The Zone of Interest (2024.9, Disturbing , Truth )

The Zone of Interest is more than just a story of evil. But the film’s best characteristics are damaged by extraneous scenes. (3.5*)
The Zone of Interest
The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest – Snapshot

The Zone of Interest is, on the surface, the story of  commandant Rudolf Hoess and his family attempting to live a normal life in the shadow of the Auschwitz death factory.  The filmmaker’s use of sound is extraordinary and sets a new benchmark.  But he sabotages his own movie with too many irrelevant scenes. (3.5*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Max

Rent/Buy:  Google ($5) / Prime/Fandango/Apple ($6)

The Zone of Interest – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (5) / Oscar Wins (2) :

Best Picture

International Feature (United Kingdom) WINNER

Director (Jonathan Glazer)

Adapted Screenplay (Jonathan Glazer)

Sound (Tarn Willers / Johnnie Burn) WINNER

Jonathan Glazer received two Oscar nominations for writing the screenplay and directing The Zone of Interest.  These are his first Oscar nominations, although he directed Ben Kingsley to an Oscar nomination in Sexy Beast.  Under the Skin was his last feature film, which he also wrote and directed,  and was nearly ten years before this one.  His nominated screenplay is loosely based on a 2014 novel of the same name by Martin Amis who died the same day this movie premiered at Cannes.  (I haven’t read the book, but I understand that there are substantial differences in tone, story, and structure between it and this movie.)

Despite a large cast, there are only two main characters.  Rudolf Hoess is played by Christian Friedel.  Friedel was born in East Germany and has been in several German films and TV shows, although I can’t say I’ve heard of him.  Hoess’s wife, Hedwig, is played by Sandra Huller, who is also from East Germany.  She was nominated for leading actress for her performance in another Best Picture nominee this year, Anatomy of a Fall.  Both of the actors, in The Zone of Interest – playing rather despicable characters – aren’t likely to receive accolades, although their performances are, shall we say, chilling and effective.

The Zone of Interest won the Oscar for Sound (Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn) and that win recognizes what is probably the best feature of the film.  Although the setting is the Auschwitz concentration camp at the time it was operational, we never actually see any violence.  We do hear plenty of sounds that communicate the incredibly obscene events going on just the other side of the family’s garden wall.  The sound designers and engineers emphasize how important sound will be in this film as the movie opens.  The title of the film dissolves to a pitch black screen which stays that way for more than two minutes.  During that time, dystopian music slowly descends both in pitch and volume.  As it does, the incessant background noises of screams, gunshots, and whips cracking communicate the absolutely awful violence.  And the sounds of furnace doors and roaring fires betray the attempts to cover everything up.  What is perhaps most depressing is that the noises never end.  You never see the death factory in operation, but its presence is all-pervasive.  Sound designer Johnnie Burn spent a year developing the sound library for this movie. 

I haven’t been as impressed with movie sound since the movie A Quiet Place which also received a nomination for Sound Editing. (Sound was divided into two categories back then, Editing and Mixing.). Although we haven’t seen all of the nominees in Sound, it is hard to believe that another film relies on sound as much as this one to convey its dominant emotions.  I appreciate the movie’s win in this category.

The Zone of Interest employs some very unusual choices in cinematography. One is the refusal to use any “movie set” lighting and rely strictly on natural light like sunlight and normal household fixtures.  This limitation leads to a couple of strange sequences when, because the scenes occur at night, they used a thermal imaging camera, producing a distinctive and unnatural color palette.  (I have more to say about these scenes and others in my last section). It also leads to scenes where, intentionally I think, the colors seem washed out and pale.  Glazer and cinematographer Lukas Zal, also chose to use wide-angle lenses in fixed positions for much of the filming inside the Hoess home.  That allowed them to eliminate crew members in the cramped settings of the house, but it also reinforces a detached feeling as you almost never get a closeup of a face and a camera never follows anyone.  Zal, from Poland, was previously nominated for his work on Ida and Cold War, but did not receive a nomination for this effort.

Special credit is also earned by the movie’s production design, headed by Chris Oddy.  (He won a BAFTA for this film, but not an Oscar nod).  Thanks, I presume, to Polish authorities, a great deal of The Zone of Interest was filmed in and immediately around the Auschwitz grounds.  However, they were not allowed to rebuild Rudolf Hoess’s house on site, so a mockup was constructed nearby.  Apparently, the house was complete and not a movie-set which is one of the constraints on the use of cameras and lighting imposed on the cinematographer, but it adds a dose of stark realism.

Another result of using fixed cameras is the result in massive quantities of film.  Glazer and his long-time editor Paul Watts (who also won a BAFTA, but not an Oscar nomination) had to sift through over 800 hours of footage to get it down to less than two.

As a British and Polish production, the film was nominated for International Feature as the United Kingdom’s offering and it won that Oscar.  Likely because of its heavy themes and remarkable sound, it was also nominated for Best Picture.  I haven’t seen the other entries for International Feature, but we are almost finished with this year’s Best Picture nominees and I can safely say that this isn’t the Best for the year.  (More on my evaluation of the movie in the final section.)

The Zone of Interest – Related Movies

Under the Skin (Direction, Screenplay, Editing, Music, Production Design, Sound)

Sexy Beast (Direction)

Ida / Cold War (Cinematography)

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Costumes)

Poor Things / The Favourite (Sound)

Anatomy of a Fall (Huller)

The Zone of Interest – What Others Think

Most critics liked this film much better than the viewing public, rating The Zone of Interest second out of this year’s 24 general interest movies, just behind the US/South Korean film, Past Lives. Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert) writes that it “feels incredibly urgent in what it’s saying about existing alongside evil and how if we allow everyday life to drown out those who are suffering, we are bound to repeat the horrors of history…It’s a hard film to shake.”  He concludes that the film “is mesmerizing despite its lack of melodrama or traditional narrative.”  His colleague Robert Daniels called it a “disturbing work, guided by a discomforting sense of immaculateness that chills the viewer.”  Nicolas Rapold (Sight&Sound) noted that “Glazer’s removed camerawork lets the Nazi project play out with the deadpan horror of a dystopia, even as it notably avoids techniques that might foster an emotional identification with the family dynamics and actually shake up an audience.”

Interestingly, though, not all critics agreed.  Ben Kenigsberg (also RogerEbert) said that he “saw a movie that was less interested in psychology than in its own virtuosity and in its ability to troll the audience with forbidden images.”  And Manohla Dargis (New York Times) scathingly wrote “All that is clear from what’s onscreen is Glazer has made a hollow, self-aggrandizing art-film exercise set in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.”  Glazer, Dargis argues, “doesn’t simply tell a story; in his use of art-film conventions he provides a specific frame through which to watch…These conventions can create a sense of intellectual distance…(but they also) are markers of quality which flatter filmmakers and viewers alike, and which, finally, seem to me to be the biggest point of this vacuous movie.”  Clearly, The Zone of Interest, has divided the critical community, even if most of them lauded this film.

The viewing public, however, wasn’t nearly as impressed.  In fact, like with the films Past Lives and Maestro, there was a significant gap in appreciation.  Viewers ranked the film just 15th out of 24 general interest films, possibly because of its “art-house” features.  One viewer said it “strains the very notion of Motion Picture” , while another blandly called it. “A rather mixed experience.”  This gap between viewers and critics is one of the largest of this year’s movies.  Overall, the film ranked pretty much in the middle of this year’s films, despite its impressive showing at the Oscars!

The Zone of Interest – Special Mention

Rudolf Hoess – is the central figure in The Zone of Interest and the commandant of the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps from 1940 until the end of the war – except for a sixth month assignment overseeing all camps.   (Note: Rudolf Hoess is not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was a German political leader and Deputy Fuhrer under Hitler.  Hess, and not Hoess, was captured in 1941 in Scotland, imprisoned, and committed suicide in 1987.  This movie is not about him but another, possibly even worse, Nazi!)

Hoess was born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, Germany into a strict Catholic family and raised with strict religious and military discipline.  He fought in WWI with the German army serving in both Palestine and Baghdad.  He married Hedwig Hensel (the other major character in this movie) in 1929 and they had five children, exactly as depicted in the film.

Hoess joined the Nazi party in 1922 after hearing a Hitler speech in Munich and renounced his Catholic upbringing.  He committed his first political murder a year later, was convicted and served time in prison.   But Hoess was released under a general amnesty program in 1928.  Joining the SS (Schutzstaffel) he was noticed by Himmler and rose up the ranks.

In 1934, he joined the Death’s Head Units, the organization in charge of concentration camps.  And late that year was assigned to the camp at Dachau, where he led the firing squad that executed the first German conscientious objector.  On January 18, 1940, at the camp at Sachsenhausen, he ordered all prisoners not assigned to work details to stand outside in -15F weather, without adequate clothing, and then closed the infirmary doors as they started to freeze to death.  A total of 145 inmates died that day – perhaps Hoess’s first taste of mass death.

Later in 1940, he was assigned to command Auschwitz which became the central site for the extermination of Jews because of its central location and railroad line proximity.  He began testing and perfecting mass murder techniques and became an expert in the details of the process.  Apparently he complained that his biggest problem was not killing people, but burning the bodies efficiently.  This problem is explored in a very chilling scene in The Zone of Interest.  In November, 1943, Hoess’s efficiency was recognized by his superiors and he was transferred to the head office of the concentration camps to become the chief inspector and expert on operational efficiency.  He was transferred back to  Auschwitz six months later to oversee Operation Hoess, the execution and disposal of 430,000 Hungarian Jews in 56 days – that’s nearly 8000/day!. In his memoirs, Hoess estimated that he oversaw the murder of 2.5 million people at Auschwitz.  Hoess was caught after the war, convicted of Crimes Against Humanity and sentenced to death.  He was hung in 1947 on a gallows constructed for the purpose just outside the gates of Auschwitz, near the house he had built for his family.  

The Zone of Interest is extremely faithful to the details of Hoess’s life story.  And it successfully conveys his unfathomable ability to create and lead a nearly normal family life amid the smells, sounds, and ashes of his own factory of death.  The contrast is totally chilling expressing possibly the epitome of amorality.

The Zone of Interest – Michael’s Moments

The Zone of Interest is not a fun movie.  It is designed not so much to tell a story, but rather to generate an intense feeling of acute discomfort.  How much do you really want to know about one of the most evil men of modern times?

The movie is one of the best ever to use the medium of sound as its main channel.  Yes there is a musical score that is appropriately eerie and bizarre and it hits you full-on in the first minute of the film as you peer into a pitch black screen.  The music descends in both tone and volume and slowly transitions into a scrum of background noises that, at first, are difficult to discern.  As the movie begins, and certainly as the film progresses, you begin to understand that you are listening to the sounds of death.  We never see the violence, we only hear it and it continues, incessantly, for most of the movie.

The uneasiness you feel can turn into feelings of disgust and foreboding as you realize how close the Nazi extermination machinery to the ongoing image of family life.  The story he tells is ultimately irrelevant – we aren’t meant to have any feelings for Hoess, his wife Hedwig, or their five children.  All we are supposed to learn from the fixed cameras, wide-angled lenses, and natural lighting is that here is a family that pretended to live a normal life as the father was killing people by the thousands on the other side of the garden wall.  This juxtaposition of the normalcy of family life against the evil horrors being perpetrated by the father is the abiding strength of Glazer’s movie.  If he had stopped there with about one hour of The Zone of Interest, it would definitely have been Best Picture material.  

But for reasons only Glazer can give us, his return to feature films after a ten year hiatus is punctuated by some other needs.  These exercises diminish the power of the film and raise questions about his respect for the audience. Manohla Dargis (New York Times) called the film “vacuous” and labeled it an “art film” with intentions more of showing the world how witty he could be than of communicating serious emotion.  Unfortunately, I think she is closer to the mark than the many critics who raved about the movie.

Take, for example, the nighttime scenes where a girl leaves apples for the prisoners assigned to work details.  Glazer, while researching the movie, apparently found a 90 year old woman who told her recollections.  Glazer was so taken by the story that he needed somehow to get that into the movie.  But he also had this art-filmish restriction that he wouldn’t use any set lighting – only natural lighting was allowed.  So his technical problem was how he could film the girl distributing apples  in the dark?  He and his cinematographer came up with the “brilliant” idea of using thermal imaging cameras.  And so his nighttime scenes are reduced to high contrast light and dark shadows.  Perhaps to further articulate this odd gesture of kindness in a sea of misery, he adds in “music” that sounds much like a whale burping in slow motion through a sound distortion machine.  Technically intriguing, but hardly relevant to the otherwise relentless discomfort of The Zone of Interest.  In fact, I would argue they are distracting.

There are more examples of Glazer’s apparent need to botch his own movie.  Towards the end of Hoess’s service as lead concentration camp inspector and before he returns to Auschwitz to oversee the murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews, he is alone descending a staircase in some building.  He stops and tries to vomit, but is unable to get much out.  Is that supposed to indicate some kind of conscience or bout of feeling about his actions?  We have no reason to believe that, and so the scene has no added value.  And finally there are the ending, contemporary scenes at the Auschwitz museum.  Somehow the janitors and housekeeping services are supposed to serve as a reminder of the Hoess’s own obsessions with cleanliness.  Why?  Why do we even need that?

Hoess had a good idea for The Zone of Interest that would, in tone and style, convey the hypocrisy and evil of attempting a normal life in the shadow of the factory of death.  Then, for unknown reasons, he decides to throw in some extras just to show he’s seen a few art films. In the end, he sabotages his own stunning experiment. (3.5*). (If you stop watching as Hoess is descending the stairs (around 1:30), then 4*).

The Zone of Interest
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