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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

Zone of Interest is a haunting film that tells a powerful story without showing us that story. You have to listen.

4.5 out of 5

Zone of Interest is based on true events. It follows Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family as they build and maintain an idyllic lifestyle in their family home and garden. While we watch his wife Hedwig tend to her flowers and to her five Aryan children, the Holocaust’s deadliest camp sits just meters away from their garden wall, churning through hundreds of prisoners a day. The above image is powerful and sums up how so much is said in this film without saying anything.

The film opens with a solid black screen that lasts for several seconds. Do not adjust your screen. As you stare into the void, the film's audio flows from strange distorted music, to the muffled sound of gunshots and screams, and finally to the singing of birds and other sounds of nature. Director Jonathan Glazer has commented that this sequence is an invitation to listen, a reminder that what the audience hears will be just as important as what they see.

In this opening and throughout the film, Glazer has denied the audiences the visual horror they were probably expecting. He chooses instead to feature it only indirectly, usually in the form of sound: gunshots, guard dogs barking, officers screaming, fire and smoke spewing from chimneys, the hissing of gas. By leaving the violence almost exclusively offscreen, Glazer traps us in the Höss’s perspective — and by extension the perspective of German bystanders everywhere. Their willful ignorance was so powerful that it reduced genocide to background noise.

This approach establishes the dichotomy that is the fingerprint of Zone of Interest: watching a happy family go about their lives in the foreground while a massacre happens in the background. Spotless flower beds next to barbed wire — incompatible, incomprehensible, irreconcilable.

There are a few moments when Glazer lets us get a bit closer to the carnage, as if we might finally see the genocide with our own eyes, only to hold back at the last second. Rudolf takes his oldest son (a Hitler Youth member) on a horseback ride, where guards march a line of Nazi prisoners through the tall grass beside them, our view (and the son’s view) of them mostly obstructed. The younger son overhears his father outside ordering an officer to drown a Jewish prisoner in the river for fighting over food. His young daughter wanders the halls at night, gazing out the window into the fiery columns of smoke, seemingly haunted by what she does not fully understand.

The ways in which Rudolf veils the violence of his work from his family (and thus from us); the way that Hedwig builds a “paradise garden” next door to a death camp; the way that the lives of millions of innocent people are reduced to fodder for wively gossip; these are all ways in which real people throughout history have been able to ignore, promote, and actively assist in genocide. Keep conversations banal (blueprints of different furnace layouts to maximize efficiency). Talk in circles (discussions of reaching labour goals). Discuss plans for future vacations to Venice. Plant flowers. Eat lunch with neighbours.

Even without bloody violence, Zone of Interest is disturbing. Hedwig’s visiting mother gazes up at the wall and muses that, “Maybe Esther is over there,” Esther being a Jewish woman whose house Hedwig’s mother used to clean. Or when Hedwig tells her mother, “Rudolf calls me the Queen of Auschwitz!” as they laugh together in the garden.

Towards the end of the film, Zone of Interest becomes blatantly metatextual, which means it is self-referential; it comments on itself and breaks its own reality, which most movies try very hard not to do. It abruptly cuts to the modern-day Auschwitz museum being cleaned by custodians. We get glimpses of the exhibit windows which display endless piles of shoes, glasses, jewelry, and of walls with endless rows of faces and names.

Why break the illusion like this? Because this film wants you to watch and to listen. Don’t look away while Rudolf sends memos, reads his children bedtime stories, and listens to football matches. Glazer is testing, too, whether he can trick us into forgetting what’s really happening. Maybe you’ll get bored of shallow conversations or watching the housekeepers clean the kitchen. But I’ve never seen a Holocaust film where there’s a moment you ever forget you’re watching a Holocaust movie. It’s a delicate ploy, but it works here.

Jonathan Glazer reminds us that this happened easily and could happen again.

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