling into the indifferent functionality of a gas chamber.
There are resonances between production work that was done for The Zone of Interest and modeling done for contemporary investigations of hate crimes and state terror. In 2006, 21-year-old Halit Yozgat, the son of Turkish immigrants, was murdered by the neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Underground (NSU) at his family’s internet café in Kassel, Germany. Later, it emerged that there were deep ties between German police and the NSU. Present at the café at the time of the crime was a German intelligence officer who subsequently denied hearing the gunshots, smelling the gunpowder, and seeing Yozgat’s body. In 2017, the multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture built a 1:1 physical model of the café to test the intelligence officer’s claims, using materials vetted by acoustic experts to imitate the properties of the space. They concluded that his testimony was likely false.
On their faces, these investigations—though fictionalized, The Zone of Interest counts as one—put people on trial for blatant denialism. More profoundly, they put systems on trial for producing the conditions under which denialism appears plausible to those who internalize it. In 2021, anthropologist Callie Maidhof attempted to parse how people living in the shadow of Israel’s Separation Barrier, a present-day manifestation of extreme architecture, justified it to themselves. She conducted her fieldwork in Alfei Menashe, an Israeli settlement on the western edge of the West Bank. She was surprised to learn in speaking with settlers that they “barely gave [the Separation Barrier] a passing thought.” Alfei Menashe, which has the look of any Midwestern American suburb—with prim fruit trees, fences, SUVs, swing sets, and dogs—lies a wall away from settlements densely packed with Palestinians living under subhuman conditions, where the air is regularly polluted with the stench of tear gas and tires burnt in protest of the occupation. Maidhof argued that, to get by, Israeli settlers practiced a strategy of “unseeing,” which was “not a lack of vision,” but rather “a perceptual practice that makes and remakes space,” so that certain things lying in plain sight could be ignored.
Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman write in their 2021 book Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth that “opening one’s ability to sense is opening oneself to the experience of pain.” Watching The Zone of Interest and practicing good aesthetic habits—to the extent that aesthetics is about attunement to looking and noticing—thus becomes an ethical position. Over the course of the film, the viewer comes to hang onto every reverberation in the soundtrack, implicated as they are in what they discern. Sound, which we are so accustomed to canceling as “noise,” becomes precious. Was that metallic clatter from benign work being done on the house or forced labor in the camp? Was that youthful cry joyful, from the gathering in the garden, or despairing, responding to the cruelties of Auschwitz?
Jasmine Liu is a writer based in New York.