“Zone” is a very different Holocaust Film

The Zone of Interest (Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller) –Jonathan Glazer took author Martin Amis’ title and general story and adapted it into a very different kind of Holocaust film. A critical sensation, The Zone of Interest utilized the German word, “interessengebiet,” or interest zone, to serve as a euphemism for the death camps.

Nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best International Feature Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound, The Zone of Interest is a haunting, depressing, ironic view of Adolph Hitler’s Final Solution. Without ever taking the audience inside Auschwitz, Glazer follows Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the most infamous concentration camp as he balances his seemingly normal family’s existence with his unspeakably evil job running the camp. Christian Friedel plays Höss with a cold, disciplined demeanor. But he also seemingly loves his family, which lives in an almost idyllic home right outside the camp. While the structure is both plain and large, it borders the woods by a river while the grounds include a wading pool and sprawling garden.

That garden, where life is born, contrasts with the camp, where life ends. In Glazer’s film, almost every bright, brimming outdoor scene is punctuated by the smoke of human remains coming from the chimney stacks and the distant sounds of gunshots, moans, or screams. In one scene, Höss and his children are swimming in the river when he realizes that human remains or ashes are floating in the water. He and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, Oscar-nominated for Anatomy of a Fall), rush to scrub the residue from the kids and themselves. It’s a ceremonial cleansing from the bodies, but certainly not the soul. Hedwig is equally revolting and undisturbed by what is going on around her. She believes that she and her husband have reached their goal.

Slow paced to the point of boredom, The Zone of Interest lulls the audience while hinting at an impending resolution that never comes. At its core, the Holocaust … and this film … provided no upside, no mercy, and no happy ending. When Höss is promoted, we realize he is just going to efficiently kill more people at more camps. When Hedwig gets what she wants – to stay in her paradise with her model Arian kids – she continues to reap the material rewards of being the boss’s wife: a stolen fur coat, inmate servants, and status.

Utilizing a sparse, discordant soundtrack and a couple long periods of blank screen, the film (Poland’s entry for Best Foreign Film, presented with subtitles) is a work of art that feels uncomfortable and occasionally fails. Said another way, Glazer is too creative for his own good in spots. Sometimes, he swings and misses. But this movie makes the audience purposely uncomfortable.  It is maddening. Rarely do films generate that much emotion in audiences when the movie itself moves so slowly and peacefully.

The Zone of Interest is the kind of movie that only gets nominated for Best Picture because the category has been expanded to up to 10 films. It deserves recognition as a piece of art and a haunting reminder of how insidious evil can be … and not just in the past.

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