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Cannes 2023 review: 'The Zone of Interest' - A haunting Holocaust drama deserving of the Palme d'Or

Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest Copyright Cannes Film Festival
Copyright Cannes Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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Having premiered in Cannes just one day prior to the death of author Martin Amis, Jonathan Glazer adaptation of 'The Zone of Interest' is a profoundly disturbing and audacious film that will leave you rattled. This year's Palme d'Or? We think so.

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Hundreds of films have tackled the subject of the Holocaust, but few have achieved what British director Jonathan Glazer has with The Zone of Interest.

Many like Schindler’s List and Son of Saul have evoked the unimaginable horrors of what happened within the walls of concentration camps and several have touched upon what Hannah Arendt referred to as the “banality of evil”. Few however have taken that concept and brought it to the screen in such a chilling way, exploring not only the banality behind evil but the troublingly identifiable humanity behind the lives of those who perpetrate the most unspeakable of crimes.

Loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest is Glazer’s first feature in 10 years, following 2013’s Under The Skin. It follows Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who both build a dream life for their family in their home situated on the other side of the concentration camp wall. We observe the everyday domesticity of the family: friendly visits, servants keeping the house spotless, Hedwig tending to her Edenic “paradise garden” and appreciating the living space she has built next to a dying one.

It all starts with the title, which remains on the screen for a while before slowly fading into darkness, a dark void which lingers for longer than is comfortable, accompanied the ever-wonderful Mica Levi’s eerie, groaning score. Glazer starts as he means to go on, as his film is, on a formal level, a daring masterstroke which breaks conventional expectations when it comes to similar premises. Film students will be dining out on this one for years to come, analysing the way the framing and sparsely used travelling shots convey so much, as well as the effect created by the sudden monochrome screens with Levi’s droning alarm sounds which feel like it’s emanating from the deepest bowels of Hades.

Not only does Glazer depict none of the death camp’s atrocities directly, he chooses to set the horrors on the edges to better mirror the family’s detachment and how these people are not in denial – like the audience, they see the wider picture but choose to be complicit. Screams, barked orders and gunshots are audible from over the wall, but they are accepted by the Hösses as a background nuisance akin to daily noise pollution. They are not insane or portrayed as villains; their outwardly banal demeanours and mundane routines convey so much more than any broad monstrous affectations ever could.

Throughout, the mostly static camera keeps the audience at a distance, never allowing for any close-ups; again, the effect echoes detachment, but also feels claustrophobic and never lets you forget what the family have elected to use this particular location as the backdrop to their domestic routine. The way the camera shoots corridors and interiors is also uniquely disquieting, sitting with negative spaces and embodying the film’s disturbing examination of disassociation and buttressing the uncaricatured emotionlessness of the characters.

The form is also matched by some scenes which show the cold, bone-chilling precision of the mechanisms that normalize mass murder. One scene sees Rudolf sit down with two engineers in his house to validate the plans for a more efficient crematorium, discussing it as if the contractors were showing him the blueprint for a new cosy fireplace. The effect is chilling.

It's these brilliantly subtle moments which have the most impact. The father discovering what seems to be bone fragments in the beautiful lake where he and his children go swimming and orders his offspring to quickly get out of the water; the orange glow form crematory ovens burning up the night through the curtained windows; Hedwig briefly joking that a friend of hers thought her fur coat was from Canada, when “Canada” is the storage area containing Jewish inmates’ belongings, or when she mutters a throwaway threat to one of her servant girls over a mouthful of breakfast. These small moments of pure cruelty are never overplayed, instilling a visceral disgust most films can’t achieve in entire runtimes.

And then there are three separate scenes in shot in negative exposure, truly haunting images of a young girl hiding fruit for the prisoners in a silent. A hidden act of rebellion that feels alien and reminiscent of Spielberg’s girl with the red coat; a fragile reminder that behind numbers were people, and that flickers of hope did persist. These sequences work in strange tandem with a quasi-documentary ‘epilogue’, another dramatic break from the style Glazer has established, in which he sets his gaze on modern-day Auschwitz. He further echoes the importance of remembrance and how humanity is capable of atrocities in the same way it can embrace its empathetic duty when faced with the void.

There is so much to appreciate and unpick in Glazer’s audacious depiction of the Final Solution, and it will take some time after a first watch of The Zone of Interest to truly take in everything it achieves and not simply list some of its remarkable achievements, as you have read here. What can be said with certainty after the first wave of initial thoughts is that it is a prodigiously executed film unlike any you’ll see this year.

If this doesn’t take the Palme d’Or this year, we’d be very surprised.

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