Of the thousands of dramatic feature films that deal with the subject of the Holocaust, few have evoked — or have even tried to — the experience of what went on inside the concentration camps. That’s understandable; the horror of that experience is forbidding and in some ways unimaginable. But there’s a small group of movies, like “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul” and “The Grey Zone,” that have met that horror head-on, and in an indelible way. To that list we can now add Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest.”
It’s a remarkable film — chilling and profound, meditative and immersive, a movie that holds human darkness up to the light and examines it as if under a microscope. In a sense, it’s a movie that plays off our voyeurism, our curiosity to see the unseeable. Yet it does so with a bracing originality. “The Zone of Interest” isn’t a portrait of the victims of the Holocaust. It’s a portrait of the perpetrators. Yet what hovers over every moment is a human monstrousness that’s at once inflicted and repressed. The film’s haunting subject is the compartmentalization of evil.
At the start, the title stays on screen for a long time, and we hear music, by Mica Levi, that’s eerie in the extreme. It’s like a chorale played backwards with murmurings from “Rosemary’s Baby,” and is it our imagination or is it laced, in some ethereal way, with the stylized sound of human screaming? The film then cuts to a static shot of an idyllic setting: a sloping meadow next to a lake, drenched in sunlight, and there, having a picnic on a blanket, is a family with children, and several men standing around in bathing suits. It all looks exceedingly happy and “normal” until we catch a discordant element: the haircut of one of the men — his head is shaved on the back and sides, with hair that’s long and dark as an oil slick on top, so that it sits on him like a greased animal pelt.
This man is Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), a German SS officer. For most of “The Zone of Interest,” we observe him and his family at their home, a large, two-story boxy structure full of rooms of tasteful minimal decor that feel like the quintessence of serenely well-appointed bourgeois privilege. There’s a greenhouse on the property, as well as a vast garden with a small swimming pool, and rows of lilacs grow by the adjoining wall. But it’s that wall, about 12 feet tall, that stops us in our tracks. At the top of it are three rows of barbed wire held in place by posts that curve with an iconic familiarity. We know that curve: It’s the barbed wire of one of the concentration camps. The house is, in fact, directly on the other side of the wall from Auschwitz, the Nazi death factory in Poland that began to slaughter and incinerate its mostly Jewish victims in August 1941.
Höss, as we learn, is not just somebody who works at the camp. He’s the commandant — the man who not only runs Auschwitz but was instrumental in designing and implementing the machinery of mass death there, which was then exported to other Nazi concentration camps. All of this is historically based. “The Zone of Interest,” which was shot in Auschwitz and is loosely adapted from Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, deals with the true-life figure of Rudolf Höss and his family. Glazer, however, doesn’t dramatize the book in a conventional way. He gives us extended scenes — static long takes, really — in which we observe the characters going about their lives as if we were watching them on a surveillance camera wielded by Stanley Kubrick. Much of what transpires is domestic and banal: eating meals, reading bedtime stories, sitting in the garden. The Höss family enjoy a pampered existence supported by a team of housekeepers, and their home has an aura of farmhouse comfort.
This, though, is a farmhouse located next door to a charnel house. Yet no one talks about it, references it, or maybe even thinks about it. That’s why everything in the movie is suffused with creepiness. That said, what’s going on at the camp isn’t quite invisible. We can see the rows and rows of stone barracks jutting up over the wall. More than that, we hear sounds in the distance — the muffled pop-popping of occasional gun shots, the blurry din of prisoners wailing in fear, the hoarse shouting of a German soldier and, underneath it all, a quiet roar that never goes away. It’s the sound of the fire from the ovens, which we can see in the distance as well, as flame and smoke belch out of the towering Auschwitz chimney. It’s all right there, but it’s happening … over there. Across the wall. Out of sight, out of mind. Watching “The Zone of Interest,” you feel the full meaning of the term “concentration” camp. All the murder and death has been squeezed away from the world, hidden and compressed.
The whole conceptual design of “The Zone of Interest” is fantastically provocative. Staring at the Höss family as they go about their business, I think we react in two simultaneous ways. We perceive the horror that they don’t, which gives us a queasy shudder. At the same time, there’s a way that the extremity of their denial — they’re in their middle-class bubble, almost like a suburban American family from the ’50s — exerts a kind of metaphorical overlap with aspects of our own experience. I’m not saying in any way that we’re “like Nazis,” but that we, too, live with elements of denial: about the terror and atrocity going on in the rest of the world, about injustice that might be happening close to our own backyard. Then too, Rudolf Höss is not in denial — he’s a monster who behaves like an ordinary citizen. The scene where he hears and approves an engineer’s plans for a newly efficient crematorium is beyond sickening.
The family is presented, at times, in an almost deadpan satirical way, especially as the film focuses in on the ruthless consumerist well-being and pampered preoccupations of Rudolf’s wife, Hedwig, played with pinpoint authenticity by Sandra Hüller, the star of “Toni Erdmann.” She makes Hedwig a “model” old-school wife and mother, oblivious to everything outside her home, until that existence is threatened, at which point she flares up with a rage worthy of Carmela Soprano. We see that her husband’s Nazi mind-set isn’t quite as cut off from her as we thought.
That threat gives the movie a dramatic momentum it very much needs. Höss learns that the regime is planning to replace him with a new commandant; he is set to be transferred. He has been at the job for nearly four years, and it’s time to rotate. But what will this do to his family’s lifestyle? He dreads telling Hedwig, and when he does her reaction indicates that she may love that lifestyle more than she does him. (He, meanwhile, seems to love his horse more than he does Hedwig.) Rudolf, of course, plays the part of the good soldier (he’s a Nazi, after all), but an element of the film’s darkly acerbic design it its portrayal of the Nazi mind-set as a corporate mentality. Höss is being replaced like some mid-level executive. And Hedwig, in her way, is every bit as married to the corporation.
Jonathan Glazer has had a career of singular idiosyncrasy that I’ve been notoriously impatient with. He started off in music video and, 23 years ago, directed his first feature, “Sexy Beast” (2000), which may be one of the greatest gangster movies ever made. But that was followed by the maddeningly opaque “Birth” (2004) and then “Under the Skin” (2013), a sci-fi parable starring Scarlett Johansson as an otherworldly predator that became a critical darling, though it was one I couldn’t sign on for. After a promising start, the movie, to me, became hazy and pretentious. I’ve been waiting, on some level, for Glazer to return to the accessibility of “Sexy Beast,” but “The Zone of Interest” is very much a work by Glazer the heady conceptual poet — and I have to say, it made me a believer. His staging of the film is brilliant. He makes that concentration camp (even though we only enter it once) a place real enough to haunt your dreams.
Christian Friedel plays Höss as a man who has made himself all surface, and that’s why he can do what he does. At a board meeting of Nazi officers, we hear about the plan to step up the Final Solution with the transport of 700,000 Jews out of Hungary. The film’s presentation of this is so matter-of-fact that it scalds us. And Höss turns out to be such a good Nazi that he wins the corporate battle he’s fighting. He gets to return to his job, because his replacement wasn’t deemed up to the task; maybe he didn’t have the stomach for it. But there’s a scene, near the end (it’s inspired by the ending of the documentary “The Act of Killing”), when Höss is walking down a stairway, and we glimpse, for just a moment, everything he’s carrying around inside. What the film shows us, at last, is the humanity of evil.